Incredible Irony

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Like millions of millennials across the globe, I watched the much-anticipated Incredibles 2 as soon as I could. And I was not disappointed. Of course, it’s impossible to recreate the magic of the first movie – I remember being so captivated by The Incredibles as an eleven-year-old kid that I watched the movie a dozen times more and memorised the entire script and soundtrack – but the sequel was still highly entertaining.

Once again, Disney/Pixar brewed an excellent concoction of thrilling action, cute comedy, quiet suspense, and tender moments. But beyond pulling on heartstrings and getting the adrenaline pumping, the film also weaves in broad concepts usually reserved for discussion in university classrooms. For instance, a central theme of the film is the potential incongruence between morality and legality. Should the Supers carry out their heroic work even though they are illegal? Is it right for them to break the law in order to change it, as Helen Parr ponders with her husband? Why should Supers be punished for doing the right thing – and why is the government so wary of altruism?

Another obvious concept is that of traditional gender roles, which are reversed when Elastigirl is chosen for the mission at hand while Mr Incredible assumes the role of caregiver to their three children. Other ideas that are tossed up include: the partiality of the penal system towards the wealthy (Violet sarcastically remarks that the apprehended villain will probably get out of jail soon because she’s rich), the great responsibility that comes with great power (à la Uncle Ben Parker), and the power of mass media to influence perception and change policy. (In fact, as this Vox review puts it, the film is “the rare superhero movie that may have too many ideas knocking around in its noggin”.)

But the theme that really piqued my interest had to do with the villain and her goals and motivations. Despite her facetious name, the Screenslaver is actually quite a profound character, especially for a kids movie. While Winston Deavor, the glib-tongued head of a telecommunications conglomerate, wants to change people’s perceptions of superheroes and restore public trust in them, the Screenslaver (his sister Evelyn) wants to destroy their reputation and ensure that they remain illegal forever.

What’s her issue with Supers? She reveals her motivation in a brilliant monologue:

Society has become docile in the age of mass media. People are easily influenced by what they see on their screens, and have become obsessed with superficiality and artificiality, preferring game shows to playing games, talk shows to talking, and travel shows to travelling. This passivity is exacerbated by the existence of superheroes, who are now reentering the media landscape thanks to the efforts of Winston Deavor. As a result, citizens have become too lazy to fix their problems, choosing to rely on Supers to do the dirty work for them instead of taking matters into their own hands.

What Screenslaver wants to do is to combat this debilitating social phenomenon. But instead of challenging people to reduce their media consumption, she takes their media obsession to an extreme by hypnotising them through their screens. Her ultimate aim is to enslave the Supers through this mind-control technology and use them to wreak havoc, inciting public fury against them. (At one point, the hypnotised Frozone basically becomes Magneto from the X-Men and declares that superheroes will assume their rightful place as superior beings.)

Of course, Screenslaver is not doing this out of public duty. She merely resents the fact that when her father’s life was threatened by a burglar, he chose to call his superhero friends instead of running to the safe room and was killed as a result. But her hard-hitting tirade does serve the larger purpose of provoking public discussion, not only by the fictional society in the movie but our own society as well. Have we become obsessed with superheroes, especially with the never-ending stream of superhero blockbusters hitting the silver screen? Has our love for this genre made us weak and apathetic? More generally, have we saturated our lives with vapid entertainment and blunted our creativity in the process?

Indeed, there is greater depth to this villain than meets the eye. And similar to Killmonger in Black Panther, the Screenslaver seems to have won the moral argument even though she chose destructive means to achieve her goal. But here’s the most impressive part – Screenslaver’s monologue is teeming with clever irony. Because the audience in the cinema is guilty of the same charges brought by Screenslaver against her own society.

In fact, I was admonished by the villain of a superhero film for watching yet another superhero film!

But wait – at the end of the movie, Screenslaver is placed behind bars and the Supers come out on top. Since the villain lost, does this mean that I’m let off the hook? The answer is an emphatic “No”, for as Screenslaver is shoved into the police car, she sneers at Elastigirl and reminds her that even though she saved her life, “this doesn’t change anything”.

Personally, I think that there is potential for Screenslaver’s character to be developed even further. In fact, this persona is extremely relevant in the era of smartphone and social media addiction, when people are literally enslaved by their screens. Nevertheless, Screenslaver is a sophisticated character who provides an enlightening social commentary, cleverly presented in a paradoxical manner that is hopefully detected by the audience.

Note: Interestingly, I came across this video review just before completing this piece, and it also highlights the same comic irony of Screenslaver’s monologue, calling the film “potentially very subversive”.

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