On Tuesday, Disney chief executive Bob Iger made an announcement that Pixar fans, and afficionados of smart, all-ages moviegoing, have been waiting to hear for a very long time. Ten years after “The Incredibles” debuted, writer and director Brad Bird will begin work on a sequel to his tough, charming movie about a super-powered family who have had to hide their abilities.
You would not to be wrong to react to that news with a degree of caution. Pixar has suffered a creative drop-off in recent years, in part because it has focused on sequels such as the “Cars” franchise and “Monsters University.” Done badly, a follow-up to “The Incredibles” could be a further mark on the moribund side of the company’s ledger. But even if the film does not turn out to be a return to form for Pixar, I was happy to hear that the project is in Bird’s pipeline, if only for one reason. “The Incredibles” represents an important diversion from the present cinematic obsession with origin stories, a devotion so intense that Santa Claus is getting a backstory apparently inspired by Viking myths. Origin stories, be they about individuals or teams, don’t have to have the same story beats, but they often do. First comes the awkwardness of the hero’s calibration of his or her newly discovered abilities: Among the funniest of those is Peter Parker’s attempts to get the web-slinging skills he will deploy as Spider-Man under control, superheroism as a sly metaphor for adolescence. Then follows the joy of physical mastery, be it Superman rocketing into the air for the first time, or “Twilight” heroine Bella Swan stepping out for the first time as a vampire and impressing her in-laws with her strength, grace and sense of control. A comeuppance is inevitable somewhere in the arc: Batman has to take the fall for Harvey Dent’s death to give Gotham a hero, or Tony Stark needs to recognize that his Iron Man suit must serve greater needs than his own fun and profit. And of course, a girl is somewhere in the mix to be admired, put in danger and eventually smooched in dramatic fashion.
These aren’t bad tropes. They are such a durable part of our popular culture because there is a lot to be thrilled by in seeing Clark Kent rise into the sky, and sharing his joy at what a moment ago seemed to be impossible. But the origin stories Hollywood feels confident telling over and over again are far from the only way to think about heroes and heroism. And they often sidestep the serious questions that superpowered people and action movies raise in the first place.
One of the things that made “The Incredibles” so terrific, and the reason it stands out from its live-action counterparts, even as those movies have become more sophisticated, is that Bird had no interest in where his characters’ powers came from, or how they came to use those powers for a living as professional superheroes. He skipped over the stories Marvel and DC would spend the next decade telling, and rather than musing over what it might be like to acquire great power, “The Incredibles” meditated on what it would be like to mothball your abilities and renounce your responsibilities. Rather than making dramatic entrances on helicarriers, the bureaucrats in “The Incredibles” wear nondescript suits and dour expressions. The fun is definitively on pause. For Bird, involuntarily retired middle-aged superheroes were an opportunity to meditate on what happens when a society prevents exceptional people from exercising their gifts — but also when it prioritizes natural ability over determination and creativity.
Other superhero stories set later in the heroic lifecycle get at other big issues.” The Dark Knight,” the best of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, explores the consequences of stepping outside the law to fight crime. Batman’s actions, Nolan suggests, have harmed the credibility of the police and law enforcement, and also leave him with no avenue to defend himself when he’s accused of murders that were actually committed by district attorney Harvey Dent. Bruce Wayne can’t exactly show up to court in a cowl and be tried by a jury of his peers.
“Powers,” the comics series by Brian Michael Bendis about cops who work crimes involving superpowers, take another angle. Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, Bendis’s main characters, tackle killings that touch on everything from superheroes’ sex lives to the employment of people with powers by the federal government. Rather than simply celebrating the acquisition of great power, “Powers” examined the consequences of those abilities, and not just for the superheroes themselves.
Last summer, a number of critics noted how common it’s become for action movies to show us widespread devastation that is quickly shrugged aside. Who cares, goes that logic, about the body count when Superman and General Zod crash through an office building, or “Star Trek’s” Khan crashes a huge ship into San Francisco when more punching is on offer? In “Powers,” that sort of mass devastation had consequences, including a ban on superpower use of the sort that kicks off “The Incredibles.” That storyline was just one example of the ways in which the comics were less interested in the simple possession of amazing abilities, and more curious about how the federal government might exploit new capabilities, or our culture might shift in response to the emergence of a new class of celebrity.
The thing about non-origin stories, though, is that they have a tendency to get in the way of some of the fun. “The Dark Knight” was scarily exciting, but it was also a story about how putting on a mask and commandeering the communications network in Gotham was just another way for Bruce Wayne to act out his immense sense of entitlement. “Powers” wades through the rubble that so many superhero movies leave behind them. And “The Incredibles” cautioned that even exceptional abilities couldn’t keep a depressed person from sliding into a slack middle age. These topics may be downers in comparison to the pleasures of flashy, high-level fisticuffs. But if I took anything away from countless “Spider-Man” movies, it’s that with great power comes great responsibility, including to tell new and entertaining stories.