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I recently saw The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2 back to back. The Incredibles is a brilliant film: a master-class in storytelling and a lot of fun. The Incredibles 2 is a good film: enjoyable with exciting action sequences and several hilarious bits about parenting. However, in my judgment it does not approach the brilliance of its predecessor. And a big part of the difference, I think, is in the two films’ treatment of theme.

[Spoilers ahead!]

The Incredibles was built from the ground up on the interplay between two strong themes: excellence vs. conformity-enforcing authority, and “going alone” vs. one’s responsibilities to others. Every incident in the movie plays into these themes. For the “excellence vs. authority/conformity” theme, consider the lawsuits forcing Supers to retire; Mr. Incredible’s new job in a soul-crushing insurance company, with a sociopathic control-freak of a boss who wants his employees to be gears in a machine; the children having to suppress part of their identities, with Dash acting out from frustration and Violet using her powers to fade into the background; and the recurring arc-words “When everyone is special, no one is.”

But at the same time, the other theme is constantly present. Mr. Incredible embodies the “going it alone” impulse; he refuses to take “Incrediboy” seriously, despite the latter’s obvious talent and need for a mentor, setting up the main conflict of the movie. He retreats from his family and spends his days trying to relive past glories, making him an easy mark for Mirage. (The initial sequence when he is late for his own wedding turns out to foreshadow this very conflict, between his drive to excel personally and his commitments to others.)

Elastigirl, meanwhile, represents both the “conformity” side and the “responsibility to others” side. While she is introduced with a gurrl-power persona in the beginning, she quickly subordinates herself to her new mundane role as a normal person, with a family to take care of. She takes this too far, forcing Dash to conform even when it clearly does not suit him, and giving up all of her agency in the face of Mr. Incredible’s apparent betrayal (before some well-timed smacks upside the head from fabulous suit-designer Edna Mode). Both sides need to realize their weaknesses and embrace what is best about the other, until finally the whole family becomes a true Super-team.

The villain as well is the perfect foil to these themes. Learning from Mr. Incredible not to rely on anyone else, he uses people instead of forming true relationships (which comes back to haunt him). His revenge on Supers is to use his inventions to make everyone special, and thus no one. (Aside from all the murder and such.) But his own drive to excel is actually a drive for approval, first from Mr. Incredible, then from the entire world. This too leads to his downfall, in the form of a flamboyant costume complete with (gasp!) a cape.

There is more, but you can see how all the parts work together and strengthen each other. This is not the case in The Incredibles 2.

First, we should point out that the filmmakers put themselves in a trap with the character of Jack-Jack. Simply put, he is far too powerful. At the end of The Incredibles we see that he can change his makeup, turning into a lump of lead, then a demon, then living flame. This itself is impressive, but would at least obey some limits which a screenwriter can work with. But in the short film Jack-Jack Attack!, he becomes story-breaking. Laser eyes, teleportation, walking through walls? Suddenly, Jack-Jack can do anything. At this point, any sequel is forced to either keep him as a baby (thus uncontrolled and unpredictable), or somehow depower him. For him to even be 4 or 5 years old with all of his powers would make him basically omnipotent, and remove any real plot jeopardy (unless he became the villain, which would lead to a fan revolt).

But back to theme. Seemingly, the core of the movie attempts to be the role-reversal between Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, who finally gets her time to shine as her husband is relegated to full-time parent. This could have been interesting, but is used merely for comic relief, didn’t actually go anywhere, and didn’t come to any conclusion. Violet’s conflict was unrelated to the theme other than giving Mr. Incredible a mess to deal with (and Dash didn’t even get a conflict!). Jack-Jack too remains comic relief, by necessity, but regardless manages to bring the whole movie to a screeching halt and upstage everything (though given the other flaws of the movie, he is still the best part—at least for parents).

Meanwhile, much of the movie revolves around efforts to legalize Supers once again, but unconvincingly. The end of the last movie is implied to have dealt with this issue, which necessitates a clumsy restigmatizing in the beginning of Incredibles 2. And again, this theme is not fully developed, becomes a mere pretext for the last set-piece battle, and doesn’t tie into the other themes jumbled through the movie.

Worst of all, the villain’s themes are completely disconnected from the role-reversal, and even from each other. Ostensibly, Screenslaver is protesting the increasing vicariousness of modern life, an interesting topic which could have been explored more deeply. Instead, Screenslaver is given a minutes-long monologue in the middle, and then the theme is dropped entirely and never comes up again. Later, we find out that the villain actually has a personal grudge against Supers, because her father relied on a Super to save him instead of… hiding out in a safe-room? This is the big conflict between relying on others and taking personal responsibility? (Plus, why not have his hotlines connect to the safe-room?)

If it were me, I would have made Jack-Jack Attack! non-canon (or not have made it at all), allowing for more flexibility. The family would not suddenly be ripped apart just when they had achieved harmony, and Mr. Incredible wouldn’t be removed from the field entirely—but he would still have to deal with Elastigirl taking center-stage. Then, the core of the conflict could have been the effort at Super-legalization versus a more natural villain: someone, perhaps in government, who would be threatened by the reemergence of Supers. This allows the themes from the first movie to be reprised, while allowing Elastigirl’s arc to have more resonance. And the details would be crafted with an eye toward making all the themes and sub-themes strengthen each other.

Theme is not simply something to be bolted onto a plot; theme actually gives the plot direction, focus, and most of all meaning. And that is a big part of what makes great art.