The gift of incredibility

Sunday, 28 November 2004 — 10:15pm | Animation, Film, Full reviews

“They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity, but if someone is genuinely exceptional…”

This is what Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible, laments upon hearing of his son’s impending fourth-grade “graduation” in the best movie I have seen this year, The Incredibles. It speaks volumes.

I am not about to review The Incredibles. To do so would require me to do things like go on and on about composer Michael Giacchino’s throwback to the spy-jazz Bond-film musical textures of John Barry, employ comparisons to Alan Moore’s critique of the superhero’s place in civil society in Watchmen, and point out the subliminal commentary on the state of modern animation in the cameo by two of Disney’s Nine Old Men. There’s too much to say, and there will probably be even more the next time I see the film, as I quite inevitably will.

Instead, I want to begin with a look at something that is an identifying mark of any superhero story: what is it that makes the villain a villain. It doesn’t always come down to motive. Sometimes, the intent of the diabolical mastermind’s scheme demands sympathy; the master plan is meant to serve a noble purpose, but the point at which it becomes reprehensible is the means – say, for example, developing a permanent state of world peace and eliminating Cold War tensions by staging an alien invasion that kills half of New York. Earlier this year I looked at Spider-Man 2, the other “best superhero film ever,” and attributed some of its depth to how Doctor Octopus is driven not by a desire to destroy, but merely to complete his science fair project. The problem lies not in his wants, but in the ethicality of his means.

Sometimes there is a basic philosophical villainy to the motives themselves. Magneto, for instance, is out to destroy all humankind to turn the tables on the system discrimination against mutants. Branching outside the costumed superhero genre for a bit, we sometimes see literature make an open criticism of megalomaniacal technocrats – observe Totenkopf in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or Clement Armstrong in that classic episode of The Avengers, “The Cybernauts.”

Syndrome is easy to pinpoint. He is a reprehensible character not because he developed so potent a weapon as the Omnidroid, but because the personal philosophy behind his ultimate objective is in itself evil.

(Spoilers follow. Please go see The Incredibles if you haven’t done so already. If you have, see it again.)

Something I admire The Incredibles for is its courage in directly and openly attacking one of the most dangerous ideas in recent intellectual history, one that has understandably amassed quite the popularity amongst educators and others. It’s ever so fitting that this is identified in a scene where Helen Parr, Elastigirl, drives her son Dash home from school. “Everybody’s special, Dash,” she says. (“Which is a way of saying no one is,” he grumbles in response.)

The world Syndrome envisions is one where that very notion is true: a world where not only do true superheroes no longer exist, ordinary people artificially emulate their powers. Syndrome’s goal, in a sentence, is to kill off every last superhero so everybody can be super in their place. In short, never, ever put this guy in a room with Magneto.

Far from being purely grounded in fiction, Syndrome’s plot is an extrapolation of what will happen if we let jealousy of the gifted spiral out of control. This mantra – that everybody’s special – has already found its way into much of our society unchallenged. In the past decade or two, one of the most influential sources of educational direction has been the work of one Howard Gardner and his patently tautological theory of multiple intelligences. In a nutshell, what Gardner says is that there is no such thing as a general intelligence; rather, there are several mutually exclusive “intelligences” that apply to everybody in varying permutations. Think about it in terms of Dungeons & Dragons-like role-playing games where you redistribute a finite number of stat points between quantifiable character traits like Strength, Wisdom and Charisma.

Over the years, Gardner has added successively ridiculous layers to his model, such as the introduction of an eighth and ninth intelligence for people who are in tune with natural and spiritual issues, respectively. He has also quite successfully convinced educators all over the continent to structure their curricula according to his stratification of interests. The decline of the school as an academic body can be attributed to this trivializing of the classical trivium-quadrivium of the liberal arts in favour of a belief that if some students are academically stunted, that’s perfectly excusable, because we’re sure they have other talents anyway, so let’s diversify our schools so they can be good at something. The corollary of this is that those with a greater capacity for true genius – the gift of creative thought that leads to success in maths, music, Scrabble or what have you – are no longer more talented in a comparative, relative sense. And without relative greatness, there is no greatness at all.

When educational policies follow Gardner’s principles, curricula diversify to the point where vertical progression is no longer possible. School then no longer has any value aside from its role as a social incubator. By diminishing the focus on academics, we excuse illiteracy and similar deficiencies, and the impact ripples up as students are handed unearned diplomas every year. The one system under which accelerated progress can happen is in a system like what is promoted by gifted education programs, where learning is geared towards the needs of an individual in order to deliver him or her from the constraints of a severely limited academic experience.

But these programs rely first and foremost on a belief in giftedness, and it is precisely the belief that they should be universally accommodating that is destroying them from the inside. Special programs constantly subject themselves to the threat of overexpansion; complicit in it are schools that are all too willing to offer them to bargain for funding, ignoring how not that many students are gifted – and as for those who are, they are exactly the students in the most need of those “smaller class sizes” for which so many agree is a good thing.

Thanks to The Incredibles, we finally have a message in the mass media telling us straight up what we should have realized long ago: it’s ideas like a universal equality of talent that have shaped us into a culture that disrespects its heroes. We should not deny that some people are inherently special, nor should we justify such a denial with a claim that they are flawed in some trivial ways we are not.

It all reminds me of one of Douglas Adams’ essays published in the posthumous anthology The Salmon of Doubt, where he criticizes the tired old joke that they should build airplanes out of the same indestructible material as black boxes. His message: if a scientist knows better than you, don’t make fun of him. Adams goes on to exalt the likes of the Monty Python troupe for using their humour to celebrate a grasp of multiple languages, music, literature and everything we commonly identify as the cultural properties of the intelligentsia, no matter what Gardner says.

Now, what values does The Incredibles promote?

Well, more than one pundit has tossed Ayn Rand’s name into the ring. The essence of the argument identifies the moral of the story as a plea to respect the talents of your betters. (And when Mr. Incredible lifts the Omnidroid v8.0, does Atlas shrug or what?) While that is an admirable statement, The Incredibles is a lot more than just that. Mr. Incredible may be super, and that’s why the society he lives in pins him down, but that’s not what makes him a hero. What makes him a hero is how he uses his powers to do the right thing. Moreover, he feels a responsibility for doing the right thing just because he can; and he does so not in any way at the expense of ordinary folks, helping out the little old ladies who don’t have the super powers of outwitting a bureaucratic insurance agency.

The irony is that at first glance, perhaps Syndrome isn’t all that different. He has a natural gift to call his own, that of technological innovation – just take one look at the rocket boots he invents as a kid. He, too, is interested in the deliverance of those he identifies as his peers. Syndrome is a superhero of the Bruce Wayne variety, but he lacks two things: first, the insight to recognize his gift, which he forsakes or ignores in order to identify with the common people; and second, the moral character to use that power for good. His goal is to destroy his betters; his error is a presumption that he speaks for those he considers his kin. In the end, it is in fact Mr. Incredible – the one with the inherent biological speciality of super strength, as soon as he loses a few pounds – who truly acts in the interests of those who are unable to help themselves.

It’s compelling that for all the talk about Mr. Incredible as a Randian hero, to put it in Marvel Comics terms, he’s a Xavier, not a Magneto. Xavier, if you’ll notice, is an educator who promotes co-existence, and cites the respect of aberrant talents as a pre-requisite. Magneto seeks to destroy those by whom his talents are maligned. That’s the difference, and that’s what gives The Incredibles its admirable value system.

The ultimate betrayal of our heroes is when we cease to recognize their heroics. Even worse is when such an environment puts them in the position of ceasing to recognize themselves as special. If we go down that path, celebrating mediocrity is all we’ll ever do.

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