Arrogant, incompetent male villains are currently dominating real-world headlines. How refreshing to watch a film where capable women, both good and bad, take centre stage. (Warning: the below article contains spoilers.)
I didn’t know how much I needed to see Incredibles 2 until I saw it. I hadn’t realised quite how bone-weary I’d been feeling about the state of the world; how sick to the back teeth I was of watching real-life male villains parade around on the world stage. I didn’t know how much I’d been longing to see women take charge.
In recent weeks, it’s felt like these macho rogues are everywhere, ranging from the buffoonish to the arrogant, the sinister to the self-serving: think Boris Johnson, Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. With their antics as a backdrop, watching the brilliant women of Incredibles 2 in action felt like drinking a cold glass of water on a hot day.
The premise of the film is this. Superheroes are still illegal, and the general public still regards them with suspicion and fear. The Parr family are in dire financial straits when Bob and Helen (aka Mr Incredible and Elastigirl) are approached by a pair of charming billionaires. Siblings Winston and Evelyn Deavor run a telecommunications empire, and they want to help restore the image of superheroes. But they don’t want Mr Incredible to be the star of their campaign – they want Elastigirl.
Elastigirl is subsequently sent off on various crime-fighting missions, fitted with a bodycam so the public can see just how skilled, capable and reliable she is. Those attributes are key, because much of the public’s mistrust of superheroes stems from their potential to cause chaos. That’s why the Deavors didn’t ask Mr Incredible, with his unwieldly strength and spasmodic temper, to front their campaign. They wanted someone competent, precise and no-nonsense; someone they knew could get the job done quickly, calmly and efficiently.
And for most of the film, that’s exactly what Elastigirl does. Oh, it’s such a joy to watch her kicking ass, whizzing solo down city streets on her Elastibike and stretching herself into a parachute to save the lives of elderly women. Elastigirl doesn’t mess around. She gets s**t done. If she ran for office, I’d vote for her.
Pleasingly, though, the women in Incredibles 2 don’t just get to be capable and responsible and kick-ass and flawless and good. I did worry, when I first heard that the film would see Helen go out to work while Bob stayed at home to look after the kids, that it could devolve into a Simpsons-esque parody of gender roles. I was concerned it might send the message that women are naturally efficient and on top of things, while men are all bumbling oafs who can’t look after their own kids.
That kind of messaging has been driven home in sitcoms and cinema for decades, and while it might seem flattering to women on the surface, it’s actually rather damaging. It reinforces the idea that women should be superheroes in our everyday lives; that it’s ultimately up to us to do all the domestic and emotional labour required to keep a household running, and that it’s not ‘normal’ for us to make mistakes or drop the ball. That’s not fair, and neither is the suggestion that men are, at their core, a load of dummies.
Incredibles 2 does play with this trope. Mr Incredible is reduced to a quivering, exhausted wreck after a few days of being the primary caregiver for his children, particularly baby Jak-Jak, whose newfound powers are the funniest part of the film. But it also pulls away from it. Ultimately, Elastigirl isn’t forced to come home from her mission to look after her kids; Mr Incredible rises to the occasion, with a bit of unexpected help from the divine and very unmaternal Edna Mode.
And Elastigirl is also allowed to mess up. She trusts the wrong people; her judgement, we discover, is not always right. She’s a fiercely switched-on superhero, that’s for sure, but the film also allows her to be human.
Not only do we get to see Elastigirl make mistakes, we also see another example of a bright, capable, flawed woman: Evelyn Deavor, revealed towards the end of the film to be its real villain. Evelyn is a tech genius, a brilliant inventor, designer and engineer with a languid, tomboyish attitude quite unlike any female villain I’ve seen on screen before. Deeply charismatic, she cosies up to Elastigirl – sharing gossip, pouring her glasses of wine – before her true colours are discovered. And when Elastigirl voices her sense of betrayal, Evelyn scoffs at her.
“Why would you count on me?” she sneers. “We don’t know each other!” Suddenly, the old trope of an evil woman using her feminine wiles to manipulate and deceive is flipped on its head. Evelyn didn’t trick Elastigirl by making her think she wanted to have sex with her. She tricked her by persuading her that they were friends.
There are many wonderful moments and characters in Incredibles 2, but it’s Elastigirl and Evelyn – two ferociously intelligent, powerful, talented women – who are its real heart. At a time when it feels like the actions of a small group of incompetent men are dominating the headlines and our collective headspace, it was exactly what I needed.
Images: iStock / Disney / Pixar