The Incredibles – An Under-rated Superhero Film

the_incredibles
Source: Wikimedia.org

By now, the merits of The Incredibles as an animated movie are old news. Pixar’s 2004 film won two Academy Awards (Best Animated Feature Film and Sound Editing) and was nominated for a third (Original Screenplay); it earned a 97% on RottenTomatoes, who also named it the highest-rated movie of 2004. Brad Bird’s film was met with universal praise among top film critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. The Incredibles even has a sequel in the works, showing that the appetite for its characters has not diminished in the 12 years since it was released. It ranks among the three Toy Story movies, Up, and Finding Nemo as the best Pixar movies ever, making it among the best of the best in the whole genre.

However, it is often overlooked in the other genre it falls into: the superhero film. The Incredibles has everything any other classic superhero film does: superpowers, secret identities, an origin story, a bad guy, and some emotional development arcs to give the characters some depth. Released a year before the first Fantastic Four film or Christopher Nolan had released a Batman movie, and a decade before Big Hero Six, The Incredibles appeared pretty early in the new wave of superhero films. The film featured genuine family dynamics, emphasizing the interpersonal relationships at the heart of a super-team in a way that had not been seen on the Silver Screen.

The Incredibles drew a lot of themes and concepts from the original Fantastic Four comics, with even many of the characters’ powers seeming eerily similar to those out of the World’s Greatest Magazine. Even more impressive is that it drew on these themes better than any of the subsequent three direct Fantastic Four films managed, and absolutely blew all three out of the water with regards to RottenTomatoes ratings. The three FF films have earned a 27%, a 37%, and a 9%, making some serious splats where even the sum of the three isn’t close to The Incredibles’ 97%. Character-wise, Elastigirl is a proximate for Mr. Fantastic, Mr. Incredible has super-strength like the Thing (though no orange rock skin), Violet had invisibility and force fields like Invisible Woman, and super speed vs. Human Torch isn’t really crazy different. But what’s impressive about these characters isn’t their superpowers, but how these powers fit their personalities. All under the alias of the Parr family (a delightful pun, btw), these supers are trying to blend into normal life, with some doing better than others. A good portion of the movie is spent seeing them do normal household tasks with superpowers, like the vacuuming and lifting of furniture, cutting through a dinner plate, running at super speed around the house, etc. These little things give a lot of depth to the characters and show how hard it can be to have untapped potential. Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) is super strong, but he feels powerless to control his life. Helen (Elastigirl) is flexible and can juggle the needs of the three kids and seems to be the most well-adjusted. Violet just wants to be seen – her shyness and teenage awkwardness push her toward hiding, but she proves that she can be just as much of a force(-field) as everyone else. Dash is impatient, anxious, and generally hot-headed. These sorts of characterizations are very reminiscent of the FF and feel true to form with the superhero genre writ large. Oh, let’s also not forget that there’s a big time Mole Man reference at the end of the movie…

Even beyond all of that, however, the film’s signature accomplishment is actually in its ability to build a comprehensive world in such a short time, creating a believable backdrop of superhero skepticism that would serve to frame the story. The superheroes in The Incredibles received negative backlash for their heroics and ultimately were restricted by public opinion, a theme that has only just made it into Marvel films a whole 12 years after The Incredibles‘ release. The idea of a government program to reassign superheroes who had blown their aliases was really innovative and added a layer of credibility to the hero/public dynamic. But most importantly, the iconic Edna Mode, whose role as the costume designer for supers was hilarious and helpful in fleshing out a support industry for the superhero community. Even the classic “No capes” line showed the film’s ability to self-reflect and take superpowers seriously.

The Incredibles may be some good family fun, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a genuine superhero story that fits neatly into the broader genre – complete with questions of duty, morality, and how to balance great power and great responsibility. Soon we will have the clearest indication of all that The Incredibles is indeed a superhero film: a sequel. If you don’t believe me, go watch it. Rating: 10 of 10

Marvel Knights: Spider-Man

By 2004, the Marvel Knights imprint had already been well-established. Initially a risk back in 1998, the semi-independent label was basically sub-contracted out from Marvel to Joe Quesada’s now defunct Event Comics company. A more complete history of the Marvel Knights imprint, as well as some of its early titles, can be found under reviews for the Black Panther and Daredevil series. This run is concurrent with the middle of John Michael Straczynski (JMS)’s run on Spider-Man in the primary Amazing Spider-Man title, which had embraced some of the more mystical elements of the Marvel Universe. Though JMS’s  run has a lot of strengths, Millar (and subsequently Hudlin) provided a nice contrast to that high-minded mysticism with some more classic Spidey vs. villain stories in this Marvel Knights title. Though admittedly darker in tone and consequences than the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, this Marvel Knights run was a good reminder of the kind of adventures we were used to seeing Peter Parker have.

detail23
Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1; Cover Artist: Terry Dodson; Source: Marvel.com

Mark Millar Run #1-12: Great story arc that is a kind of blend of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again and Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, in that there is a mysterious character who is pulling strings behind the scenes to destroy Spidey’s life. Oh, and he knows his secret identity as Peter Parker. The mysterious villain has captured Aunt May and is holding her captive to get to Peter, making him increasingly desperate and strung out. The following 12-issue arc is a good blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned superhero battles. Spidey has to fight off the Vulture, Electro, Doc Ock, a new Venom, and even more baddies all in his attempt to rescue May. The series has a very compelling plot progression and feels very much like classic Spider-Man. The inclusion of so many of his classic villains, as well as key supporting cast members like MJ and the Black Cat only make the characterization stronger. The majority of the art was penciled by Terry Dodson, with a couple of issues by Frank Cho, both of whom deliver some high-quality art. It’s not innovative or overly stylized, but it’s all clear, faces are expressive, colors are bright and details are precise. Dodson even did some costume upgrades for Electro and the Vulture to make them look a little more modern and a little more menacing. The plot is a very compelling read and, though it does take some logical shortcuts, especially in the last couple of issues, it is well worth the read. Rating: 8 of 10

Reginald Hudlin Run #13-18: An interesting arc with some strong positives and some mixed execution. Absorbing Man, Ethan as new Skrull hero/baddie/crazy. To me, the whole Ethan character is basically a riff on two other stories that had already been published by this time: first, Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry, which explores a forgotten, all-powerful, Superman-like hero who struggles to find his way in the modern world (not to mention some significant mental health problems); and second, the second arc from Allan Heinberg’s run on the Young Avengers, in which Hulkling discovers his Skrull heritage and struggles to find his identity. It seemed a little too much of a Superman parody to be considered a genuinely good Spider-Man arc. Though it was certainly amusing, SM’s character development was certainly secondary. I will say, though, that the further elaboration of the Absorbing Man’s powers was a good idea. It makes a lot of sense to have someone like him be pretty close to all-powerful, but his biggest weakness is that, as one of duller tools in the shed, he lacks the imagination to truly make the most of his awesome power. Putting someone like Spidey up against that is actually a pretty cool matchup, so props to Hudlin for going that direction. Overall, it’s certainly not a bad arc, but I wouldn’t call it necessary reading. Rating: 6 of 10

#19-22 — the last four issues of this Marvel Knights run was part of a crossover title called, “The Other: Evolve or Die” which will be reviewed soon!

Nightcrawler Goes Solo

detail17
Issue #4; Cover Artist: Greg Land; Source: Marvel.com

Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler, has been one of the most iconic members of the X-Men since their rebranding as the Uncanny X-Men back in 1975. He has long been a fan favorite (and personal favorite of mine) because of his optimism and wit. He also blends his demonic outward appearance with the serene inner persona whose morality and generosity in unmatched among the X-Men. He has long been a crucial member of various teams of benevolent mutants, and his dynamics with other leading cast members of X-teams, such as Storm, Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Cyclops have all been well-established for a long time.

Despite his popularity and the depth of his character, Nightcrawler did not get a chance at his own solo title until 2004, when Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Darick Robertson partnered up to do a 12-issue run. From the outset, the ambitious effort seemed difficult. What was there to truly differentiate him from the rest of his team? The missions he was sent on were mysteries of ghouls, ghosts, demons, and possession, leading him to Limbo and encounters with other odd demonic forces. I know he looks like a blue devil, but I never really like the weird demon plot-lines in the X-Men. The creative team did try to tie these events back to Kurt’s past, where his odd relationship with his step-sister/lover, Amanda Sefton began. Amanda had become the new Magik in Limbo by the time of this comic in 2004, making hers and Kurt’s relationship even weirder. Kurt had never really shown an aptitude for detective work, so Storm’s choice to send him on a solo mission to a hospital in the first issue seemed odd. The following series struggled to develop Nightcrawler independently of the X-Men, as Storm, Kitty, and Wolverine all made prominent appearances in almost every issue. The unfortunate result was a series of mystical-ish arcs that seemed like other X-Men team titles, only Nightcrawler did focus slightly more on Kurt’s past. The revisiting of  Kurt’s circus past was interesting, but just never wowed me. Aguirre-Sacasa’s writing seemed fine, but I never really got into the story. Same thing goes for Robertson’s art. The real highlight of the series for me was Greg Land’s cover art, and especially Issue #4 (above). Overall, I would say that this is a perfectly adequate comic for those who like these sort of stories, but it’s probably not for everyone. Rating: 5 of 10.

 

The Pulse: The Return of Jessica Jones

detail16
This is a beautiful cover. Wonderful use of negative space. Issue #8; Cover Artist: Mike Mayhew; Source: Marvel.com

Following the success of Marvel Max’s Alias run, Jessica Jones creator, Brian Michael Bendis brought the character back in a non-Max title. This time, with more accessible topics and language choices (read: fewer F-bombs), Jessica Jones would navigate her way into the larger Marvel continuity monster. This was achieved by her getting pregnant at the end of Alias, and winding up with Luke Cage, who was, by now, a rising star in the New Avengers title, also penned by Bendis. Her new series, The Pulse, is so named for her new column at the Daily Bugle, where she will work with Ben Urich to tell superhero-themed stories to increase paper sales. This gives Jessica a good excuse to become involved in some of the central plot lines of the early 21st Century Marvel event calendar, which was also largely orchestrated and often written by her own Brian Michael Bendis. Being a pet project of the leading creative force at Marvel certainly helped Jessica Jones to quickly rise from a no-name side project into a real member of superhero community and an important supporting character to the New Avengers.

Though not as innovative as Bendis’ earlier Alias series, The Pulse does still give some valuable insight into Jessica Jones as a character and serves the primary focus of further elaborating her relationship with Luke Cage, Ben Urich, and a few other key Marvel characters. *Warning* since The Pulse is a direct sequel to Alias, a key event at the end of Alias The 14-issue run encompassed only a couple of different arcs, but the plot developments of each were really secondary to Jessica’s emotional evolution and the further development of hers and Luke Cage’s relationship, along with the birth of their child. The story arcs are far less cutting edge than they were in the Alias run, some of which is inherent in the shift from an R-rated (Max) title to a PG-13-ish normal Marvel title. Regarding the art, it was above average, but not cutting edge. It was exactly the quality you would expect when penciling duties were handed between superstars Mark Bagley, Michael Lark, and Michael Gaydos.

Plot-wise, the first arc was solid, but not amazing. It set up the reason for Jessica’s integration into the mainstream universe: a job at the Daily Bugle. The Green Goblin arc the followed wasn’t particularly engaging, but it did serve its purpose as an intro to the idea of Jessica as an investigative journalist. The next arc, a tie-in to The Secret War, actually did work pretty well, especially since Luke Cage was such an important character in these main events. Her quest to find Luke and uncover the covert operation behind The Secret War made The Pulse the most significant tie-in to that event. Though the story progression seemed somewhat limited by the progression of the main event, it did provide some well-articulated supporting plot-lines for Jessica Jones and Ben Urich. The single issue House of M tie-in was odd and out of place with the rest of the series. Then the final arc *mini-spoiler* followed the birth of Jessica and Luke’s baby and the next steps in their relationship, which would lead into the New Avengers title by the end of issue #14, the final issue of The Pulse.

Overall, Bendis’ work on the Pulse served its primary purpose, which was to bring Jessica into the mainstream universe. Transitioning such a brash and complicated character from the Max line was no easy task, and definitely did feel somewhat abrupt at times — especially with her harsh language being absent in The Pulse. Though it is a testament to Bendis that he managed to transition Jessica without diluting her beyond recognition. The character is still there, even if her story arcs lost some of their edge. The Pulse is still a good solid read for fans of the character and makes a nice bridge between two of Bendis’ finer works: Alias and New Avengers. It’s still an above average comic, even if it falls short of the inventiveness and iconic storytelling of its predecessor. Rating: 7 of 10