The matinee of Incredibles 2 that I attended featured an odd prolegomenon, in which several of the voices behind the movie’s superheroes — Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible), Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone), Holly Hunter (Elastigirl) — showed up alongside Brad Bird, the director, to offer an apology for allowing 14 years to elapse before making a sequel to the brilliant original, coupled with a promise that the new Incredibles movie would be worth the wait.
I would listen to Holly Hunter read the phone book, so I didn’t really mind the imposition, but the performance still had the feel of a hostage video, or an interview with Winston Smith conducted sometime after he finally won the battle over himself. It once spoke well of the makers of The Incredibles that they did not produce a sequel — that having made one of the few superhero films in our age of supers that stand alone as actual good movies, they turned to other projects, other stories, other themes. This was part of the larger promise of Pixar, in the days when that promise held: that you could still have, in this age in Hollywood, a mini-studio that made mass-market movies that were successful and original, rather than just franchised to the hilt.
But at a certain point Pixar learned to love Big Brother — hence Monsters University and Cars 3 and Finding Dory and the yet-to-come Toy Story 4 — and with the Incredibles sequel they finally got Bird and the rest of the Incredibles gang to succumb to franchise work as well. And because the gang is talented, the finished product is pretty entertaining — a flurry of action sequences, a lot of snappy comedy, strong voicework, the same vivid retro-future aesthetic as the original, an interesting variation on the original’s mildly subversive message (last time it was a genial libertarianism; this time it’s a critique of screen-time and superhero obsessions, transmitted via a villain who might just have a point).
But Incredibles 2 also dissolves in memory like cotton candy on the tongue. This is one of several things that it has in common with the high summer’s other successful superhero sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, a minor Marvel effort in which Paul Rudd returns to the part of an everyman ex-burglar who finds his calling in a miniaturizing suit. Both are essentially comic action movies, with none of the galaxy-in-peril portentousness that defines the bigger superhero superflicks and a refreshing sense of their own mild absurdity. (Watch a superbaby fight a raccoon! Watch our hero ride winged ants across San Francisco Bay!) Both trade effectively on domestic silliness: Mr. Incredible has to be a stay-at-home dad while his wife handles the superheroining; Ant-Man is finishing a house-arrest sentence and has to keep sneaking home from his adventures so that he won’t have his sentence upped and lose quality time with his daughter. Both make good use of character actors (or character-actor voices), succeeding without a demigod or demigoddess, a Hemsworth or Gadot.
But again, both are ultimately disposable, with plots that there’s no point in even summarizing, since they’re just scaffolding for fight scenes and set-ups for one-liners.
This mix of solid moment-to-moment entertainment value with overall disposability makes the Incredibles/Ant-Man combination a case study in why the superhero genre’s run of box-office dominance won’t be flagging anytime soon. The biggest and most ambitious blockbusters can sometimes flame out, as certain ponderous DC movies have been doing lately. But, as with the western in the ’50s, there’s an essential formula here that the studios can always fall back on and that audiences are primed to reward consistently. There’s a practiced ease to the genre, a consistency that can always be reclaimed — even if you’re working with a strictly minor superhero like Ant-Man, or returning to characters after 14 years away.
But the same entertainingly disposable sequels that confirm the genre’s enduring sway are also depressing case studies in why that dominance is stultifying. We just celebrated the glorious 30th anniversary of the release of Die Hard, an example of what summer movies (or Christmas movies, if you side with those who say its Yuletide setting makes it a holiday classic) at their best can hope to be. And it’s worth remembering that the summer of Die Hard didn’t belong to John McClane alone: The list of pop entertainments that graced cineplexes in June, July, and August of 1988 included Bull Durham, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, Big, A Fish Called Wanda, Midnight Run, and more.
You can imagine many of the people involved in Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp working brilliantly in that 1980s landscape. (Bird has the talent of a Robert Zemeckis; Rudd could fill the shoes of a Tom Hanks or a Tim Robbins.) What you can’t imagine is the landscape itself, where one of the all-time greatest action movies could share box-office success with a wider range of comedy, romance, action, and drama, pitched to mass audiences yet made for intelligent adults.
Instead we have a movie business that knows how to do one thing very well, and a system that expects even its major talents and best studios to eventually stop mucking around, get with the program, and make a superhero sequel so that everyone can keep on getting paid.