Popular consensus seems to have settled on the idea that The Incredibles (along with most of Brad Bird’s other films) espouses Ayn Rand-ian politics, by depicting the protagonists as inherently special (and therefore “greater than” everyone else) and decrying “participation trophy” culture and “everyone is special” philosophising.
The problem is that those arguments, while present in the movie, are all spoken by characters who are misguided and later reverse those views. It’s one thing to have Bob Parr complain that an elementary school graduation ceremony is “psychotic” and “celebrating mediocrity,” but you can’t ignore the fact that Hellen calls him out on the fact that he’s just using that argument to justify his own lack of involvement in his children’s lives while selfishly endangering their secret identities to feel good about himself.
The thing that rankles me is the way that The Incredibles being Objectivist or Libertarian or whatever seems to have just become an accepted fact in the court of public opinion. It’s not. The characters espouse some of those views at the beginning of the film because their entire arc in the movie is that their opinions on these matters evolves to become more nuanced.
You can have a character bring up an idea (even the protagonist) in a work of fiction without that idea necessarily being the moral of the thing. That should be obvious, but it’s something the people who want to frame Bird’s work as some kind of insidious fascist rhetoric can’t seem to grasp.
The other scene people use to support this argument is Dash complaining about how calling everyone special is “another way of saying no-one is.”
What people seem to miss is that Mrs. Incredible is the voice of reason in both of these scenes, calling out Bob and Dash for the selfishness of their arguments. Dash doesn’t want to find an acceptable outlet for his speed, because he wants to show off and be lavished with attention and praise despite the fact that he didn’t really work for it, it’s just something that comes naturally to him.
Calling everyone special doesn’t mean no one is, it’s an acceptance of uniqueness and recognition that everyone has their own strengths and value to provide in different situations. This is an idea the film embodies most explicitly with the other Incredible, Violet, who doesn’t think she has anything to offer but winds up directly saving the lives of the entire family on multiple occasions.
If I had to guess, I’d say that Brad Bird’s ideology is really closest to Helen Parr’s. The complaints of Bob and Dash represent his own most selfish impulses. We’ve all had moments where we’ve given in to our own hype, and that’s what Dash and Bob represent at the start of the film.
What they learn over the course of the film is that even if you have a unique talent or special ability, that doesn’t give you license to be selfish or entitled. You can use it to help people rather than just using it for attention and fame.
Helen has a character arc over the course of the movie too — she starts on the opposite end of the spectrum, being so overly- protective of her family’s normalcy as to deny their specialness completely.
Her arc is more along the lines of learning not to “hide your lamp under a bushel.” And while it’s true that while both sides of the argument move toward the middle by the end of the film, I think Dash and Bob have moved more than halfway toward Helen’s side. I’d call it 70/30.
Syndrome also espouses a plan to make “no one special” by selling gadgets that replicate superhero abilities, so it’s again tempting to think that “making everyone equal is bad” is the film’s ethos — it’s the vilain’s plan, for crying out loud — this is again wilfully ignoring the details.
Syndrome plans to “keep the best inventions for himself” so, once again, he can get attention and praise for being the “most special.” Sound familiar? Also important is the fact that our hero, Mr. Incredible, effectively created Syndrome by denying Buddy’s abilities and rejecting his help because Buddy’s super-power is intelligence, rather than something physical.
What trips people up, I think, is that the film obviously does believe that some people have innate talents that are the result of genetics or chance or something other than practice and hard work (despite Mr. Incredible’s “getting in shape” montage — he does have to work at it somewhat, like the rest of us, but nobody else is going to be able to lift a traincar no matter how much we work out).
I don’t know that this is an especially controversial viewpoint, though, it’s more just a fact. Life isn’t fair. There are child prodigies. There are people who practice dilligently at things but just never achieve the heights of others who have an intuitive talent, or are just in the right place at the right time. Think of all the hyper-technically skilled session musicians who will nevertheless not write a piece as immortal and beloved as Louie Louie.
Brad Bird sent his first animated film to Disney when he was 14. He was awarded a scholarship to CalArts and studied under Milt Kahl (one of Disney’s legendary “nine old men”). I’m sure Bird put aspects of himself into Dash and Bob. But he also put aspects of himself into Syndrome and Helen and all the other characters of The Incredibles, and the story of the movie is the story of Bob learning that even though he IS special and has undeniable talents, that doesn’t make him better than everyone else or give him license to be selfish and inconsiderate.
There’s a Beastie Boys song in which Ad Rock encapsulates the film’s true moral in a single lyric (the last line is a joking rap-boast which is meant to be funny):
I got friends and family that I respect /
When I think I’m too good, they put me in check /
So believe when I say I’m no better than you /
Except when I rap so I guess it ain’t true
Ad Rock is undeniably a better rapper than I am. Brad Bird is undeniably a better filmmaker than the vast majority of humanity. Bob Parr is undeniably stronger than everyone in the real world, and Dash is faster.
Are they special? Yes, but not all in the same way. They don’t have to hide their abilities and pretend to be average in every respect. but having a special talent doesn’t make them inherently better people, or entitle them to act purely out of self-interest.
This is the true moral of the film, and it’s pretty much the opposite of Objectivism (which says that it’s immorral to act out of anything other than pure self-interest).