When every one is somebodee, then no one's anybody!
November 28, 2004 9:48 PM   Subscribe

WHO IS BOB PARR? Critics, bloggers and other commentators have, usually off-handedly, linked The Incredibles to Ayn Rand. Well, it turns out the Objectivists are taking the comparison quite seriously. Yet the more exact, direct forebear of "if everybody's special, then nobody is" is clearly... Gilbert & Sullivan, no?
posted by soyjoy (38 comments total)
Sorry no direct link for the last ref. You can search the page on "There lived a King" for the song I'm talking about, which is supposedly the crux of this operetta's political thesis.
posted by soyjoy at 9:49 PM on November 28, 2004

I'm sorry, I don't see /any/ relationship between those two things.
posted by muppetboy at 10:04 PM on November 28, 2004

Not having seen the movie, I've got to say that I'd doubt Sarah Vowell would lend her voice to anything with that sort of agenda.
posted by drezdn at 10:09 PM on November 28, 2004

As always, whenever these sorts of discussions come up every now and then, I direct your attention to Harrison Bergeron, the Kurt Vonnegut short story that I think should be required reading for all 4th-8th grade teachers who want to standardize curricula so that no one feels left behind.
posted by pokeydonut at 10:10 PM on November 28, 2004

The incredibles sounded a lot more like John Stuart Mill vs. Marx to me... Mill saying that inequality was not too high a price to pay to allow the exceptional few to excel and thus avoid a tyranny of mediocrity. But that's paraphrasing pretty heavily.
posted by onshi at 10:25 PM on November 28, 2004

There's a movie of Harrison Bergeron with Sean Astin and Christopher Plummer that I highly recommend.

It has a hot sex scene, too. But the worst opening credits known to man, and a budget of roughly $5.87. But it's good anyway.

Seriously. Watch it. It's OOP but worth finding.
posted by u.n. owen at 10:26 PM on November 28, 2004

lol i have seen that film and your right those are the worst opening credits ever. nice film however.
posted by nola at 10:41 PM on November 28, 2004

Incredibles seemed like The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty without the reality...I don't think much more than that was going on, honestly. I know the Objectivist types want attention, but the movie just wasn't much of a paen to greatness. It mostly felt like suburban fantasy camp to me.
posted by inksyndicate at 10:52 PM on November 28, 2004

(possible spoilers, most of it's already in the link though)

The Incredibles not only provides both sides of the Objectivist question- Parr wants to be who he is, but his selfish actions were also directly responsible for creating Syndrome- it does it without shaping the whole movie around it. Plenty of people saw the movie and enjoyed it without worrying about "blonde beasts" and Atlas shrugging. The ability to integrate serious questions into the flow of a story is something to respect, even admire.

It's a nice change from the dump-it-in-truckloads, holier-than-thou approach we get so often.
posted by Maxson at 11:13 PM on November 28, 2004

onshi, it sounds like you're describing Rawls more than Mill, in which case I think I would agree.
posted by Doug at 11:27 PM on November 28, 2004

Having just finished William Strauss and Neil Howe's The Fourth Turning, which describes how the diffrent American Generations behave and interact, this movie is right out of the book. The parents are baby boomers, the villan kid is GenX and the kids are the "millenium hero" generation. The period when the parents were young is the 60s and 70s, the period when there was corruption and greed is the 80s and 90s and the period when the heros rise again to save the day is post-911. Hollywood and Washington and New York know Strauss and Howe very well, it's the basis for a lot of stuff.
posted by stbalbach at 11:38 PM on November 28, 2004

Just saw it today. The Incredibles doesn't seem to me to have a consistent moral or philosophical stance. On the one hand, it's important to let the excellent excel -- on the other, it's important that they not excel too much (see Dash's race at the end) so as to protect the self-esteem of the plebes. To hold it up as an embodiment of any philosophical ideal strikes me as missing the point. The film sets out to tell a story, and when the opportunity arises to give the audience something to think about, this is done on the grounds that it will add to the film's entertainment value by giving nerds something to talk about afterward. But don't go looking for consistency, or even for an official, integrated authorial viewpoint. It seems to me much like The Matrix in that respect. People are reading too much into it -- they assume that anything in a film made by an obviously intelligent fellow must mean something. I saw one guy on IMDB trying to argue that the movie is an analogy for the Iraq situation.

This film has a real "everything including two kitchen sinks" feel to it, and the "homage" to classic superhero comics borders on plagiarism. For timeless storytelling, I don't think it'll hold up as well as The Iron Giant. Visually stunning, though.
posted by kindall at 11:57 PM on November 28, 2004

These ideas are definitely there in the movie. It's not like it's particular concealed or anything, given that both one of the heroes and the villain are given the weighty and noticeable lines about "everybody being special meaning nobody is" quoted in the post.

Personally, though, I think both the people lauding this and those villifying it are completely missing what the actual point was. While the cult of the mediocre was definitely shown as a bad thing, ultimately, heroism in the movie was about how you use your power and why, not how much you had. Syndrome, after all, was arguably more capable than any of The Incredibles, but all of his impulses were to use his abilities to kill and self-aggrandize. Bob Parr, when it came down to it, knew that protecting those weaker than himself was the only noble use of his power, and won Mirage over to his side because his respect for life (and others) was not a weakness - it was a strength. And yeah, Dash does carefully come in second at the end.

One thing that puzzled me about the movie, viewed in any of these lights, was why Syndrome's ultimate plot to make everyone a superhero seemed meant to be taken as horrifying. That would seem to be the opposite of Harrison Bergeron, or the subplot of Dash's frustration at school - raising everyone up to equality is a very different thing from achieving it by bringing down anyone who excels. I can only think of a few reasonable explanations:

1) The movie is saying that equality is bad, period. You could support this with other evidence from the dialogue if you wanted, but I find it dubious at best that this is genuinely what the movie was saying.

2) The movie was saying that power isn't what makes people exceptional - heroism is. So power by itself is simply dangerous. Fits with my version of the story, but seems an awfully quick and unexamined way to make that point.

3) It was just another slam against the cult of the mediocre, but was a poorly written line with the implications not well thought out.

My girlfriend, as it happens, had a much more Ayn Randian interpretation of the movie, and liked it a bit less than me as a result. Frankly, we both liked it the best when it was a parody of superhero tropes, least when it was straight-out action, and could take or leave the philosophical underpinnings. But we cracked up every time they started complaining about villains "monologuing", although no one else in the theater seemed to. Also like the little homage to Watchmen with the stuff about the cape, and the classic comic book references sprinkled throughout.

On preview: I saw the references more as parody than homage, kindall, so I didn't mind their hewing so close too much. Agree that The Iron Giant wil stand the test of time a lot better, though.
posted by kyrademon at 12:05 AM on November 29, 2004

Slightly digressive but could someone please illuminate as to the relevance the europhobic comments of the critic, especially the last line... I get the impression that there's a strange personal back-story in that one.
posted by blindsam at 12:48 AM on November 29, 2004

Perhaps I'm guilty of not reading too much into the movie, but I figure Dash finished second in his race because...well, he's a superhero and needs to keep his secret identity, you know, secret.
posted by madajb at 1:12 AM on November 29, 2004

Interesting how this never gets done to films like White Chicks or something. Why is it that every time there's a high-grossing popular movie, there's some massive exploitation from various groups to "discover" the inner meanings of it? This is dumber than all the people pretending that it's cute to say SpongeBob is gay.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 3:58 AM on November 29, 2004

This is dumber than all the people pretending that it's cute to say SpongeBob is gay.

It's not cute, it's a fact.

I still can't believe he didn't call me the next day either, that little guy is so, so... absorbent.

posted by Mick at 4:06 AM on November 29, 2004

My point isn't that there aren't films out there that easily have interpretive undertones (clearly, for example, The Matrix was deliberately rife with biblical analogy) but that if you need to search for them, they probably weren't there in the first place.

Take all the people here analyzing a Randian/conservative view of Incredibles. I could easily counter the arguments made here by saying the movie is an endorsement of liberal values- an opposition to wanton killing as justice and the realization that the American populace is truly unsafe without the government-funded "nanny state" of superheroes protecting people, Syndrome proving to be the first, and failed, example of free-market competition trying to achieve superherodom as a means of profit over public service.

Wow, that was easy. And I think it's bullshit. It's a clever example of selectively picking three minutes of a 100-minute movie and claiming it justifies the inner point.

The blog World O' Crap did this great activity a few months back where they would print each day's Family Circus and pretend to interpret its hidden meanings. That's what I'm reminded of when I read any of this nonsense, from "proving" which character is gay to what character is Republican to whether or not the Smurfs are Communists.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 4:27 AM on November 29, 2004

Friends don't let friends feed the Randroids.

...and the idea of using the Gilbert & Sullivan refrain "If everyone is somebody, then no one's anybody" as an argument completely ignores the context of the song and of G&S' work.

Gilbert & Sullivan were primarily satirists, who made a living poking fun at the pomp and elitism of the British aristocracy throughout their careers. For instance, the idea of the judge in "Trial by Jury" getting to his position based on polishing door handles and a marriage to a hideously ugly but well-connected wife, or the admiral in "H.M.S. Pinafore" who had never been to sea before.

In the case of "The Gondoleirs", a Spanish don uses the "If everyone is somebody..." argument to defend the pompous elitism of the aristocracy, and not to defend anyone who actually merited such titles.

As the Don states before the song, someone from the aristocracy, such as a Lord High Chancellor, is a person of great dignity, and should never deign to play leapfrog with a common cook, as that would be too undignified... He should instead play leapfrog with the archbishop instead.

That was a pretty amusing social statement for back then...

This idea transitions into the song and its premise -- that the cheap and mediocre would be in vogue if everyone could afford the best. This argument ignores the obvious fact that if everyone could easily afford to live a comfortable life, they wouldn't have to suffer from poverty and class inequality.

Given that the audience of the time couldn't help but notice the unfair advantages of wealth and aristocracy amidst the hardship of the poor, this argument -- which we take entirely too seriously today -- was clearly seen back then for what it was... a humorous straw man, ready to be kicked.
posted by insomnia_lj at 4:35 AM on November 29, 2004

And nobody else noticed that Syndrome's plot was also a parody of the X-Men Movie in which Magneto tries to solve the Mutant problem by making everyone a mutant?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:01 AM on November 29, 2004

To clarify "The Gondoliers" even further, the larger point being made isn't that the aristocracy deserves better treatment. Rather, it's that aristocracy tends to both recreate itself and justify itself, even in the wake of revolutionary movements -- the Don still insists on special treatment, despite his complete lack of money or industry, and his elitist argument sounds temptingly appealing to the new egalitarian rulers of G&S' ficticious Barataria.

This point is further emphasized when it is discovered at the end that one of the gondoliers is actually nobility, and ends up marrying the Don's daughter.

No matter how noble your initial aspirations, it's devilishly hard to escape the existing power structure.
posted by insomnia_lj at 5:02 AM on November 29, 2004

insomnia, I wasn't putting The Gondoliers forward as an earlier version of Atlas Shrugged or The Incredibles, only pointing out that the song's refrain, and underlying message, much more closely matches the phrasing from the movie than anything in Rand - a tweak of the Objectivists' insistence on looking at the movie so seriously through that lens.

However, I think you may be too quick to write off the Don's song as a straw argument from Gilbert. It comes, remember, after Giuseppe's patter song about how even though they're "kings," they have to do all the work because the proper aristocratic order is not in play. Gilbert did love to mock the rigid class distinctions of Victorian England, but he also bought into them to some extent.
posted by soyjoy at 5:59 AM on November 29, 2004

I though Dash raced for second because that's a whole lot more of an achievement than just winning outright. For the fastest guy on the field, it would be much harder to time yourself so that you were always behind #1 but ahead of #3.

If that's the case, then the point would be to know in your heart of hearts that you are super and not care about how others may rate you. This is opposed to Syndrome's Everybody's Special Plan where although everyone would have powers, they would know in their heart of hearts that it was all just a gimmick and a sham.

But then again, I'm enough of a dork that I was thinking to myself before the baby revealed his powers "I hope he's a Blaster of some kind. That team really needs a Blaster. They have a Tank (Mr.Incred), Scrapper (ElastaGirl), Defender (Violet), and a super speeder (Dash), so they really need a Blaster. Better yet, a Dev/Fire Blaster."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:52 AM on November 29, 2004

Jack Jack's a Blaster. He's the Human Torch. But there already was a Defender/Blaster in the movie: Frozone.
posted by linux at 7:07 AM on November 29, 2004

robocop and linux, you may be interested in one of the articles I read, but didn't have room for in the FPP... an extended (and I do mean extended!) rumination on the different powers of the members of the family and whether or not the team is an explicit homage to the Fantastic Four. The Jack Jack / Human Torch connection is indeed brought up, in what seems to me a little desperate attempt to make the analogy complete.
posted by soyjoy at 7:17 AM on November 29, 2004

But there already was a Defender/Blaster in the movie: Frozone.

So are you calling Jack-Jack's parentage into question? Do superheroes pass on their own powers, with some plausible variation, to their children, or are all powers available in their DNA, with their children showing whatever has been randomly selected for them? I'm leaning towards the latter, as the two other kids have powers that don't seem all that similar to their parents.
posted by maudlin at 7:24 AM on November 29, 2004

Oops -- OK, it looks like you weren't questioning the parentage. But it was fun playing around with the idea of the inheritance of powers anyway.
posted by maudlin at 7:25 AM on November 29, 2004

I think it comes down to this:

"O, it is excellent to have a giant's strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant." - Shakespeare, in Measure for Measure
posted by SPrintF at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2004

Thanks for the link, soyjoy. It was interesting, but it was also a pretty big reach. The best re-examination of the FF's powers of late comes from Gaiman's 1602, where the four are linked to classical elements (Reed: Water. Ben: Earth. Sue: Air. John: Fire). The second best is the Venture Brother's spoof (with Stephen Colbert as Dr. Richard Impossible, a stretchy super-scientist who keeps the rest of his family locked up in his North Pole lab because they're freaks and embarrassments - The Invisible Woman's skin is the only thing invisible about her, The Human Torch's skin bursts into flames at the touch of oxygen, and the Thing is a walking lump of scabs with special needs).

anyway: I don't think Jack-Jack's the Human Torch as much as he is Morph or Mystique. In an interview I heard with the writer/director, he talked about each character's powers reflecting their personality/family role (father: strong and stalwart for the family. mom: pulled in 8 different directions. teen ager: shy and prone to put up barriers. kid sibling: annoying and everywhere) and when he talked about Jack-Jack, he said something along the lines of "a baby has no real identity yet, it's just all possibility and could grow up to be anything." So the shifting powers reflect that.

Frozone was more of a Controller, IMO, anyway. His frost blasts didn't harm, just immobilized. (Syndrome was also a Controller, of course - Controllers make for better bad guys than heroes)

(Yay, ComicFilter!)
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:04 AM on November 29, 2004

SPrintF quotes Shakespear for the knockout punch!

Oh, and by the way, Jack Jack doesn't seem to be a human torch so much as a polymorpher. He turned into a flaming baby, then into lead, then into some kind of weirdo demon kid. Or, on preview, what robocop is bleeding said.
posted by weston at 8:07 AM on November 29, 2004

Man. SPrintF with the flawless victory.
posted by Simon! at 8:40 AM on November 29, 2004

They were both were made by Disney?
posted by dwordle at 9:45 AM on November 29, 2004

I'm more interested in the Incredibles Family's parallels with the Simpsons Family.

And Everyone's Special because Everyone's Different.
posted by wendell at 11:38 AM on November 29, 2004

As I saw it, the clear difference between the Incredibles and Objectivists was using your abilities for the good of everyone, as opposed to using your abilities to enrich yourself. Objectivists hate charity, right? How was the service the heroes provide anything but charity, community service toward the greater good of society?
posted by McBain at 3:25 PM on November 29, 2004

I was already thinking about the Fantastic Four because of the rest of the families powers so when I saw Jack jack my first thought was that he was super skrull.
posted by untuckedshirts at 3:58 PM on November 29, 2004

McBain, just to play Objectivist's Advocate, they would probably counter that using your abilities for the good of everyone is not exclusive to using them for self-enrichment. When Bob Parr gets roped back into Superherodom, is it because he burns to have people get helped, or that he burns to be a hero? His life is miserable because he's denying who he is, not because people are suffering in the world at large. It's his lot, and those of most Rand characters, that by doing precisely what is most meaningful to him he serves the greater good of society.

Of course, to me, both of these worldviews are equally cartoonish. But I like the colors of The Incredibles better.
posted by soyjoy at 5:59 PM on November 29, 2004

Wait, wait, somewhat off topic, but there's standardized terms for superhero powers/roles? Defender/Controller etc? Will somebody source that for me please? A link or an explanation would be much appreciated. My circle's as comic-geek as it gets and I've never heard of this...
posted by e^2 at 6:07 PM on December 1, 2004

Well, I was wondering the same thing and I found this. Apparently it's from City of Heroes.
posted by Octaviuz at 10:23 PM on December 9, 2004

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