Watching The Incredibles again six years after it came out, I enjoyed it just as much as the first time, and I again admired the way it played off typical American themes, but this time another thought stood out. The film is in love with high tech tools and vehicles and gadgetry, but the heroes are passive users of technology while the villain is a brilliant engineer.
Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Villains have to be distinctive in some way, and Buddy’s genius is just his. But look at the beginning of the movie, when Buddy is desperately trying to get Mr. Incredible’s approval. He’s been pleading for acceptance and finally blurts out about his rocket boots, ‘I invented these. I can fly!’ Shouldn’t Mr. Incredible’s response (and the audience’s) have been something like ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome!’ or ‘How could a kid who looks like he’s in junior high possibly do something like that!’? Instead, it’s portrayed as part of Buddy’s pathetic attempt to be someone he’s not, a superhero.
Later, Syndrome vows to share his technology with the world so that everyone will be super. Cue ominous music! But wait, what’s wrong with that? He really should have said, ‘no one will be super just because they’re born with gifts others don’t have.’ He’s going to level the playing field. There’s a sense throughout the movie that Buddy is cheating by using technology. “Not every superhero has powers,” he claims early on, but in the movie, that sentiment just appears uppity.
This isn’t new, it’s your basic Lex Luther vs. Superman conflict. It’s evil smart guy vs. noble strong guy. How many A-list superheroes are there that rely on their technological prowess? Okay, Iron Man, but he’s the Ayn Randian superhero. A glamorous playboy born into great wealth, he’s a long way from pimply, geeky Buddy. Buddy has only his own engineering genius, and he uses it to get the good life- hot babe, tropical island, all kinds of toys. He’s like a cartoon John Carmack (no offense to John).
In the geek classic Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson argues that you can look at a society’s trickster gods, or rather, at the clever characters in their stories, to gauge their attitude towards technology. How a society reacts to and portrays technology, in turn, reveals the principles of its civilization. The marauding Vikings had Loki, clever and evil enemy of the gods; the Greeks had Athena, embodiment of wisdom and justice combined with strength. Technology is not just a path to power, Stephenson suggests, it usually goes along with freedom of thought and humane values.
Cryptonomicon creates heroes out of geeky technologists. It exults in the role of scientists and engineers in helping to defeat Nazi Germany. The Nazis, on the other hand, are weakened because their totalitarianism and prejudice leads them to purge the universities and dismiss the ‘Jewish mathematics’ of Einstein and others. Free societies produce better technology while less open societies tend to be fearful of it.
The Incredibles, like American society, is ambivalent. Tech stuff is cool, but the engineers that make it don’t seem to get much credit. Worse, there’s a fear that they’re doing something sinister with their arcane knowledge. Facebook is immensely popular throughout American society, yet it strikes a chord when The Social Network portrays its creator as a socially awkward misfit we really shouldn’t trust.
All this is not to say that Buddy isn’t evil. He’s a murderer and his genius doesn’t change that. But then, this is the story of Mr. Incredible, not Syndrome; of Goliath, not David; of Achilles, not Odysseus. In this story, innate strength equals innate goodness. Brainy attempts to use tools or technology to make up for physical shortcomings are downright dishonorable.
But if the Wicked Witch of the West’s reputation can be resuscitated; if the story of Grendel, the original villain of the English language, can be retold; if Milton can make even Satan a sympathetic character, surely poor little Buddy deserves to have his say. His moral failings can’t simply be rationalized away, but let’s at least hear the geek’s side of things. After all, not many of us are born with the physical talents of the Incredibles- we’re better off trying to figure out how to make those rocket boots.