I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most qualified person to talk about the history of superheroes as it progresses through comics, TV shows, movies, novels, and every other medium you can imagine. But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve been in a very cynical age in superhero media. It’s almost impossible to talk about Batman without hearing the words “dark and gritty”, Superman is derided for being too perfect and clean-cut, and any idealistic views of the heroes are mocked as childish or cartoony. Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen is often used as a prime example of this move towards darkness. Why then, is Pixar’s foray into the superhero genre, The Incredibles, so well-loved and well-reviewed outside it’s target demographic of children (and that’s not to say that it’s not beloved within that demographic as well, as many little boys will tell you)? I would argue that maybe, Watchmen is not as cynical as it seems at first glance, and likewise, The Incredibles is much darker than you might assume.
Watchmen tells the story of a group of washed-up forgotten heroes after the government ban on caped crusaders and their vigilante justice. Someone has been killing the masked heroes, and… well, no I’m not going to bother trying to hide spoilers. Everyone knows the twist in Watchmen. People who haven’t read or seen Watchmen know the twist in Watchmen. One of the heroes, Ozymandias, is actually working on his own to bring about world peace through what we would see as villainous means (the giant squid-alien in the graphic novel and the energy blasts made to look like the work of Dr. Manhattan in the movie). It looks at the masked heroes as just regular people who are just messed up enough in the head that they believe dressing up in costumes and kicking criminal ass is the best way to deal with their problems.
I’m not going to argue that Watchmen isn’t a cynical look at the superhero genre. It knows what it is, although some of the characters may seem a little genre blind at times. Ozymandias disdainfully says in the movie, “I’m not a comic book villain”. Haha, about that… I would say that this piece embraces more superhero tropes than it subverts. We have the brave and honorable Nite Owl coming out of retirement to investigate an old friend’s murder (okay, that might be more of a buddy cop trope), he gets together with his former teammates, they save lives and have adventures, they slowly put together pieces of the puzzle until they finally realize what’s been happening, and everyone races to save the day, and they get to the villain’s lair right on time! Oh wait, no, they get there well after he’s already triggered his plans and then spends some time monologuing at them.
Yeah, that bit is definitely the most cynical part of the story. But look at the conclusions for our main characters. Sure, the one psychopath dies. I would argue that this might be the happiest ending for him, rather than go on living in a world that can’t conform to his own rigid standards and being imprisoned for the rest of his life, if not getting the death penalty for his crimes. Nite Owl and Silk Spectre get their happy ending, being together and back in retirement from being heroes. Dr. Manhattan goes off to effectively become a god. And it’s strongly hinted in the narrative that Ozymandias’ cunning plan doesn’t work. To me, those are the hallmarks of an idealistic story – the heroes get happy, or mostly happy endings, and the villain’s schemes are thwarted.
The Incredibles borrows many themes from Watchmen (in what I prefer to think of as a loving tribute as opposed to theft), the most prominent being the forced retirement of the superheroes and their subsequent struggle to fit in with the rest of the world. The story centers on one family of superheroes struggling to stay hidden and maintain their closeness as a family, while the father desperately misses his days of relevancy. As a children’s film, The Incredibles is basically required to have most of the requirements for a happy ending – all the main characters survive, the villain is defeated (admittedly by being accidentally killed, but it wasn’t at the hands of the protagonists, so it’s okay), and the world is safe.
It’s important to note, though, that in contrast to the characters of Watchmen, the characters of The Incredibles have actual superpowers (okay, I know, Dr. Manhattan had actual superpowers too, but he was a one-time freak lab accident thing). This has pretty serious implications for the world it’s set in. I’m sure that the vigilantes of Watchmen caused their fair share of problems and damage, but no ordinary guy who just lifts a lot of weights is going to cause anywhere near the city-wide chaos that we see in the end of The Incredibles. I know, that’s such a cliche to hear the blogger complaining about the massive amounts of damage caused by superheroes (remember the new Superman movie, Man of Steel? Yeah, neither do I), but if large, heavily populated cities are getting destroyed on a regular basis in these worlds, that’s a problem.
There’s also a significantly darker undertone in The Incredibles that Watchmen lacks, and that’s the amount of deaths and attitude towards it. Yeah, people die in Watchmen, especially the mass deaths that occur as a result of Ozymandias’ plan, but apart from that, any deaths are mourned, treated as important, and are generally few and significant. In The Incredibles, our main heroes are killing bad guy mooks left and right without any thought given. Even the children, who’ve generally been sheltered from this sort of thing in their mostly-normal suburban upbringing. Their mother makes a point of telling them that these bad guys are not like the ones in cartoons (I’m noticing a theme here…), and they will not hesitate to kill children. We certainly see them try, though for Disney requirements, none of them succeed. I know a lot of people will disagree, but to me, the way death is treated in a work is important to its darkness. The Incredibles blase shrugging off of the death seems dark to me. According to an internet body count website (because of course that exists), the main characters directly kill 12 people and that doesn’t include the assorted uncounted henchmen. In Watchmen, only 6 are killed directly by the main characters, not including the villain and the team’s requisite psychopath (who it should be noted, we are not supposed to like or approve of), and that’s in a much darker adult film.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that both of these works reached mass appeal by being able to pull in people from outside their usual demographic. The Incredibles already had the fun-loving, light-hearted kids audience, and it managed to grab adults who wanted a classic superhero story and those who wanted something just a little darker, with a truly menacing villain and a lot of violence. Watchmen, on the other hand, takes the lovers of the Golden Age of superheroes, when things were idealistic and Superman always saved the day, and brings them to love a story where the heroes are not necessarily good people and barely succeed in saving anyone. There’s nothing wrong with loving a good classic superhero comic or loving the newer, darker, more serious movies, but if you’ve only stuck to one, maybe give the other kind a try, because you might find something that appeals to you anyway.