Out of the many filmmakers whose careers have soared thanks to working at Pixar Animation Studios, just two have leapt from animation to live-action: Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird. Stanton was the director of the 2012 science-fiction adventure John Carter, which sadly wasn’t able to break out at the box office, so just a few years later, he shifted back to animation with Finding Dory, a sequel to what had been his most financially successful film yet, Finding Nemo. Bird has directed two live-action films: the superlative Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and the 2015 sci-fi tale Tomorrowland, the latter of which was also unsuccessful at the box office. And like Stanton, Bird has since gone back to Pixar to make a sequel to his most popular animated film: this just-released Incredibles 2. But unlike Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 feels like a much more natural extension of its predecessor.
Incredibles 2 picks up where it left off, almost literally. The 2004 film The Incredibles ends not only with the Parr family — Bob, Helen, Dash, Violet, and baby Jack-Jack, all of whom have at least one superpower — united, but prepared to face off against a new threat to the city of Municiberg. That threat, The Underminer, is still causing havoc when the new film begins. The Parrs are able to dazzle some average citizens with their feats of derring-do, but the Underminer gets away and the family is forced to go underground permanently after causing massive property damage. It’s only when a wealthy industrialist and his inventor sister step in to help convince politicians to make superheroes legal again that the fate of the Incredibles is looking up.
Bird is perhaps too authentic, too distinctive a filmmaker to just do a film for the money. Even Ghost Protocol, the fourth film in the massive Mission: Impossible franchise that is more defined by its lead actor than by a single filmmaker, didn’t feel like a lazy stab at establishing Bird’s bona fides behind the camera. There’s ample proof in that sensational action film that Bird is one of the great modern action directors, period, and able to bring a singular flair to the latest extension of a well-liked series. Incredibles 2, just like its predecessor, has an equal display of Bird’s voice as a writer and director.
This movie isn’t solely dedicated to giving audiences what they want — yes, there are a handful of well-executed action sequences, and plenty of great visual gags surrounding the multi-powered Jack-Jack. But Bird spends a good deal of the film talking about the need for superheroes, and how negative that need can be; the film’s villain, the mysterious and hypnotic Screenslaver, excoriates society for treating superheroes like a cure-all instead of fixing their own problems. (Arguably, since it’s established within the backstory of the original film that supers, as they’re called, have been illegal for 15 years, this seems less like a genuine criticism of the people in the film than of fans of superheroes in the real world.) Even one of the more frustrating subplots, in which Bob has to get over himself to let Helen be the face of the family in the public eye, has more thought behind it than most superhero B-plots.
The purpose of the Screenslaver somewhat mirrors the bad guy in Bird’s last live-action film, Tomorrowland. Where that film’s antagonist tore into modern pessimism as one of the unavoidable reasons for the end of humanity, it sounded at least somewhat like how Bird felt about modern society. It’s hard not to wonder similarly with Incredibles 2; how much of the Screenslaver’s frustrations about how people treat superheroes as a way to avoid fixing their own problems is how Bird feels about the dominance of superheroes in popular culture? Of course, this is a superhero film, so where there may be some truth to the antagonist’s argument, Bird allies with the heroes when all is said and done.
The delay between the first and second Incredibles movie could have been chalked up to Bird’s live-action career stumbling and him deciding to go back to what worked for him in the past. But doing the safe thing just because it’s easy isn’t in Bird’s repertoire; to his credit, Incredibles 2 never feels like a blatant cash-grab. Instead, his response to why he hadn’t made this movie for so long ended up seeming accurate: He needed to figure out the right story for the characters. Though it’s got some flaws that hold it back from being superior to the original, Incredibles 2 feels very much like a Brad Bird film, an auteurist depiction of why superhero movies can be so exciting and fun.