Have you ever experienced personal and professional harm because someone resented you for your talents and achievements? Sadly, this is a huge fact of life for which few are prepared. From childhood forward, we believe that the key to a successful life is hard work, high skills, and solid performance. The rest is automated, we think. At some point, you come to learn that these virtues make you a target. You need to develop the emotional wherewithal to confront it.
There are now two movies in the Disney/Pixar series that deal with this important theme: The Incredibles (2004) and Incredibles 2 (2018). The second one is as solid as the first. Both distinguish themselves by dealing with a ubiquitous reality all around us — resentment causes vast personal and social carnage — that we only otherwise see treated in fiction (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) and nonfiction (Helmut Schoeck’s Envy).
That’s what gives these movies a special appeal.
The second film opens after many years in which the Incredible family, all with superhero skills, have been decommissioned by law. They are living normal lives in a protection program set up by the government. But now this program is coming to an end, and they must integrate into society more fully without ever using their special skills.
Why had society turned against them? It was a classic case of a mix-up of cause and effect. Every time they had done some heroic work against crime, people saw lots of damage plus the presence of superheroes. Because people are sometimes stupid, they concluded that the superheroes were the cause of the damage. This is not a crazy plot: think of how guns are constantly blamed for criminal behavior.
In addition, there is a subtext of envy going on here. Superheroes have special skills others do not have. Politicians, in particular, resent this and see their presence as some kind of threat to the political monopoly on protection services. So the political class seeks to tear them down. The Incredible family unit has to deal with this as teaching moments for their kids. In their own lives, they have to come to terms with the strange reality: they have been forced not to be incredible.
In this film, a marketing guy named Winston Deavor has an idea for a fix. He explains that the real reason that superheroes have been banned is public perception. The only real solution is to change perceptions. He suggests that they wear cameras to stream some heroic deed. This film can be shown on the news and everyone will rally around them. (Winston’s character is voiced by Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad fame.)
But there is an interesting problem. Winston works with his sister, who is very smart but has a serious problem. She resents her brother for getting so much attention and garnering so much fame even though he only sells things whereas she makes technically ingenious products. She tries to drip poison in the ear of the wife of Mr. Incredible. Isn’t she tired of living in his shadow? Isn’t it wicked how much society values the man but not the woman even though she is just as talented if not more so?
His wife, known as Plastigirl, demurs, not really buying into the victim mindset, much to her credit. She senses something is amiss. Still, she goes along with the plot to film some heroic deed and show it to the public. The scheme works, and the public demands an end to the ban on superheroes. As it turns out, however, Winston’s wife is rotten to the core and is secretly working on a metaplot to seek all power for herself. She is the biggest villain of all.
Telling you this is not a spoiler, because this theme is integral to the whole Incredibles genre. The bad guys become that way because they are driven by resentment against others who possess skills they don’t have. They try to enlist others in their envious plots. The plot is always about gaining power over others, disabling and discrediting excellence in every way possible. It’s an especially delightful twist that Incredibles 2 explores the gender wars through this lens, giving this film a special meaning in our times.
Dealing With Envy
The film also presents a path for dealing with the problem of envy. The lesson is to stop being shocked by it and recognize it as a reality. Indeed, any high-performing individual will necessarily confront this problem as a fact of life. Someone, somewhere, sometime will attempt to destroy you for your virtues.
Then you have two choices. You can acquiesce. That requires dumbing yourself down, putting your skills on hold, reducing yourself to their level, and declining to live a big and great life. Or you can push through and outsmart such people by being more excellent still, recognizing that the path forward is never easy. This requires far more of you than you ever anticipated. If you choose the second path, you have to be agile, you have to think for yourself, and you have to develop thick skin to deal with the smears, trolling, lies, and worse.
Both Incredibles films put on display this difficult choice. In both cases, the family begins by going along, presuming that society is not really prepared to absorb and use their special skills. But this choice leads to personal unhappiness, bureaucratization, and social decay, just as you would expect in any society that punishes achievement. Realizing this truth, the Incredibles must discover the fortitude to push through and say no to those who want to bury talent in a thicket of mediocracy.
Social media has put social and professional life on fast forward, so it is far more likely now that anyone of achievement in any area of life will experience the ghastly effects of envy, simply because the envious have more access to communication tools than ever before. Then you are faced with this precise decision: give up or press on.
The slogan “don’t feed the trolls” is actually a pretty good rule, not only in digital media but in life generally. The path to personal progress is never easy; it is often a grueling slog, punctuated by unavoidable demoralization and temptation to accept defeat. To be incredible in life means refusing to give in and let the trolls win.
The reviews for both movies have been over-the-top fabulous. Yes, they are exciting movies. Yes, they are funny and dramatic. Yes, the computer animation is glorious. But these factors alone do not account for their popularity. The reason we love them is that the moral theme here is extremely rare in movies even though it is everywhere in life.