A tempest in an inkpot: That's one way of characterizing the mini-eruption over the relative virtues of the movie Watchmen and Brad Bird's 2004 Pixar smash, The Incredibles. Yet the contrast provides an instructive and entertaining demonstration of the difference between a work of art that inspires timeless love and affection and a cult item that begs for disproportionate devotion because of the impact it had on pop culture.
Bird's film, a buoyant masterpiece, offers a revisionist view of superheroes without leeching all the levity and ebullience out of the comic-book-film form the way Zack Snyder's movie does. But it probably wouldn't have been possible were it not for the example of Alan Moore's original Watchmen comic book.
The setups are remarkably similar. In Watchmen, the government makes superheroes illegal in order to squelch vigilantism and any threat to official power. In The Incredibles, the government bans superheroism after court suits cost the taxpayers billions to compensate for the collateral damage of crime-fighting on a superheroic scale. (A man who attempted suicide, for example, sues Mr. Incredible for saving his life and ruining his death.)
In Watchmen, age and disillusionment beset a frayed assortment of superheroes whose self-worth rests in their costumes. In The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible, forced to toil in a banally corrupt insurance agency, must work his way through a midlife crisis. His escape back into superheroism soon engulfs his wife, the former Elastigirl, and their kids, the super-swift Dash, the invisible-girl Violet and even their infant Jack Jack, whose powers are yet to become apparent.
Is the movie Watchmen such a wan thing simply because The Incredibles and a slew of name-brand comic-book films beat it to the punch? It's an argument that mistakes novelty for creativity. When freshness is confused with genius, concepts once thought brilliant are deemed "dated" - and that's what's happening, I think, to the whole Watchmen franchise, on print and celluloid.
In 1986, when the "graphic novel" was first grabbing attention, Moore appeared to be revolutionary, using the popular mythology of comic books to create a political dystopia and lampoon flimsy boy's-adventure ideals of merit and honor. His ambition provided more excitement than his accomplishment. Read the book again before seeing the film and even fans may find it a bit of a chore. Some fantasies derive gallows humor from continually expanding an audience's idea of "the worst that can happen." Moore's book functions like a grindingly humorless Doomsday machine that keeps popping springs the closer it gets to Armageddon.
By contrast, rewatching The Incredibles five years after its premiere is undiluted pleasure. What a master Bird is of entwining parody, slapstick, sentiment and character in the unselfconscious spirit of entertainment that's always characterized our popular art at its best. His movie contains as many different forms-within-a-form as even the comic book Watchmen does, from mock-documentary to family sitcom to James Bond-like adventure. It does a vastly better job than the Watchmen movie of reminding comic-book fans of how "lower" art forms such as comics can function as pleasurable grab-bags, filching concepts from high and low art and combining them in unexpected ways.
The Incredibles can spin like a pop-art pinwheel and still be all of a piece because Bird boasts a coherent and scintillating vision. The members of the Incredible family represent the height of human aspiration; the forces that would pull them down stand for the leveling power of mediocrity.
When a movie has both breadth and depth, the way Bird's does, no amount of imitation can dilute its comic potency. Just a year after The Incredibles, Disney released a pleasant live-action spin on it called Sky High, in which the premier male and female superheroes of their time donned spectacles and civilian clothes to double as real estate agents while their son waited for his powers to emerge so he could enter the true family business.
It was an affable film: a comedy-drama of adolescent angst in superhero drag. But it had no lasting effect on the impact of The Incredibles, any more than the noxious remake of The Last House on the Left will have one on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (though they share the exact same plot). Watchmen's time has simply passed. The Incredibles, though, is a thing of kinetic beauty and a cartoon joy forever.
Miss March, a comedy starring Zach Cregger and Molly Stanton, was not screened for critics.