The Incredibles 2 – Stasis Hurts

There are many movies that would be good if they stood alone but, produced as sequels, come up short. No one would have blamed Pixar if The Incredibles 2 proved to be one of those movies. The original film was a classic, easily one of the best five films Pixar has done, perhaps one of the top three. Following that kind of an act is hard. Very hard.

But the shortcomings of The Incredibles 2 are more than a little sequel driven disappointment. The film lacks focus, vision and the parts of its characters that we loved the most. As a story it’s disjointed and has no real arc for most of its characters. And worst of all, it feels like it started taking itself too seriously, where the original was so self aware it brought us the term monologing. What am I talking about?

Let’s start with the characters. That’s where the biggest and most egregious errors came from. The only character in this film that has anything that feels like an arc is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible. That may be unsurprising, given that he was the last film’s main character, but everything else about the story feels like it’s constructed to make Helen the main character. She’s the one out in the world, confronting the driving conflicts. But nearly half of the film is spent on Bob trying to be a stay at home dad to his kids, which is funny and lets us see a lot of the three younger Parrs who were all very fun in the previous film, but the problem is Bob doesn’t really have any conflict here, he just needs to get to know his kids a little. He does, we do, and that’s it.

Now, one of the best parts of The Incredibles was how charming and authentic the Parrs felt, not just as individuals but as a family. And that charm and authenticity is in this movie as well. But in the original, we got to see the Parrs as a family engage with the story and its conflict. In the sequel, the Parrs are a quirky family or superheroes for most of the time, rather than being the quirky family of superheroes they were at the end of the last film. Bob getting more invested in his family is nice, and he rarely seemed deeply involved with his kids in the first film, so this is at least a step forward for his character. It just feels extraneous. The writers at Pixar didn’t take the time to work all these character bits into the story in any way, and that’s lazy because it leaves us with a bunch of stuff in the middle that feels aimless.

Violet also shows a little character growth in this film. Where in the first film she was too shy to talk to her crush Tony, now she’s putting a little too much of her own value in holding on to that achievement and when it slips away from her she’s crushed. By the end of the film we see her a little more confident in her own standing, willing to leave Tony on the street corner while she rushes off to help her family with a quick bout of hero work. Likewise, at the start of the film she’s irritated with being left in a defensive role but by the end she realizes that her skillset makes her more suited to play support than anyone else in the family and makes peace with it. These are both good character beats for Violet but we don’t see anything but the beginning and end of them, whereas the previous film clearly shows violet’s struggle with being confident and the very moment when she stands up and takes control of her fate on Syndrome’s Island. Also tying both of her character arcs back to Tony is kinda lame.

Beyond these poorly executed character arcs no one in The Incredibles 2 changes or grows. Dash’s desire to test himself from the first film was one of the most understandable and relatable things in the original, and he even got to formulate one of the film’s core ideas, that if everyone is special no one is. In the sequel he just gets distracted by gadgets. And Helen has something that could be a character arc, doing much of what Bob was doing in the last film and trying to push Supers back into the limelight, but again that doesn’t seem to challenge her in any way. Other than lampshading how it makes her a bit of a hypocrite, the story does not force her to justify what she’s doing in anyway or admit to Bob that he was right about how necessary bringing Supers back was. Likewise, while she misses JackJack’s first power, that’s never presented as a heavy moment for her. Helen just goes out, does some heroing, and comes home. It lacks weight.

In fact, the whole conflict in the film lacks weight. The original film made it seem like Supers were coming back already, a whole second film about making superheroes legal again feels extraneous. And the fights with the Screenslaver also lack weight. It’s not gory or in your face but the fact is, in The Incredibles people tried to kill each other and died quite a bit. There’s a suicide attempt in the first two minutes. Mr. Incredible finds the corpse of one of his friends rotted to a skeleton in a cave. A lot of Syndrome’s minions meet with fiery ends. That kind of immediate danger feels absent from The Incredibles 2 with its low impact mind control plot and general lack of menace. Perhaps that’s meant partly as a reflection on Evelyn, who is a pretty lackluster villain, but mostly it feels like the movie is just going through the motions.

There was an interview with Brad Bird which I recall reading in which he said the studio was open to making another Incredibles film so long as they could come up with a good story. At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now, I suspect that he had set out to tell a story he had strong feelings about and had worked out all the details for, but once it was over he had nothing more he really wanted to say there. The problem was, people (Bird included) loved the characters and world that came out of that story. So Pixar cast about for ideas about what to do with them next, and over time half formed ideas drifted together and formed the core of this sequel. Pixar is an excellent creative studio, so they were able to grasp all the charm and heart of those characters. But without a story to drive them forward a part of the magic was lost. The Parrs remain in very much the same place they were at the end of their first film and it’s painful to see. Maybe they didn’t need a sequel. Maybe there is a better format to try this with. But for now, I’m content to consider the Incredibles franchise complete. If Bird is wise he won’t reopen it until he has somewhere to go.

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Sequels

So I’ve been thinking about sequels lately, for the obvious reasons (starting Water Fall this week) and the not-so-obvious ones (check out next Wednesday’s post for more on that.)

The biggest question most people wrestle with is, how good is the sequel? But for the writer, the bigger question is, what makes the sequel good? In movies, sequel status is almost a death knell. For books, sequels are much more viable and, in fact, the publishing industry usually wants fiction to be serial in nature, rather than a bunch of stand alone novels, since the pre-existing audience makes selling the story much easier. On the other hand, even among books, the first book in a series is frequently viewed as the best, perhaps simply because the ideas and the presentation are fresh and the reader approaches them without expectations, or at least with fewer.

That’s not to say that there are no cases of a sequel being just as good as, if not better than, the proceeding works. But it’s a rare thing, and when it does happen most people are surprised because they recognize that it’s the exception and not the rule. So what are the things that set those rare exceptional sequels head and shoulders above the rest?

Well, as is so often the case, there are at least three main things (probably more, but humans like threes, so that’s how many you get.)

A larger story at work. There are many great examples of this, but I want to be consistent in this post and use something most readers will recognize, so I’m going to pick the classic Star Wars trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back is widely considered the best movie from the trilogy (not by me, but I still feel it’s at least as good as the original, although in different ways) so it’s fair to say it was a sequel that equaled or exceeded the original. One of the things that made it work was the fact that George Lucas wanted A New Hope to feel like part of a larger story. With a galaxy wide rebellion in progress, of which he basically only showed us one small part, it comes as no surprise to us that there’s more story.

Sometimes authors or film makers do a story, wrap everything up, publish and then realize they’ve got bottled lightning as their story just flat out takes off. This can result in awkward sequels getting written, because there was no more story planned for afterward. The simplest way to get around this is to set your story in a world that’s really, really big, with more than enough going on in the background to allow for another story or two. Of course, you can always be planning to slowly spin your stories into one, titanic mythos, as well… Whatever you do, it never hurts to make your world and characters bigger than the bounds of their story,

Excellent use of characters as a resource, rather than an obligation. There is a kind of compulsion, once you have a story you like, to include every aspect you liked about it in the next, especially in terms of characters. This is to be avoided. Your new story needs new characters to stay fresh, and to make room for them sometimes old characters will have to get less screen time, or even catch a busThe Empire Strikes Back introduced us to people like Lando Calrissian, Yoda and Boba Fett, while the droids and Obi-wan Kenobi got less screen time (although it seems we couldn’t give up Old Ben entirely, even if he was dead…)

Finding the right mix of characters to properly carry out your story is an adventure in trial and error, but as a general rule some kind of re-balancing of characters has to be done. Your main character is probably going to be a constant, although even that’s not an iron clad rule, but new faces have to crop up to give new dynamics to relationships, and old faces have to step back some in order to really make the sequel work.

New developments, as opposed to retreading the same ground. Coyote and Roadrunner do not have sequels, just variations on a theme. The situation must change some from story to story, or people will rapidly loose interest. Star Wars does this particularly well by starting off the second film with a Rebel defeat and chasing them across the galaxy while their heaviest hitter takes a break for self improvement. Then it throws a massive plot twist and a cliff-hanger ending into the mix for added impact. It’s this novel, heavy-hitting formula that makes it so many people’s favorite part of the trilogy. (It’s also only possible because it’s the second film in the set, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Carefully examine the pacing and plotting of your stories, and make sure they’re different from each other. It’s a good rule for all fiction writing, not just stories that are a direct sequel to something else. Also, make sure the plot points themselves aren’t too similar, and that different characters from among your leads and rogue’s gallery are making an impact.

Of course, there’s no recipe for instant great book, but with these three things in place, sequels begin to look a lot like books that stand on their own, rather than just a continuation of what came before. Once a story is judged on its own merits, the some of the stigma of being a sequel is gone. More importantly, by actively trying to make it as fresh as possible you ensure that the story is as good as it can be on its own merits, thus making it as strong as possible. Which is all a writer can really hope to do, anyways.