line in The Incredibles belongs to the villain, Syndrome: “When everyone’s super, no one will be!”
Pondering this idea made me suddenly realise that The Incredibles is suffused with a thoroughly Tory sensibility. By Tory I mean not the political party once led by Margaret Thatcher but the old-fashioned political philosophy drawn from Cicero, whose most famous English exponent was Edmund Burke and whose most reliable extant voice is American columnist George F. Will.
For The Incredibles is truly Ciceronian. Cicero believed in the “Four Personae” theory, which sees each person’s identity bound up in four elements. One of those was special traits and talents.
For we must act in such a way that we attempt nothing contrary to universal nature; but while conserving that, let us follow our own nature, so that even if other pursuits be weightier and better, we should measure our own by the rule of our own nature. (On Duties I.110)
Cicero’s whole political theory is based on this notion that there are some people (with extra talent, extra intuition, and a semi-divine, extra-keen understanding of natural law) who should be the natural ruling class of a society. These, of course, were what the Roman patricians were supposed to be (On the Commonwealth I.35).
Cicero’s theory of societal origins is even more explicit: he believes that men originally “wandered around the fields like beasts” depending on brute force and not physical strength, when
a man—great and wise I am sure—became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievements if one could develop this power and improve it by instruction. Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honourable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then, when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk (On Invention, I;1–2).
Cicero believed that it took a “great man”—a superhero?—to corral mankind and bring them into the all-important “social concord” of optimates and plebeians which must be maintained in order to have a stable and long-lived society. (On the Commonwealth, II.69a)
That social concord is upset in The Incredibles. All of the “supers” (strongman Mr. Incredible and wife Elastigirl included) have been forced into hiding—stuck in boring suburban neighborhoods, working in dead-end paper-pusher jobs, unable to reveal their super-strengths, and generally suffering under a giant burden of mediocrity. The Incredibles’ children, living under the surname of Parr (literally, “equal.” Does equality mean dullness?), blessed with powers of invisibility, force-fields, and super-speed, have to keep their talents hidden. When son Dash complains that because he’s special he can’t be fast, Mrs. Parr says, “Everyone’s special, Dash.” He replies: “That’s just another way of saying nobody is.”
The social concord threatened, villain Syndrome aims to bring it crashing down. He is not a super, and as a child was rebuffed as a nuisance by his hero Mr. Incredible. Syndrome subsequently devoted his life to developing technologies that would allow him—and everyone else, regardless of special talent—to be ”super.” (The film’s main plot is about his efforts to demonstrate his superiority to the Incredibles and to exact revenge for Mr. Incredible’s long-ago rejection of him.)
Syndrome’s attempts to be super have devastating consequences for the city, but even he realises that he’s aiming at something else. By raising everyone to the level of the supers, he will eliminate superheroism. His great villainy in The Incredibles (besides the small-fry stuff of trying to kill the family) is that he wants to artificially eliminate the social concord and break down society as it is.
The Incredible family, then, represent the old order, the optimates of their society, charged with ruling well and exercising their talents judiciously. The Incredibles must therefore be in support of this anti-egalitarian political philosophy. The runty, dull, mundane common people in The Incredibles can’t be trusted: they’re seen as stupid and naïve enough to get rid of their protectors, blinded by visions of punitive damages dancing in their heads. Would you trust them to govern? If not, then you’re like me, and you’re no fan of democracy.
That puts us between a rock and a hard place, doesn’t it? Small-“r” republicans and small-“d” democrats are at odds. An authentic, Ciceronian republican would have no part in any kind of egalitarian project like democracy in which all have equal power. A true-blue democrat would never subscribe to any notion that there are “special persons” out there with some kind of innate qualification for rule.
Who says kids’ movies aren’t political?