These are tough times for people who care about truth and justice. Unrelenting bad news is taking a toll on us.

I think we can assume that some of the writers at work on superhero movies — perhaps most of them — share our concerns. Can’t you sense it in the storylines of recent franchise movies? DC films have a reputation for being dark and grim, but recent Marvel movies—which are more inclined towards wit and whimsy—are taking a harder turn. Villains are becoming more dangerously persuasive, even sympathetic, in their justifications of violence (Black Panther’s Killmonger, for example). Heroes are finding that things are just too complicated for clean solutions of KAPOW! ZAP! and BANG! In fact, superheroes seem increasingly willing to compromise citizens’ privacy, to consider the benefits of cultural isolationism, to let dissension fester in their own ranks.

What’s more — heroes are losing and dying at alarming rates as supervillains gain more power and find their weaknesses. (See Avengers: Infinity War).

It’s as if artists and audiences alike are finding the very idea of the American hero — or any hero at all — difficult to believe in anymore. How many superheroes have served as symbols of our dreams of “liberty and justice for all”? What happens if nationalists and white supremacists persuade the public that these values are nothing more than a “Deep State” conspiracy?

In view of this, I’ve been both excited about and anxious about the long-awaited return of the Incredibles.

The Parr family are back to save the reputation of superheroes. Can they?

Sorry, Spider-man. Deal with it, Batman. The Incredibles are my favorite superheroes.

Bob, Helen, Violet, Dash — they made it clear in 2004’s The Incredibles, Pixar’s first and (until now) only superhero movie, that they fight for truth, justice, liberty, and excellence. And they do so as a family, caring for one another and learning from each other. Brad Bird’s blockbuster Pixar movie, which I first reviewed for Christianity Today on its opening day, remains the most enjoyably satisfying superhero film I’ve ever seen. I stand by what I wrote back then:

As a comedy, a family film, a social commentary, a superhero movie, and as an animated feature, this movie excels. Just as Mr. Incredible and his nuclear family prove they’re equipped to save the world from evil, the “dream team” of Brad Bird, the brain behind the overlooked masterpiece called The Iron Giant, and John Lasseter, director of both Toy Story movies, looks poised to defend family entertainment against mediocrity through what we can only hope will be a long-running franchise. The joy they find in working together is obvious, and it brings radiance and vitality to every frame of this film.

I did not, however, highlight then what I’ve come to appreciate as one of the film’s greatest strengths: The artists are as invested in the little, everyday, human moments between characters as they are in the big ones, making the Parrs fundamentally engaging as humans rather than just as superfreaks.

That the animators placed this family in a context so ebulliently retro saves The Incredibles from seeming like a frantic attempt to be “timely and relevant.” In matters of design, music, and even gender politics, the movie recalls 1950s America. But it isn’t the 1950s: It’s a style, an ethos, a mode — an Edna Mode, to be exact. It’s a wonderland that works, like the New York of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, by being every big American city at every stage of its history… all at once. The Incredibles established that these characters can do something better than directly comment on our breaking-news realities the way Spider-man: HomecomingBlack Panther, and Avengers have recently done. They exist in a kind of timeless, imaginary America, reminding us of the ideals that have brought out the best in Americans, making us us laugh about the narrow definitions we’ve outgrown, and inspiring us to long for and salvage the ideals we are losing (like the freedom of lives untethered from screens, for example).

As a result, our interpretations of what the Incredibles’ adventures might mean can be a little more… elastic.

And, yes, if I had to pick a favorite Incredible, I’d choose Helen Parr—aka “Elastigirl.”

Elastigirl’s new motorcycle has some flexibility of its own.

I’m weary of macho superheroes, their rivalries, their burdens, and their furrowed brows. I’m weary of the women of various superhero franchises who seem required to be superheroes and supermodels… while audiences wonder which superman they’ll end up loving.

Elastigirl’s strengths lie in her versatility: she’s a superhero wrestling the challenges of crime-fighting, a wife wrestling the challenges of marriage, a mother wrestling the challenges of parenthood. She’s the most spectacularly realized superhero I’ve seen, not just in her character and personality but in the ways in which her powers are portrayed by visual artists. Her action scenes are more inventive and surprising than any other comic-book hero’s onscreen exploits.

What’s more: She makes the best use of Holly Hunter’s voice since Raising Arizona.

So, yes — since Incredibles 2 gives Elastigirl more attention than any other character, I love it. It’s all kinds of fun to watch writer/director Brad Bird turn Helen Parr loose on a solo adventure for almost half of the movie, during which she demonstrates the full, flexible range of her superpowers. Her Stretch-Armstrong pliability brings out the best in Bird, who routinely elevates action-comedy sequences in ways that seem, well, superhuman.

And within its first hour, Incredibles 2 delivers the most glorious big-screen action we’ve seen in years. When Elastigirl infiltrates the villain’s lair, trying to learn what makes a threat called The Screenslaver tick, we’re treated to a spectacular, ferocious battle that strobe-lights an adrenaline rush. It’s a wonderfully scary and distinctive clash — and at that point in Incredibles 2, I’m absolutely delighted to find that my 15 years of dreaming about this movie were not in vain.

Spider-man once saved the passengers of a runaway train. Can Elastigirl?

But this isn’t Elastigirl: The Movie.

Incredibles 2 is a film about a family — as it should be.

Family is the Parrs’ greatest superpower; the synchronization of their gifts reveals the advantage of teamwork. And they have to fight not only their enemies but also the fickle, skeptical, disrespectful culture they’re seeking to serve. Bob (voiced perfectly again by Craig T. Nelson), Helen, Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner), and newcomer Jack-Jack (whose powers are more unpredictable, surprising, and hilarious than we’ve been led to expect) are funnier and more fantastic than most heroes, and yet they feel more grounded in the real world than any other superheroes, due to Bird’s interest in the potential of their everyday challenges. As he did fifteen years ago, Bird wants his fantastic four — correction: fantastic five — to accomplish great things within their relationships even as they scramble to understand, track down, and overcome a formidable threat from the outside. He’s so good at weaving separate storylines together, we end up as invested in Bob’s success at home with the kids (helping Dash with his math homework, managing Violet’s boyfriend crisis, and keeping up with Jack-Jack’s variety pack of powers) as we are in Helen’s world-saving shenanigans.

As usual, their powers seem intriguingly symbolic of ways in which they exist in the world: Bob (Mr. Incredible) serves his family as a father of strength and passion. Helen (Elastigirl) does what the best moms do through spectacular multi-tasking. Violet, a teenager who worries about going unseen at school, uses invisibility to her advantage. Dash, who moves as fast as most adrenaline-fueled boys, has some impulse control issues that can be both a strength and a weakness. Then there’s Jack-Jack, whose unpredictable and destructive capacities will seem familiar to anyone who has been a parent.

Bob’s heroics happen at home this time around… at least, for a while.

In this film, they do more than exercise these strengths: They learn and they grow. Bob, for example, will have to learn to step aside and let Helen do hero stuff while he holds down the fort. Helen will have to trust him to learn the hard way while she’s gone.

When Helen jumps on a shiny new Elasticycle and blasts off through heavy traffic, Incredibles 2 assures the fans who have been waiting for this family’s return that the action, at least, isn’t going to let them down. Her pursuit of a runaway train is the most exhilarating sequence I’ve seen in a long, long time; I actually applauded—twice—during that scene. It may not build to the emotional resonance of a similar train-crisis in Sam Raimi’s Spider-man 2, but it’s ten times more inventive and surprising.

And that may be the best way to sum up my enthusiasm for and disappointment in Incredibles 2.

Yes, disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Incredibles 2. I’m not contradicting myself. I smiled all the way through the end credits, dizzy on an overdose of Incredibles goodness. But in the hours after leaving the theater, I realized that its superior action is undermined — pun fully intended — by how its themes get lost in the mayhem. The movie is not much greater than the sum of its parts.

The parts are first-rate: That opening train chase? Breathtaking. Helen’s first fight with the supervillain? Thrillingly frightening. Bob’s attempts to help Baby Jack-Jack fall asleep? Laugh-out-loud funny. Baby Jack-Jack’s first fierce solo battle with a neighborhood menace? It’s an homage to the giddy madness of Chuck Jones’s Looney toons (an influence I observed in the first film as well). The climactic battle, while familiar in concept, is executed with inspired hyperactivity.

Let me highlight an almost arbitrary moment that captures the genius of this film: Brad Bird cuts from a wild helicopter-focused action scene to a closeup of Bob serving breakfast waffles. Viewers are on the edges of their seats throughout the spectacularly choreographed aerial action, and then, a split second later, they literally gasp at the glory of those beautiful waffles. When Brad Bird is running a Pixar movie, every moment gives us something worth praising.

Let me also encourage you to pay attention to Michael Giacchino’s magnificent musical score. It’s easy to overlook during the action, but this is first-rate superhero soundtracking. I look forward to hearing it as a standalone work. It will serve as motivational music on my car stereo during upcoming commutes.

Having said that, I must also admit that a story-arc issue has been bugging me like a mosquito bite, manifesting slowly and aggravating me more and more in the days after seeing the movie. My problem with this movie is that what served as the masterstroke of the original — its supervillain — is its weakest link this time around. The Screenslaver, despite making a grand entrance, just doesn’t qualify for any Supervillain Hall of Fame the way that Syndrome did.

Nobody can look away from the Screenslaver’s reign of terror.

For a long stretch of the movie, I was thinking that The Screenslaver might be the most exciting and interesting bad guy since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight ten years ago. At first that mask is creepy, that voice is compelling, and when the punching starts — yikes, look out! What a fast and furious characeter! Best of all, Screenslaver’s motivations were unsettling in their persuasiveness: During a major monologue when we hear his sermon on the dangers of being over-reliant on superheroes and overcommitted to screens, I’m thinking, Wow… I agree with this guy!

But then there’s a “Big Twist” in which the game changes considerably. We learn the monster’s big secret. And when we do, that sense of substantial and purposeful storytelling starts evaporating. Our focus shifts to the crisis of family members being turned against each other, and then our attention turns to the immediate (and familiar) concern of trying to stop yet another runaway vehicle. I’m left thinking, Wait… can a theme be a red herring? I *liked* what this movie was about for a while. Is it still about that? What’s it about now?

Violet has a crush that gets complicated this time around.

Another minor quibble: Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) gets a lot of action-focused screen time this time around, but what we’d really like is more time with his personality and sense of humor — or, even better, more about Mrs. Frozone, who remains nothing more than an offscreen voice of exasperation. (Having said that, I should add that Edna Mode (Bird himself) fares much better here, becoming a babysitter extraordinaire and giving poor Bob some important resources in managing his new baby’s volatile powers.)

Despite these second thoughts and misgivings, I can only conclude that the weaknesses here are a matter of “sequel bloat.” Audiences expect sequels to be bigger, louder, and, well… more. And Incredibles 2 delivers.

If you’re going for the action, you’ll get more than you bargained for, and that is a wonderful thing.

If you’re going for meaningful storytelling, you can have that too — more than usual, in terms of superhero storytelling. You’ll just find it’s somewhat muddled and diluted, by the “2 Muchness” of Incredibles 2. No, I don’t think the movie abandons its theme completely: The Screenslaver’s convictions about what happens when citizens give up their agency, failing to use their democratic powers against evil, and sit around waiting for “heroes” to save the day, remain relevant to the story and worth discussing after the movie. The villain’s sermon is not meant as a distraction; it’s just that the importance of that message is diminished in the distractions of predictable plot twists and somewhat-anticlimactic third-act craziness.

You’ll notice that I haven’t outlined the plot for you, and I won’t. Much of the pleasure of Incredibles 2 comes from the story’s surprising turns and blast-soda-through-your-nose laughs — particularly when they involve Jack-Jack. More comes from the ways in which the animators bring Bird’s multi-player action to life with breathtaking choreography.

Real News: Elastigirl is back in action.

And even more comes from what it all might mean for its audiences today. As sequels go, this may not be the heartbreakingly beautiful Toy Story 2-level masterpiece we might have audaciously hoped for. But that’s a ridiculous standards to hold anybody to, even the geniuses at Pixar. While Incredibles 2 ties itself in one too many knots, it gives us an urgent exhortation to stop watching and waiting for heroes to save us from dangers — whether that be a foreign menace or the “inside job” of this present darkening of democracy.

Halfway through the film, Edna Mode lectures Bob about his most important job: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.” This is also true, of course, for filmmaking. And I’m grateful to be living in a time when I can see one of animation’s greatest directors working like a virtuoso. I’m convinced that Brad Bird could have been a sensational professional basketball coach; he knows how to set up a cast of talented characters so that their strengths are complementary, and then he knows how to launch them into harmonious action in ways that will make the fans in the stands go wild. If the Incredibles were Bird’s own basketball team, they’d be the Golden State Warriors and the Harlem Globetrotters at the same time.

Since his last Pixar movie, he has shown his potential for live-action blockbusters with the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but also his capacity for miscalculation in the misguided sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland. Just as Elastigirl is stretched past recognition and restored to her proper definition, Incredibles 2 marks Brad Bird’s demonstration of spectacular flexibility — and his return to form.

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