Superhero Rites of Passage and Other Momentous Ramblings

The IncrediblesI watched “The Incredibles” again a couple of weeks ago…or maybe last week…sometime recently. I don’t have much movie-watching time these days so which flick I pick for my personal viewing pleasure becomes a hard choice. If you have read my review of ‘The Incredibles’ on Epinions, you know I like the movie. One of the scenes that stands out is where Helen (Elastigirl) hands masks over to her children, Violet (Invisigirl?) and Dash (Speedy Dashales?).

Up until this point in the movie, Helen has been careful to teach her children not to use their super powers. Not even for good, because the government has forbidden the Supers from being super. The only times you see the kids really use their powers is when they misbehave. The movie clearly shows that any use of super powers is a bad thing because it’s illegal.

But once the family passes into real danger (not coincidentally becase Daddy Incredible has been breaking the law by using his super powers), things change. It’s now imperative that the children learn to use their powers for good and not for selfish reasons. Violet has already failed to perform once by this scene, whereas Dash did okay in getting himself, Violet, and Helen to safety.

Helen explains to the kids that play time is over. They are now in the real world where super-villains kill children who get in the way. It’s time for the kids to grow up and use their super powers for good. She concludes the lecture by handing masks to the children. They’ve already stolen their costumes and put them on. The message is that anyone can put on a costume. You’re not really a super hero until you have earned the recognition of being heroic (or at least capable of being heroic). The kids are put on a sort of probation status by Mom.

This reflects on the sub-story of Syndrome, Mr. Incredible’s nemesis. Syndrome’s diabolocal plot is to make himself super by killing off all the real super heroes and using his inventions to wow and amaze people. He never quite realized that being a super hero is not about wowing and amazing people; it’s about saving the world when the world is in danger. In their own ways, both Mr. Incredible and Syndrome underscore just how dangerous super powers really are. Mr. Incredible endangers the public with his rash, self-centered thinking; and Syndrome literally threatens the public in order to advance his career.

Mr. Incredible does a little (late) growing up in the movie as he realizes that there are more important and valuable things than simply wowing and amazing the public. He may have earned his mask once before when he left super hero school, but he forgot the most important lessons he had been taught. He had to be stripped of his mask and thus had to earn it once again.

The movie implies that only two of the original super heroes were morally just: Frozone and Elastigirl. Neither one was sued by anyone at the end of the Golden Age of Super Heroes (the movie implies at least a couple other supers were sued besides Mr. Incredible). And neither Frozone nor Elastigirl wanted to use their super powers again (Syndrome was able to entice most of the Supers out of retirement with the hope of reliving past glories, and they paid for that desire with their lives). Frozone only uses his powers reluctantly because of his friendship with Bob (Mr. Incredible). Helen does so only out of necessity as she tries to keep her family from becoming Federal inmates.

It is thus appropriate that Helen confers the mask upon Violet and Dash. She has remained pure of purpose. It is also appropriate that Frozone survive Syndrome’s nefarious scheme. He really does understand what the greater good is all about (and it’s not always about his wife).

It is very symbolic that Mr. Incredible, when he resumes his super hero career in full, cannot fit well into his costume. It’s not that he has outgrown the costume so much that he has failed to maintain the high moral standards for which he earned the costume in the first place. And he only reluctantly accepts a new costume. He doesn’t feel like he needs a new costume because he has already earned and trademarked a costume. But he’s tarnished that costume. He has even damaged it. The costume represents his reputation, and he has ripped his own reputation by illegally using his super powers.

Mr. Incredible only earns the right to wear his new costume (and mask) when Helen forgives him. I think that moment comes at the end of the movie, when she truly realizes that it is no longer all about Bob, it’s about Bob protecting others (his family first, and the public second). He comes full circle. He has been purified by his humiliating defeat at the hands of Syndrome, by his heart-felt remorse for his own stupidity, and by his newly regained sense of sacrifice. He would rather die than see other people get hurt.

These are moral lessons we learn and forget every day. We don’t have to be super heroes to earn the right to wear the mask. The mask represents an adult’s moral responsibility to society, to make a contribution without seeking personal gain and glory. Millions of people earn the mask every day. Millions of people are stripped of the mask every day.

The best that we can do is try to show that we deserve to wear the mask, and not to give up if it is taken away from us. You only lose the mask for good reason, and you only get it back for good reason. The choice is yours to make.