The Secret of Jack-Jack’s Powers Is the Smartest Part of the ‘Incredibles’ Universe
The following post contains some minor spoilers for Incredibles 2.
The big punchline of the original Incredibles is a little baby.
Everyone in film’s central family has powers, except little Jack-Jack, or so they all think. After he’s kidnapped by Syndrome, Jack-Jack fights back by unleashing a flurry of different abilities, including setting himself on fire and turning into a gremlin. Surprise! The baby is the most powerful one of all.
The first Incredibles ends right after this scene, before the full ramifications of this gag can be explored. That is left to Incredibles 2, where it becomes clear that Jack-Jack’s powers — and what they mean on a subtextual level — are the most interesting thing about the world of The Incredibles, and one of the ways Brad Bird’s superhero story is different than nearly all of its comic-book movie competition.
When Bird began developing the first Incredibles, he took a research trip to a comic-book shop. “I’ve got to think up new powers [for the characters],” he remembered at a recent press day for Incredibles 2. But after about a half an hour in the shop, Bird said he realized “every power has been done by somebody somewhere, even if it’s only self-published 100 issues in Ohio. Everything has been done.”
That led him to an epiphany: Instead of trying to create new powers, take classic superhero powers and use them as a means of expressing character. As Bird put it...
Men are always expected to be strong, so I had Bob have super-strength. Mothers are always pulled in a million directions, so I had Helen be elastic. Teenagers are insecure and defensive, so I had Violet have force fields and invisibility. Ten year olds are energy balls that can’t be stopped. And babies are unknowns; maybe they have no powers, maybe they have all powers, we don’t know. That’s what Jack-Jack was. He was seemingly the first normal one in the family, and then at the end of The Incredibles you find out that he’s the wild card, and a sort of Swiss Army Knife of powers.
The best and most interesting implication of this development: That Jack-Jack’s many powers would eventually be winnowed down to one power as he got older. As Incredibles 2 story manager Kathryn Hendrickson explained it to me at the film’s junket: “As Jack-Jack matures, his powers will settle as he figures out who he is.” That could also mean that Violet and Dash (and conceivably any super in the world of Incredibles) underwent a similar development process when they were babies. (The scene in Incredibles 2 between Bob and Edna Mode heavily implies this happened.)
Although Bird deliberately moved away from trying to come up with new powers for the Incredibles, his use of Jack-Jack is actually pretty unique within the world of superheroes, where characters usually only have one power, or at least a host of complementary powers that are carefully defined and permanently set. A “wild card” power is pretty rare. So is the notion that characters are born with many powers, and that one eventually comes to dominate as their main permanent power.
This is a fascinating notion. How does one power win out over the others? Is it chosen by the super? Is it the one they use the most? Is it the one that’s most useful to their living situation? Whatever the answer, it works perfectly within Bird’s conception of the Incredibles and the way their powers reflecting their role in the family and their personal view of themselves.
When people talk about how they want more “adult” superhero stories, this is what that really looks like; not a movie draped in dark colors or filled with graphic violence, but a smart filmmaker putting the iconography of superheroes to work in service of their themes and ideas. In the case of Incredibles 2, that includes gender roles, the horrors and pleasures of parenthood, and the notion that the baby is a family’s most powerful member. As a parent, I can definitely confirm: The baby is always the one with the most power in any situation (and also that they sometimes turn into a raging hell gremlin that wants to pull your hair out).
(Also, if the powers of the characters in The Incredibles reflect their life status, then that means Frozone has cold powers because he’s played by Samuel L. Jackson who is literally the coolest person alive.)
Gallery - 10 Super Incredibles 2 Easter Eggs: