Let’s be honest: Superhero action was never designed for the physical world. Studios have done their best over the years, spending millions on “live-action” visual effects shots designed to mimic spectacle that originally cost a couple of bucks’ worth of ink and paper to create. But the end result has typically been massively budgeted movies like Avengers: Endgame that somehow offer only a pale shadow of what their counterparts in the world of animation had been knocking out for years in the action department.
At no time has that dichotomy been clearer than in 2018, when not just one but two animated superhero movies showed up to blow their flesh-and-blood competitors out of the water. Sony’s Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse won obvious points on style (and with the Academy) with its exaggerated color palette, heartfelt human element, and gorgeously composed shots that would fit perfectly in a comic book splash panel. But for the sheer thrill of watching superheroes in motion, saving lives and doing their thing, look to Helen “Elastigirl” Parr and Pixar’s Incredibles 2.
Pixar (and director Brad Bird) had already set an extraordinarily high bar for cape-and-cowl action 14 years earlier, filling the first Incredibles with explosive, weighty superhero battles—none more memorable than pre-adolescent speedster Dash’s escape from a horde of hovercraft-equipped goons through a hostile island jungle. Like that sequence, Incredibles 2’s best action set piece—which sees Helen Parr break out every move in her elastic arsenal to stop a runaway train threatening to smash up Municiberg—focuses on a single character. Both scenes also highlight an element that animation is fundamentally more capable of capturing: speed.
It’s not just that Elastigirl’s desperate motorcycle chase through crowded city streets—stretching and pushing herself and her bike to their limits in the process—moves at a breakneck pace. It’s that cinematographer Mahyar Abousaeedi’s virtual camera stays right there with her for every daring maneuver, offering up wide panning shots that capture the exhilarating kinetic energy of each flip, jump, and physics-defying leap of the pursuit. It’s hard to overstate how refreshing the clarity and focus of the camerawork here is: At every step of the sequence, we know exactly where Helen and her bike are, where the train is, and what dangers and obstacles stand between the two. Even the best live-action superhero movies let themselves get muddled when too many moving parts are introduced to the mix. The Incredibles 2 holds onto clarity with an intensity bordering on the superheroic.
All that, and it functions as a tremendous character piece, reminding the audience why Elastigirl is her family’s apex superhero. Her kids are powerful but untested; her husband is a well-meaning but bungling bruiser. But Helen Parr is a technician by necessity, dismantling problems with a cool precision conveyed, perfectly as ever, by Holly Hunter’s no-nonsense vocal performance. As the chase ensues, Helen flips through options with her mission control team, escalating her responses as the available tools dwindle. Where Mr. Incredible might give himself a celebratory cheer after pulling off a move as cool as the building-grinding bike maneuver that gets Helen atop the train, she keeps her focus entirely on the mission. If there’s satisfaction at finally being well and truly back in her element, it’s conveyed not through self-congratulatory crowing but through the steely determination with which she throws herself into the next step of the task.
Like much of Pixar’s sequel output, Incredibles 2 can never quite match the emotional stakes of its predecessor; the film’s messaging veers wildly, with lots of conversations about “good laws versus bad laws,” the role of stay-at-home dads (?), and a villain whose major complaint against the heroes is that relying on them means you won’t call the cops if you’re in danger. (Woof.) But as a movie about people with superpowers using those powers to do stuff, it’s essentially unimpeachable—and a strong argument for the idea that animation is the natural inheritor of the comic book action throne.