Monday, July 15, 2024

What Happened to the Supervillains?

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Spoilers for The Incredibles 2 below!

Back in 2004, when The Incredibles first came out, I was visiting with my grandparents. I was 14 at the time, and my grandfather took me to see the movie at the old dollar theater that was in their town. I saw it every night for nearly two weeks straight. This was right before he had his heart surgery, and was still incredibly active. I would sneak in leftover Halloween candy and buy popcorn. My brother and I even got to sit in the (probably condemned and dangerous) balcony one night because the theater owners recognized us.

To this day, it’s one of my favorite childhood memories. I know practically every scene and line from that movie by heart and I did something I had never done before for a movie when the sequel came out: I went to the movie on opening night. Of course I watched the first one beforehand, just to make sure I could remember everything.  During those viewings though, I was left with a question that’s been bothering me for the last fourteen years. And, thanks to the sequel, one that I think I finally have an answer that satisfies me. That question?

Where did all the naturally superpowered supervillains go?

In The Incredibles 1 and 2, the heroes all seem to have ‘natural’ abilities and the villains all seem to have some form of tech. From Syndrome’s robots to Bomb Voyage’s explosives, The Underminer’s drill and The Screenslaver’s hypnosis, the villains all use technology. And when they aren’t ‘supervillains’, the villains seem to be generic robbers and muggers. But we don’t see anyone like Magneto or Black Adam. So the question then becomes “What happened to the supervillains with natural powers?”

Before I answered this question, I set some personal rules for myself. First, I assumed that supervillains had to exist at some point in this universe. Second, they all ‘vanished’ at the same time or a little bit before or after the heroes did. And third, these villains had ‘natural’ powers comparable to Mr. Incredible or Elastigirl. Super intelligence may count as a power, but it’s not really something that can really help you take a punch. Keeping these points in mind, I eventually came up with three different theories. I ended up finding the the third theory the most plausible and the most likely intended answer, even if it didn’t fit my criteria.

Option 1: They were all assassinated.

In this scenario the government, either using normal human assassins or black-ops super teams, tracked down supervillains and killed them. This was the first theory I came up with and at first blush seems like it would make a lot of sense. After all, the villains just seemed to completely vanish around the same time heroes did. Clearly something must have happened to them.

Except there are more than a few holes in this theory. The first hole I noticed? When this mass murder would have taken place in the timeline. As we saw in the first movie, Bomb Voyage was still around and committing crimes on practically the eve of the government shutdown of superheroes, so it couldn’t have happened beforehand. And if it happened after heroes were forced underground the government would have a hard time convincing heroes to help. Some heroes might have even joined with the villains at that point.

Besides the basic lack of initial motivation, at least some of the heroes had a moral obligation against killing. These two facts by themselves are enough to kill the theory. But there’s another, final aspect that is the final nail in the coffin for this theory: The continued existence of certain supervillains. If the government killed off supervillains, they would have killed them all. They might have overlooked Syndrome or Screenslaver, but people like The Underminer would have been targeted for elimination right away.

So supervillains weren’t killed off. That leads us to the second option, namely:

Option 2: They were brought underground with the heroes.

In this scenario, the government offered clemency and protection for any villain that stopped doing villainous activity. Similar to witness protection programs where their identities would be changed. They could even monitor tech-based heroes easier this way. Confiscate their weapons, and watch in case they started stockpiling nuclear reactors.  My first thought when I came up with this theory was sort of a reverse of The Incredibles. A family made up of former super villains who got married and had kids. And as much fun as that hypothetical movie was, this theory fell apart almost faster than the first one. The main problem with this theory is the question of why.

Why would supervillains, particularly those with natural, innate talents for destruction, go quietly? Some of them would, to be sure, but for some the ego trip of being ‘the bad guy’ is too great to resist. If Mr. Incredible couldn’t resist doing some illegal hero work, would the villains really be able to resist robbing a bank, for old time’s sake?

Compounding the fact that some villains would have a hard time giving up the access to cash that comes with simply taking it from innocent people. And with the villains with natural powers, how would you know if anything happened? Yes, a building burnt down, but you don’t see any signs of a heat ray, and buildings burn down all the time. The government would have to strictly monitor every supervillain (expensive). Or, pay them consistent, large bribes and hope they keep their word (expensive, and unpopular with the public). With all this in mind, it was clear to me that bringing them underground wouldn’t work either.

It was here that I was stuck for years. I couldn’t think of a way that the natural supervillains ‘vanished’ and keeping my three criteria in mind. That was until I decided to drop one of my criteria. Just one. And once I did that, I finally hit upon a theory that not only makes sense to me, but provides some context for some scenes in The Incredibles. And that was:

Option 3: There were no ‘natural’ supervillains, only tech based ones.

I had actually considered this idea first, but dismissed it right away as being ‘illogical’. Surely, in a world with superpowered people, there would have to be some that used their powers for evil, right? This was my logic for years, until I stopped and asked myself why there had to be supervillains with natural powers. The Incredibles isn’t the real world after all. After the initial skepticism wore off my second question was how such a world could be. Why would people with supernatural powers decide to only use them for good? To answer this question, I performed a small thought experiment. What’s stopping most people from becoming evil and hurting others? Fear of punishment for some, yes. But for the vast majority, the answer would be “Because it’s wrong.”

I took that basic idea that most people are innately good and scaled it up: That the presence of superpowers renders the superhero psychologically incapable of abusing their powers for their own self-interest. Take Violet and Dash for example. The kids, despite being younger and both having powers that would make abuse incredibly easy don’t do anything more malicious with them then a few pranks. Indeed, all Dash wants to do is try out for sports so he’ll have a productive outlet. Even Jack-Jack, who can’t even talk yet, has this. Once he has his powers, he first act isn’t to steal cookies. No, it’s to defeat the ‘burglar’ stealing from the family trashcan.

Pictured: Said burglar trying to escape from justice.

Note that this doesn’t mean that the superheroes in The Incredibles world are right all the time. Mr. Incredible makes lots of mistakes and questionable judgement calls throughout both movies. It just means that when the chips are down, he’s not going to use his powers to hurt innocents or to make his life easier at the expense of others.

This idea of ‘making your life easier at the expense of others’ seems also to be the common thread of the villains we see in the movies. Syndrome says that wants everyone to be super, but that’s not quite true. He wants to sell his inventions. He made his fortune selling weapons so that groups of people can overpower others. His very mercenary nature is what separates him from altruistic nature of the heroes. The Screenslaver has similar motivations, drawing heroes out with promises to help them and then enslaving and exploiting them for their own selfish ends. Self-interest vs Altruism seems to be the primary motivation in the fight between heroes and villains in the movies.

“I never look back darling, it distracts from the now.”

Of course, all of this is just my personal theory. There’s a very good chance that a future Incredibles movie will feature a supervillain with superpowers. (And given the success of The Incredibles 2, a third movie doesn’t seem that far fetched.) Until it is disproven though, I will personally use it. It fits the evidence we’ve seen, fits the theme of the movies, and doesn’t assume too much malice on the part of the heroes. I’m also interested in hearing your thoughts. Think my theory is crazy? Did I forget something pretty obvious? Leave a comment and let me know! In the words of one of the best characters from the movie: “Confront the problem! Fight! WIN! And call me when you get back darling, I enjoy our visits.”

Images Courtesy of Pixar Studios and Walt Disney Studios

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