Countless articles and books have exposed the injustice of egalitarian policies, from affirmative action to "comparable worth" pay. Economists have documented their destructive effects. Newspapers bring daily reports of egalitarian lunacy: a school that won't post honor rolls, lest it be sued by parents of C students; SAT tests "re-normed" to boost the scores of minorities; a teacher hauled up before a college court for using the word "niggardly," taken as a slur by semantically challenged students. None of this seems to have done much to stem the egalitarian tide.
Who would have thought that an animated film would finally touch a nerve, putting egalitarians on the defensive? That is the achievement of Pixar Studios' new hit, The Incredibles, the story of a family of superheroes who struggle against the reign of mediocrity and finally break free to excel. Along the way it skewers the dumbing down of schools, the mantra that everyone is special, and the laws that give losers special status as victims.
The movie begins with a droll conceit: Superheroes with miraculous powers have been put out of action by the very people they saved from fires, felons, and other fiascoes. With the help, naturally, of trial lawyers, these "victims" brought a rash of lawsuits against their saviors for incidental injuries and "wrongful rescue." The former heroes are now living in suburban obscurity under the government's Superhero Protection Program, forbidden to exercise their powers in public.
Bob Parr, formerly Mr. Incredible, works as a claims adjustor in an insurance company, commuting in a beat-up sedan barely large enough to hold his still-immense bulk. His wife, Helen (Elastigirl), stays home raising the kids, who also have superhuman powers. The family chafes at their enforced normality. Dash, the grade-school son who runs like a rabbit on speed, is angry that he can't join the track team lest he reveal his special power. "Dad says our powers make us special," he complains to his mother. "Everyone's special, Dash," she says, and he mutters, "Which is another way of saying that nobody is."
Bob sneaks off at night to fight crime with an old superhero buddy. When Helen tells him he’s missing a meaningless ceremony at Dash's school, he grumbles: "They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity." Its only a matter of time before Bob accepts a secret superhero mission, one that eventually draws the entire family into a battle with a surprising villain named Syndrome.
Syndrome was a young wannabe in the days when superheroes flourished but, lacking any special powers of his own, wasn't admitted to the club. Now, filled with resentful envy, he has been eliminating the retired superheroes one by one. Like a James Bond villain, operating from a high-tech desert island lair, he has invented technology that neutralizes the superheroes' advantage. He has also invented an indestructible weapon he can use to get even with the world, demanding money, power, and respect. When Bob is lured to the island and trapped, Helen and the children come to the rescue, and the whole family saves the day in a wonderfully orchestrated blur of animated prowess.
Pixar's computer-generated animation is stunning throughout. The Parrs' struggle with family life gives the characters depth; the dialogue is witty, the action inventive. No wonder the movie is a runaway hit, with revenues of nearly $178 million by its third weekend out. But the most interesting thing about it is the controversy it stirred.
In this respect, the film's distinction is not that it features exceptional characters doing heroic things. Such films are a dime a dozen, from comic-book classics like Superman to the latest thriller. What’s distinctive is that it explicitly defends the value of talent and achievement against the leveling values of egalitarianism. In doing so it has unleashed a storm of commentary, pro and con, by reviewers, commentators, and bloggers.
New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott said the film suggests an "immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand." In the Nation, Stuart Klawans sneered : "The superheroes are in hiding because greedy trial lawyers sued them into retirement; and, while concealed, they chafe at their confinement, like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity."
Scott and Klawans were among the many who cited Rand as a point of reference, and possible inspiration, for the movie's theme. To judge by the discussion of The Incredibles, Rand is known as much for her unapologetic love of excellence as for her ethic of self-interest and libertarian politics. She was indeed a great admirer of human achievement, and, as a consequence, defended the rights and the honor of the highest achievers. Her goal as a novelist, she said, was "the projection of an ideal man." In the world she created in Atlas Shrugged, the economy comes to a halt when the most productive people go on strike against the altruist moral code and its demand that they serve as keepers of their less able brothers.
Rand also understood the envy and power lust that fuel egalitarian doctrines. In an arresting scene in The Fountainhead that has particular relevance to The Incredibles, her power-hungry villain Ellsworth Toohey explains one of the techniques he used to break the spirit of individuals and make them willing to submit to the collective.
"Kill man's sense of values. Kill his capacity to recognize greatness or to achieve it. Great men can't be ruled. We don't want any great men. Don't deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most, inept-and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection.... Don't set out to raze all shrines- you'll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity-and the shrines are razed."
The Incredibles elicited predictable howls from the egalitarian Left. One blogger saw the movie as a page out of Nietzsche: "The strong, the movie suggests, should be allowed to thrive outside the false laws and values of the weak, acting according to their own superior, self-generated code." Another complained that the filmmakers were "apparently oblivious to the critiques of the Nietzsche/Rand/Nazi undertones beneath every superhero from Superman on down.... There’s a huge difference between respecting difference, and instructing the weak to honor the inherent superiority of the great." Peter Conrad, a writer for England’s left-wing Guardian, wrote a particularly nasty commentary on the superhero genre. "The superman is a man of power, which means that from the first his mission was political. . .. Superheroes are instinctive bullies and despots," he claims , like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or George W. Bush or America as a world power.
In The Incredibles itself, however, there is no sign whatever that the heroes are interested in power. Nor of course did Ayn Rand believe that great ability entitled a person to control others, as she made abundantly clear in distinguishing herself from Nietzsche and defending the rights of all people to live as they choose. Egalitarians insist on reading elitist political motivation into every work that recognizes differences in ability because of their own collectivist blinders. If one assumes from the outset that the group is the primary unit of existence, which controls the lives of individuals and gives them their identity, then indeed there are only two basic choices: an egalitarian society with democratic governance or a hierarchical one with aristocratic governance. But the assumption and the dichotomy are false.
While The Incredibles has a theme to warm the hearts of Objectivists and has made the right people angry, it is not Atlas Shrugged. For one thing, the heroes are not productive geniuses who create value through exceptional ability in art, science, business, or invention. They are traditional heroes who ward off the destruction of value by criminals or natural disasters. The film's only scenes of work are of Bob in his miserable insurance company cubicle and of his conflicts with his boss, a Scrooge like caricature of the greedy capitalist who wants to tum down every customers claim and watches indifferently when a man is mugged on the street outside his window.
In fighting crime and rescuing people, traditional heroes embody the classical virtues of the warrior, especially strength and courage, combined with the altruism of the Christian knight, dedicated to protecting the weak. In a review for Box Office Mojo, Objectivist Scott Holleran accused The Incredibles of altruism on this score, because the superheroes are engaged in "saving lives as a moral duty for the greater good."' It's true that the Parrs risk their lives to help others, battling a villain portrayed as a selfish monster. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that their deeper motivation was the joy of exercising their powers just as someone might choose to practice medicine, a profession whose goal is to heal the sick, because he loves the challenge of the work.
Bob embarks on his heroic exploits not because others need him but because he needs to break out of a life he finds stifling. It was, after all, an ungrateful public that consigned him to that life in the first place. Indeed, many liberal commentators complained that the film’s superheroes are loo selfish in pursuing self-realization rather than service. A hostile article in the New York Observer, for example, quoted liberal author Richard Goldstein: "And what is The Incredibles? It’s really a movie about people sort of bursting out of this model of decency and concern for others, and all of those values that now get labeled politically correct, and bursting forth with their true strength and power, like an animated Hobbes. "
The one unambiguous flaw in the movie's conception of heroism lies in its portrayal of the villain. Syndrome has invented technological marvels, like boots that enable him to fly, a fortress run by computers, and a ray gun that traps its target in an anti-gravitational force field. Though he puts these tools to evil uses, they are obviously the product of exceptional mental ability that makes the superheroes' athletic gifts seem crude by comparison. By invoking the stock figure of the evil genius, the filmmakers have signed on to the conventional view that intelligence is at best amoral. Had they simply omitted any character of heroic mental powers, they would have conveyed a merely limited conception of heroism; by introducing such a character and making him the villain, they have offered a distorted conception. In an extraordinary moment near the end, Syndrome says his goal in inventing the technology was to destroy the superheroes by enabling everyone to do what they do. "Everybody will be super, which means no one will be." In that one line, writer Brad Bird managed to equate murder and invention as acts of envy driven hatred, and to elevate native physical abilities over the exercise of man’s distinctive ability to think, create, and magnify his powers through technology. The latter is an especially bizarre statement for the wizards at Pixar to make.
But it's only one line. Write it off as temporary insanity and enjoy the rest of the film.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.