Movie Superheroes, Take II: The Best and Worst of PG

Given my son’s love of superheroes, shared by my husband and, to a lesser extent, me, I am happy to have something positive to say about one or two recent films. I was thrilled to see The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl ads, knowing that there was emphasis on both a boy and a girl superhero and that the film was rated PG not PG-13. I was not disappointed when I went to see the film, which was more creative than most superhero flicks, offering a fantasy scenario that had touches of Roald Dahl meets Narnia meets Tim Burton meets The Phantom Tollbooth…or something like that. Nothing radical or entirely unexpected but a good time for all watching a child learn that he has more power and self-confidence than he thinks. And though it strayed into gender stereotype (especially Sharkboy’s macho aggression and Lavagirl’s feminine insecurity), it did offer more than the typical fare for kidflicks and the superhero genre. (That both Sharkboy and Lavagirl are played by actors whose first names are the delightfully gender-neutral “Taylor” [Taylor Lautner and Taylor Dooly, respectively] is particularly nice.)

The film exemplifies the fact that Hollywood (in this case Columbia/Sony) can put out a superhero film for kids, including the excessive toy marketing, and have it work. I like that it’s directed by Richard Rodriguez, who showed that Hollywood can also do action-adventure for kids via the Spy Kids franchise, while also doing the ultraviolent Sin City for adults. If the same guy can differentiate between what’s appropriate for children and what’s not, and the same studio can differentiate, then let’s keep differentiating, ok?

Between Spy Kids and Sharkboy and Lavagirl (chronologically and conceptually), there is, of course, animation—or, rather, its turn-of-the-millennium replacement CGI. And The Incredibles did offer a child-friendly superhero flick, I suppose. Problem for me was that I hated it. Tons of positive reviews, glowing in fact, even from folks I expected to see at least a little critical insight from (yes, Lisa Schwarzbaum, I’m talking to you).
In a nutshell, I found the gender politics of the film positively reactionary. The character of Helen Parr goes from life as Elastigirl to wide-hipped superwife and Mom (able to carry laundry baskets throughout the film with amazing ease!) with barely a whimper. The lesson? Women can be superheroes too, but no biggie if they can’t anymore and have to just stay home and yell at the kids and Dad—who acts like just another whiny kid himself. And don’t give me that “It takes place in the 50s/60s” crap as a response to this critique: it’s an alternate universe that just looks like the Reagans came to stay permanently. And it could have been otherwise if all the damn creators hadn’t been the same middle-class whiteboys that wrote and directed the too-male Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Incorporated. That no female toys get to go on the adventure in Toy Story and that no female character gets to be a scarer (or even an assistant!) in Monsters, Incorporated just can’t be stated loudly enough. And despite Ellen Degeneres’s delightful voicing, Dori the braindead fish in Finding Nemo just doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better about how women fare in Pixarland.

Now, if both Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible (Bob Parr) fared equally poorly in The Incredibles, I don’t suppose it’d be quite so hard to take. But oh no. As I read it, The Incredibles is basically the story of how post-Civil Rights/post-Second-wave Women’s Movement America has destroyed the white middle-class male. Poor giant-of-a-man Bob is crammed into a cubicle that is both literally and symbolically crushing him, just like his name (Parr).

Of course, there’s little trace of the effects of the movements that have apparently crushed him, as Mrs. Parr cheerfully yields all her power like a happy housewife stereotype from post-WWII USA (Rosie the Riveter becoming Stepford Wife without a pause at Gloria Steinemland). And the token Frozone and his never-seen but too-loudly-heard shrew of a wife just make plain that Black is still second-best and barely part of the neighborhood, let alone the American Superhero Dream.

Why is it so few people commented on this painfully obvious leap to the Right? And why didn’t director Brad Bird do better? Hell, The Iron Giant had some nice touches of military critique and a non-traditional family to boot.

Now, I do feel a bit reassured by the new superhero flick for kids: Sky High. Yes, it’s equally white and sexist but better in its cultural critique of America’s middle-class. It shows the typical horrors of high school in delightful Disney fashion, including popularity contests, nasty gym coaches, and lunchroom fiascos. It also has boys hold all the aggressive powers with girls as back-up (Layla and her make-things-grow power is femininity personified, chasing a boy who hasn’t a clue and doesn’t deserve her ever; Josie and her ability to fly…and nothing else). But, it does make fun of bad middle-class gendered parenting, as Mom delivers empathy and lectures to Dad, and Dad hands out an X-box to validate his son’s machismo after a fight. I like that Mr. and Mrs. Stronghold are lousy parents, obsessed with their own powers and being the best real estate salespeople they can be. They’re utterly clueless and the film doesn’t deny there’s something wrong here. Sadly, of course, everything turns out just fine in the end, so there’s no radical critique here. But it’s better than The Incredibles, at least. If I can’t have Leftist attack, at least this isn’t Rightwing mania.

Steven Strait as Warren Peace was my favorite hunky beefcake in the film. Between his flame-on powers and his utter gorgeousness, I couldn’t stop looking. What the heck was wrong with Layla that she preferred milktoast to spicy Tribe lead singer?! Again, that’s the whiteness factor kicking in that seems sadly so unavoidable in these flicks. Sigh. Guess I’ll go watch an episode of Static Shock and wait for the live-action version to come out one of these days.


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Stavner said...

How much do you know about Ayn Rand? There was a big controversy about Randian themes in "The Incredibles" when it came out.