December 31, 2004
Ayn Rand Watches The Incredibles
by Steve Damerell
The monolithic work of philosopher Ayn Rand's career, in the eyes of most, was Atlas Shrugged. Notwithstanding the higher literary virtues of The Fountainhead and Anthem, the 1100-page epic has come to epitomize Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, a set of ideas centered around the individual and the pursuit of rational self-interest. In the novel, society's most productive members, believing themselves to be demonized and taken for granted, isolate themselves in a miniature utopia (Galt's Gulch) and watch the world collapse without their gifts.
Apparently, Rand has developed a following somewhere in the recesses of Disney's Pixar Studios, because their latest smash hit, The Incredibles, takes mighty cues from Rand's epic. There is an immediate visual cue -- when the movie's protagonist, Mr. Incredible, returns to his forsaken life of crime-fighting in the public square, he is seen fighting a giant orb-shaped robot. At one point, he is on one knee, with the robot's body across his broad shoulders, barely held up by his hands. The throwback to Atlas's classic pose with the globe -- also used as the cover for Rand's novel -- is undeniable. But the film's ties to Objectivism are much more than skin-deep.
To begin with the basics, the movie revolves around a hero -- a concept that Rand greatly lauded over the muddy protagonists of most modern work. Mr. Incredible is by no means flawless, but he is shown to be exceptional in a world of mediocrity, as are the movie's other superheroes. The movie begins with the superheroes in their classic, comic book-esque roles: battling evil to the adoration of the general public. But the heroes are eventually cast in a bind by endless lawsuits, at which point public opinion turns against them and they are forced into hiding behind anonymous everyday lives.
And so we find the Incredible family -- Mr. Incredible working as a pencil-pushing insurance claims adjudicator, Mrs. Incredible (aka Elastigirl) as a housewife, and their children Dash and Violet forced to ignore their powers and meld into an unnatural school life. Mr. Incredible is repeatedly chastised for trying to do his job well and help people at the expense of the bottom line, at one point getting a demeaning lecture from his boss about being a cog in a giant clock. Dash is denied the opportunity to play sports because his power of super-speed means that he might excel. When he fights with his mother, pointing out that he is special, she insists that "everyone is special." Dejectedly, he looks down and mumbles, "then no one is." Similarly, Mr. Incredible gets in a fight with his wife, trying to intercede on his son's behalf, and bemoans the fact that the school stages a fourth-grade "graduation." This, he insists, represents the constant modern-day effort to find new ways of rewarding mediocrity.
These are classic Randian themes -- while Rand did not emphasize any concept that certain people were born better than others, she did lash out repeatedly against a world that celebrated mediocrity over achievement, norms over exceptionalism. And the active hatred of success, the theme upon which Atlas Shrugged's plot was built, is the very quandary in which the movie's superheroes find themselves.
On its flip-side, the movie's villain is also a classic Objectivist foil. Voiced expertly by Jason Lee, Syndrome is everything that Rand deplored in her novels -- a conniving, manipulative man who seeks personal gain without honest work or achievement. Also of note is that Syndrome is without superpowers (used to parallel talent), and actively begrudges those who carry their powers. At the movie's conclusion, Syndrome lauds that which Dash had bemoaned in the movie's opening -- his master plan to kill all the superheroes and stage a false save-the-world story for himself. At this point, he says, "Everyone will be special, and then no one is."
There are some challenging exceptions to the movie's Objectivist parallels. First, Mr. Incredible places high value on his family, a schema over which Rand frequently glossed in her works. Indeed, Mr. Incredible values his wife and children to the extent of frequently jeopardizing his life and his missions to protect their well-being. Rand provided room for such a scheme of values in her ethics, but seemed to be personally baffled by them, and none of her novel's "heroes" were people of family. A second exception is that the movie's heroes exist for more than their mere rational self-interest. To these men and women, protecting and benefiting their fellow humans is seen as an end in itself, whereas Rand's works viewed it as more of a neutral byproduct of rational behavior.
In this context, The Incredibles would perhaps best be seen as a form of "neo-Objectivism," taking the core concepts of achievement and self-esteem and working in a more explicit space for family and community. Doubtless, part of this effect is due to the need to make the movie palatable as family viewing, but in large part it is likely the true intent of the filmmakers to even out their message -- the individual should achieve and believe in their own power, but such does not preclude deep love or sacrifice.
It is this form of "neo-Objectivism" that may be best for the world. Rand's philosophy was deeply consistent, but it also left many cold vacancies where humans feel a natural streak of empathy and love. Pixar's light revision of these ideas, intended or not, seems to take the useful core of Rand's ideas and weave in some of the missing spots. And perhaps a new model could be extrapolated from there -- one in which pride, achievement, sacrifice and community need not be mutually exclusive. It may not have brought a smile to Rand's face (little did), but doubtless it would be seen as a vast improvement over a world where achievement is viewed with suspicion and resentment.
Steve Damerell is a Contributing Editor to The Free Liberal. He serves as Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia and is a former LP headquarters staffer. He served as Editor-In-Chief of his college newspaper The Swinging Bridge. He works as an analyst for a federal government contractor and lives in Fairfax, VA.
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