Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why Syndrome Makes the Perfect Nemesis

I've been watching The Incredibles a lot lately; this has something to do with the fact that my daughter comes home from preschool with the words, "Can I watch The Incredibles?" practically bursting from her lips. It's actually displaced Toy Story 2 from the top of her "never sick of watching" list, which I didn't think was ever going to happen. So I've seen it on a near-daily basis, something that's afforded me a few opportunities to think about what Brad Bird was saying with the movie.

One of the things that's interested me is the way that Syndrome, Mr. Incredible, and Dash all seem to have different surface motivations, but the same basic underlying drive. Mr. Incredible, of course, insists that he's being genuinely altruistic; he feels bitter about the public reaction to superheroes (which is actually a matter for another post, because the idea of "superheroes getting sued into retirement" is kind of a handwave, to be honest, but I'm digressing here) and wants nothing more than to go back to the way things were.

Syndrome, on the other hand, is bitter and resentful about the lack of emotional support from Mr. Incredible when he was younger. He wants to show Mr. Incredible that he's a better hero, and that if he'd been allowed to be Incrediboy, he would have been a huge asset to the cause of good--to prove that Mr. Incredible was wrong to dismiss his gifts.

And Dash? He just wants to show off. He wants the world to acknowledge his specialness, and to receive the adulation he feels he deserves for his amazing abilities. Which is a little childish, but then again, he's ten. When he grows up...

...he'll wind up either like Mr. Incredible or Syndrome. Because underneath their surface motivations, that's exactly what they want too. Bob Parr doesn't want to save people anonymously, just because they need saving; he does do that over the course of the movie, but only because he can't go out as Mr. Incredible anymore. He only really comes to life when he's wearing his super-suit, performing amazing feats for an admiring audience (even if that audience is just Mirage and her mysterious benefactor.) Deep down, he really wants things to be the way they were when the world looked upon him with quiet awe and adulation.

Syndrome, of course, makes a second career out of self-justification in the movie. Looking at his actions, he's a pathetic, needy child who needs everyone to praise him for his gifts. As Mr. Incredible points out, he's killing real heroes in order to create a fake villain that people will praise him for stopping. While he claims that he's doing it all for Mr. Incredible, there's never been anything to stop him from using or selling his inventions to make the world a better place; it's just that doing so won't give him the emotional rush that comes from crowds cheering his name. Deep down, he and Mr. Incredible are two sides of the same coin, which is why he makes such a perfect nemesis. (And thus I make good on the implicit promise in the title...)

The real hero of the film, of course, is Elastigirl. She's the only one who can put aside her costume easily, because she wasn't ever in it for the glory; she was a superhero when the world needed one, and only when the world needed one. She's tried to pass along to her kids the belief that it's what the world wants ("the world wants us to fit in") and not selfish personal needs that are important; nonetheless, when her family needs Elastigirl, she proves to be easily the most competent of all of them.


Unknown said...

Bravo sir, bravo. Not the most illuminating of comments, but you do deserve a "kudos." So, kudos.

sleepykitten said...

While I can easily see the logic behind that premise, I'm not sure I entirely agree that that is where at least Mr. Incredible comes from. (Syndrome and Dash, certainly, though)

If he were truly as narcissistic as you pointed out, would he ever have gotten married to another super in the first place? His purposes would be better served by either a) marrying a non-super civilian in a grand, public ceremony, or b) not getting married at all.

A civilian would *most likely* give him the praise he would crave and not be any source of competition whatsoever, basically being the stereotypical trophy wife. (I do say "most likely" because, inevitably, Frozone's wife Honey could be brought up as an example of that not happening. However, from what I see (as I watch it quite often, myself), Frozone was not quite as popular as Mr. Incredible, so his potential wife might be more easily cowed. Plus we don't know if Honey was another former super.)

Not getting married would grant him no other responsibilities except to save people and maintain his secret identity in order to eat and have some quiet time, therefore allowing his popularity to grow even more.

Instead, we see a quiet, simple affair with a few friends and the couple.

When I see Mr. Incredible, I see a man who has a sense of right and wrong, who, like the modern interpretation of Superman, he feels similar to a policeman or a fireman. He's just a guy doing his part. Because of the government mandate, he allowed himself to go underground and be "normal" but he still saw all the wrongs around him and, even anonymously, wanted to do something. The purse snatcher on the rooftop before his wedding springs to mind as an example of this. He didn't confront the thief in the city park or on main street. He found him on a rooftop, huddled against a wall, going through his ill-gotten gains. When he and Frozone help the people in the fire, he doesn't try to showboat his way out of trouble. The two of them run away as best they were able. The mugging while he was in trouble at his job and being yelled at by Wallace Shawn. His specific comment was "He got away." Not "There went my shot at glory." And what was he in trouble for, in the first place? He was helping customers at the insurance company get the help they sought, and apparently did this enough that Wallace Shawn was threatening to fire him over it. Had Bob been a pure narcissist, it would have been much easier to do it by being the best at his job and winning awards at his company, instead of secretly helping little old ladies find loopholes in process, then telling them to sound upset.

Yes, he comes to life when he's back in his super suit, but, for lack of a better metaphor at 4:30am, similarly to transgendered individuals, when he's in his super suit, he's expressing who he is on a fundamental level. He's no longer just trying to "pass" and be "normal." He is able to right some form of wrong. I saw the same thing in Elastigirl when the two of them were fighting Syndrome's giant ball robot. Helen could move her sense of right and wrong into a civilian mode better than Bob could, but it could easily move back into super territory when needed.

sleepykitten said...

I thought it was incredibly poignant of them to have Syndrome basically rehash Helen and Dash's conversation ending "Everyone's special/super." "Which means no one is." Syndrome was an egotistical twit, no doubt about it. He explicitly wanted the praise and adulation and the sense of being above everyone else. It speaks to his fixation that he didn't try another superhero either before or after Mr. Incredible that we know of. Only the best for Buddy, you know. Mr. Incredible's rejection tore into that, not just because he was denied the public's approval, but specifically, because he was denied the chance to work with the super that he considered The Best of The Best. Notice how, even all those years later, as Mirage is scoping out Frozone and discovers Bob, she specifically mentions "This is the one he's been looking for."

Buddy is still the perfect nemesis because his self-centeredness is the perfect foil to Bob's selflessness. Even his alias, Syndrome, shows exactly where he's coming from. According to Wikipedia, a syndrome is the association of several clinically recognizable features, signs, symptoms or phenomena that often occur together, so that the presence of a few points to the others being present. Syndrome's mega-maniacal attitude, his mercenary nature, and his underlying attitude of "if I can't be special, no one will" all point to a narcissism that I just don't see in Mr. Incredible. At least nowhere near the levels of Syndrome.

John Seavey said...

Well, he's definitely not as narcissistic as Syndrome, or otherwise he would have been paying off Bomb Voyage to commit crimes that he could stop and the whole movie would have been different. :) But that doesn't mean he doesn't have it in him.

That's usually how a good nemesis works; the villain is the hero's unrestrained id, the part of him/her that they keep under control because they're good people. Doom is all of Reed's intellectual curiosity and belief in the superiority of the mind, but unchecked by compassion; the Doctor and the Master both believe themselves to be superior to humans, but only one thinks that gives them a license to kill; even Luthor is something of a dark mirror to Superman, a titan of mind instead of body who thinks that he should rule humanity because of his great power.

So there is a part of Bob that's trying to be better. It's what we see when he marries Elastigirl (although tellingly, she reminds him of what it means to be part of something bigger than himself right before the words "I do," and in tones that suggest she's not entirely sure he gets the concept.) It's what we see when he works at Insuricare. But the other side of him is there, too--he does put a man in traction in a fit of pique (which is played for laughs, but is actually quite chilling when you think about it.)

Basically, Mr. Incredible has an ego, but it's (somewhat) under control, while Syndrome's isn't. That's what separates them.

Jim S said...

I have to agree with you sir. I always thought Bob was in it for the glory. He could have helped the world by being a teacher in a literacy program or raising money for charity or working at homes for homeless program in his spare time.

I find it interesting that writers of the movie said that a lot of what was written was in response to the self-esteem building things they've seen like graduation from the fifth grade.

Guys lighten up. But I do believe you've nailed it. Bob lies to his wife about his job, glories in the perks of free mimosa and such. He's very much in the game for the glory. Even when he has to confront giant robot, he's the one who has to do it alone because he's not strong enough to lose his family. Does he even think about his family and how they would feel if he were to die? It's all about him.

Michael Straight said...

I think another important piece to Syndrome's character is this lie he tells himself that the Supers look down on him because he doesn't have real powers. Mr. Incredible dissed him not because he wasn't a real Super, but because he was a screw-up who was putting people's lives in danger.

Similarly, the supers are not outlawed because society jealously resents them. They're outlawed for the same reason machine guns are outlawed -- because society thinks they are dangerous. In other words society is treating people who want to recklessly use stupid amounts of natural power the same way they do people who want to recklessly use stupid amounts of artificial power. In the end, the Incredibles are allowed to use their powers for the same reasons and under the same restrictions that a policeman is allowed to use a gun.

And again, when Dash gets in trouble for his bad behavior at school, his self-justifying cry is, "But dad says our powers make us special!" He mistakenly thinks that his special powers should put him in a special moral category. His mother rebukes him with the phrase "Everyone's special" which in this context has the same meaning as "all men are created equal" that is, all people should be equal in the sight of the law, all people deserve to be treated the way we treat those who are special to us.

Dash misunderstands this, thinking that affirming the moral worth of everyone and holding everyone to an equal moral standard is the same as trying to handicap his abilities. When he says, "If everyone's special, then nobody is," he really means, "If I'm special, I should be allowed to get away with behavior that gets other people in trouble."

Anonymous said...

Dash's failure to grasp him being in school sports is cheating reminds me of the argument Northstar and Aurora had over using his superpowers to become a champion skier was cheating. It isn't just the unfair advantage its the secret unfair advantage but then again if your competitors knew you had superpowers why the hell would they waste time and effort to be humiliated by you anyways. No one would play with you.
The end scene though where Dash does get to have an unearned victory over normal kids for the glory of winning a trophy and cheering crowds is an ethics screw up especially where he is reminded to pretend to earn the race, patronizing the competition.
Dash's glory also boosts dad's in the "that's my boy" pride way.

John said...

I don't know that Elastigirl/Helen is more heroic than Mr. Incredible/Bob. Yes, she puts aside her heroic persona, but she also turns her back on the greater world. While Bob continues to want to help others, Helen ignores others, contentedly playing housewife, oblivious to anything happening outside her home. Further, she's not paying much attention to her family -- she's oblivious to Bob's inner turmoil and utterly ineffective at dealing with her children. She's only heroic if you believe she's sacrificed her own well-being for the greater good.

Because Helen's just as incomplete as Bob. Where Bob sees no value in his mundane persona (and family), Helen has lost the values of her own heroic persona. She's living within a delusion, first thinking she has an idyllic traditional family, and then fearing that Bob is having an affair, and all along ignoring the needs of the people around her...even her family. To succeed within the story, she must rediscover (with Edna's help) Elastigirl's strength and heroism.

-- John Stepp

John Seavey said...

I disagree completely. Helen hasn't given up on helping people; she's accepted that her help isn't wanted and moved on. And she doesn't seem to be wrong, either; we don't see a lot of the world in 'The Incredibles', but it's not as though we see a significant increase in crime once the supers have retired, and judging by the way people react to the robot and Syndrome, it doesn't seem like supervillains have been running rampant without the superheroes to counter them. Yes, there's the occasional fire or robbery, but there was the occasional purse snatching or robbery back then, too.

As for being "oblivious to Bob's inner turmoil"...nothing could be further from the truth. She's obviously, transparently aware of Bob's inner turmoil, but you can't always fix the person you love. She tries. But by the time we pick things up, she's sick of trying and trying and trying and him not making the effort to meet her halfway. There's a very real sense, in the one argument we see, that we're seeing the ghosts of tenderness long lost to frustration and repetition.

Helen hasn't lost Elastigirl. She's just packed her up for when she's needed.