Super heroes deal with their appearances about as much as they do with criminals. Without glasses and a suit, Superman would never be able to take some time off. If Bruce Wayne didn’t have the batsuit, he’d be a good-hearted schmuck with a fresh shotgun wound in the chest. Walter Kovacs without his trench coat and spotted mask is just a kook walking around New York carrying a placard that announces “The End Is Near.” For Kick-Ass, he simply doesn’t want to look like a tool. I would call them vain, but I wouldn’t want any of them to rough me up (fictional or not, I like to cover my ass).
The heroes in Brad Bird’s Pixar debut, The Incredibles, grapple with these same issues of appearance and perception. We’re introduced to the heads of the Parr family when they were in their peak, the golden age of super heroes, allowing us to meet these characters as Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig “Don’t forget the T.” Nelson) and Elastigirl (voice provided by Holly Hunter). The film’s opening sequence, where the superhero dream of the lives they inevitably don't lead out (to the point of sheer inversion) gives way to a sequence that shows them in their element, doing what they do best: saving people, fighting crime, and living a life of action. It’s only when we see them relegated to the domestic Helen and the work-a-day Bob that things seem…out of place.
Helen appears to have made the adjustment from a career (super) woman to a mother whose eyes turn from a bustling metropolis to a house and her children fairly seamlessly. She might not like domestication, but she sure takes well to it. Bob is a completely different story. Usually the term “not fitting in” is a metaphorical statement, but poor Bob quite literally has to cram himself into his surroundings. Not in the cubical for the dry and boring insurance adjuster job the government has put him in to, not the dependable -- surely gas efficient -- tiny car that he’s forced to drive, and certainly not in the corporate culture that puts greed over the interest of saving people. When he’s pushed to the limit by his short-sighted (and short in general) boss, his hulking physicality can’t be reigned in any longer: through the walls of the office goes the boss, through the doors with a pink slip goes Bob.
One can hardly blame the former Mr. Incredible when he gets sent an iPad (let's not pull punches here) with a curious, Princess-Leia-to-Obi-Wan-esque plea for help from the mysterious woman keeping tabs on Bob. There is a prescient message that Bob does not realize, delivered right after the actual message, as the iPad self-destructs. This eradication device surely looks cool, but it’s not very practical, setting off the Parr’s sprinkler system. That theme is continued throughout the film, but is brought to life in the upcoming action sequence.
Mr. Incredible throws on his old duds, looks in the mirror, and expecting to see his Incredible self. Instead, it's all too clear that he has turned into an old dud. No matter the bulging waistline; he still goes about his mission amidst the luscious island greens and dangerous molten lava, even overcoming a thrown-out back to disable the robot he's tasked to destroy and attains the "super" moniker again. He returns to his family a much happier man. They don’t really question this sudden reversal in his mood, maybe because they’re rather busy with their own identity issues.
Each of the Parr children embody the appearance theme, quite literally. Violet is a shy girl who keeps to herself, lacking the confidence to talk to the boy she likes at school and hiding behind long, face-covering bangs. True to comic book form, her flaws become her powers, and the girl who feels like she’s invisible actually has the ability to become invisible. Even her gift of making force fields acts both as a way to externalize her want to be sheltered and left alone… and gives her something to do in action scenes.
Dash, her younger brother, has an issue that most kids his age have: an inability to slow down. Unlike other kids, he was born with supernatural burners. Pre-teen males have a variety of ways to distinguish themselves amongst the pack, but the easiest is a straight-up race. And here’s Dash (only in the odds of a comic could a child born as “Dashiell” grow up to be blindingly fast) who is exceptional but is forced to be average. One can only imagine the counseling bill these two would accrue. Oh, and Jack-Jack, the seemingly ordinary baby Parr, who, naturally, turns out to be the most powerful of all.
This theme is even illustrated on the dark side, embodied by the Jason Lee-voiced Syndrome. The former Incrediboy, ( from his Christian name of “Buddy,”) Syndrome is himself an illusion (or, if you’re being precious, a “Mirage”) based around what he perceives super heroes and villains should be. His villainous compound is perfect, isn’t it? Like a man short on… esteem, he does the baddie version of purchasing a long, giant sports car to compensate for his failings.
Even Syndrome himself is merely “playing the part.” As he tells Mr. Incredible, he’s not super, but he doesn’t have to be, as all the gadgets he has compiled make him super. Add in the cape, the suit, ray beams, and the ridiculous hair (which I guess we’ll call a "comb-up") and you have someone who believes that being a super hero is all in the accouterments. But just cause you look like one doesn’t mean you are one. All it takes is one malfunction with his super robot and he’s worthless, sending him running scared through the people he was supposed to “save,” all because he didn’t have the forethought to program in a fail-safe to stop his giant bot if he could not himself.
In the end, the Incredible Parrs unite to save the day. But how is that chain of events triggered? A fateful connection through no less an authority on vanity than their costume designer, Edna. If Bob didn’t want to have his suit fixed and spiffy looking, then he wouldn’t get his new suit with a tracking device, and the whole family (decked out in their own super suits) wouldn’t be able to find him, regroup, kick lots of ass, and head back to the city just in time to save it from the rampaging robot.
So maybe calling vanity a “sin” is a tad harsh, since without it, we’d all be doomed.