The Incredibles: Who Cares About John Galt?

Pixar, throughout the years, has produced more than its fair share of exceptional films. In my mind, one movie in particular rises above the others. The Incredibles, released in 2004, has everything I could want in an animated film, and indeed, in any film; action with a sense of something at stake, romance with consequences, and brilliantly written characters and a plot which invites the audience to experience something…incredible.

Moreover, the film possesses an intricate and engrossing commentary on the ethics and values associated with Objectivist philosophy, which may (or may not) have been evident to anyone familiar with the work of philosopher Ayn Rand.

Allow me to provide only the barest background into the admittedly labyrinthian intricacies of Objectivist thought. In its most basic form, Objectivism (as far as values and ethics are concerned) holds that there are three virtues which make it possible to honor the ultimate Objectivist value, that is to say, one’s life. These virtues are rationality, productiveness, and pride*. Rand believed that no man of integrity could live without these three virtues and hope to live his life to the utmost.

Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s magnum opus published in 1957, is also referenced through the film as it remains to this day the most complete and comprehensive guide to Objectivist thought. In it, Rand portrays a world in which society’s most productive members have been demonized and have therefore chosen to go into hiding in order to watch a civilization which champions mediocrity to crumble from the inside.

Now, in the case of The Incredibles, the superheroes have been forcibly driven into hiding and are no longer allowed to use their powers which once set them above their fellow man. From the beginning, Mr. Incredible is punished for using his intimate knowledge of his insurance firm’s inner workings to help people who are in need, because the though the company’s profits may suffer. He is discouraged from that “sacred” virtue, productiveness, in the name of the greater good (at least from the point of view of his tyrannical employer).

Likewise, when Mr. and Mrs. Incredible argue over whether their son, Dash, should be allowed to go out for sports, Mr. Incredible laments the fact that theirs is a world in which the mediocre are heroes while the strong are themselves oppressed. He goes on to say that only those who are truly exceptional should be celebrated and acknowledges the fact that Dash’s superpowers may give him an advantage, but argues that his son’s success should not be limited by the inability of others.

There are, however, natural exceptions which disqualify this film from being about Objectivism. One such exception is the fact that the protagonist, Mr. Incredible, believes that saving people should be done for its own sake, whereas Objectivist ethics would imply that he himself should be gaining something from that endeavor.

If you’ve never read one of Rand’s novels, I do recommend it. The Fountianhead or Anthem is a good place to start. But be warned, do not accept everything you read as fact, even when Rand may present it as such. And would you kindly remember one last thing for me? We all make choices, but in the end…our choices make us.

*Paraphrased from an essay by Rand entitled The Objectivist Ethics. (1961)

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9 thoughts on “The Incredibles: Who Cares About John Galt?

  1. Grass Oil by Molly Field August 22, 2012 / 2:34 am

    We just watched The Incredibles the other night after not seeing it in a couple years and it’s by far, my favorite Pixar film. I love Finding Nemo too, but the lines and EDNA! OMIGAWD, I LOVE HER! are just fantastic. I think of The Incredibles every time I consider my childrens’ success and my interest in it: is it healthy? Vicarious? Great stuff. Love The Incredibles.

  2. Hamish Downie August 22, 2012 / 4:43 am

    Interesting, despite having read “Atlas Shrugged”, I never saw the connection until now.

    The Incredibles could be re-released. Especially in this world where, again, we seem to value mediocrity over the truly exceptional.

  3. Julia August 24, 2012 / 1:37 am

    Hmm, that didn’t occur to me when I watched it, either–but I completely see it now that you have pointed it out. It could also be considered a commentary on the values of “Harrison Bergeron,” which doesn’t implicate the altruism exception.

  4. Ish August 24, 2012 / 3:44 am

    This is one of the things that stops me short of signing on to the Objectivist bandwagon. If Mr. Incredible, believes that saving people should be done for its own sake (and we have every reason to beleive he feels that way) then he IS gaining something from the act. Personal gratification might not seem that great a reward to a dyed-in-the-wool Randite, but for my and my personal libertarian values, it’s just as valid a reason to do anything as you please.

    (The Incredibles also stars Sarah Vowell, she may be as liberal as they come, but man, I could listen to hear read the New York City phonebook and be entertained.)

    • Albert Cantu August 27, 2012 / 7:26 pm

      I don’t necessarily think the two are always mutually exclusive, but in some instances I think doing a thing for its own sake and doing something for personal gain can be very different. For example, if society says that saving people is morally right, we can (using the values of society) assume that saving people should be done for its own sake. On the other hand, an Objectivist might suggest (using the values of Objectivism) that saving people should only be done if the individual doing the saving can gain something from the endeavor whether it be power, prestige, money, etc. I guess the most important thing to keep in mind when considering these different viewpoints is that morals and ethics are completely relative depending on the values that the individual chooses to uphold and that the values of society may not always translate, so to speak, when considering the values of a different school of philosophical thought, like Objectivism.

  5. dvdiva August 25, 2012 / 12:50 pm

    This is what I consider the best superhero movie and it is my favorite Pixar film. I never thought about it in reference to Rand before. Thanks for your neat perspective.

  6. sanclementejedi August 26, 2012 / 4:06 pm

    I love me some Incredibles, but sort of consider Rand to be a bit of a blow hard hypocrite, considering she signed up to receive social security and medicare, when she got sick and the chips were down. Other founders of American libertarianism sus as Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson both rejected benefits as a matter of principle.

    In some ways I think a better comparrison to The Incredibles would be the short story Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

  7. Albert Cantu August 27, 2012 / 7:37 pm

    I’m not eager to get into a discussion about the principals behind Rand’s decision making, and indeed there were many, many inconsistencies, but at the same time I don’t think that Rand should be compared to the founders of the Libertarian Party. To the best of my knowledge, the founders of the Libertarian party borrowed some elements of Objectivist thought, although Rand herself attempted to distance herself from the movement.

    As for Harrison Bergeron being a more apt comparison, I think you may be right, although I was trying to fit the ethics of The Incredibles into a (more or less) clearly defined and codified system of value, in this case Objectivism.

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