It’s hard to say what Ayn Rand would think about our current superhero boom. On the one hand, the late author, philosopher, and progenitor of the Objectivist movement was a high-minded sort who disdained unserious thought. But it should not be forgotten that she saw power in the pulps.
Case in point: a Rand speech from the mid-1960s entitled “Art in Education,” in which she goes on an extended riff about sci-fi proto-superhero Buck Rogers. “It is easy to convince a child, in particular an adolescent, that his desire to emulate Buck Rogers is ridiculous,” she says in her Russian-haunted brogue. Disapprovingly, she says adults “convince him that, to be like Buck Rogers means to wear a space helmet and blast armies of Martians with a disintegrator gun, and that he’d better give up such notions if he ever expects to make a respectable living.” This is something of a tragedy. “If man is to gain and keep a moral stature, he needs an image of the ideal from the first thinking day of his life to the last,” she says. “In the translation of that ideal into conscious philosophical terms and into his actual practice, a child needs intellectual assistance or at least a chance to find his own way.” And bold, shining heroes like Buck can be just the thing.
Of course, we have to take a step back and ask what, exactly, Rand means when she’s talking about “moral stature” for a hero. Given how she praised egoism and individuality, surely she’s not talking about the kind of blind, self-sacrificing altruism of, say, Superman; nor the subordination to a patriotic cause of Captain America. She’s talking about an Objectivist hero, one who operates based on a set of self-empowering principles that never bend and, in fulfilling their self-interest, ultimately improves society as a whole. Most important, her heroes aren’t bashful about their strength — they know they’re different, better, and they don’t let the world hide their light under a bushel.
Which brings us to The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s 2004 Pixar masterpiece, which gets a sequel this weekend, has been held up both praisingly and derisively as a Randian work. The film follows a superpowered family who, in the wake of anti-superhero sentiment and a lawsuit, are forced by the government to stop saving the day and pretend to be ordinary humans. But when a jealous would-be super-champion named Syndrome tries to kill the patriarch, Mr. Incredible, and plots to make superpowers available to the whole world (“When everyone’s super, no one is!”), the family decides to show their hand and be the self-actualized super-people they were always meant to be. They triumph, and a grateful public rejoices.
From the very beginning, commentators saw Objectivist parallels in the story. In his review of the film for the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote that it “suggests a thorough, feverish immersion in both the history of American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” The Nation’s Stuart Klawans noted that the heroes are “like Ayn Rand railing against enforced mediocrity.” This analysis became a bit of conventional wisdom within the superhero commentariat, for better or worse — wander around the internet for coverage of the film and you’ll still stumble across headlines like “5 Ways The Incredibles Is Ayn Randian Propaganda.”
Before we go any further, we should point out that Bird thinks this is all total bullshit. “I think it got misinterpreted a few times,” he told IGN’s Andy Patrizio in 2005. “Some people said it was Ayn Rand or something like that, which is ridiculous.” That same year, he told writer Michael Barrier while discussing The Incredibles, “Sometimes I felt people got silly with their analysis of it, the Ayn Rand nonsense for example.” So prevalent was this discourse that, around the release of his 2015 film, Tomorrowland, it became trendy to write backlash articles about how Bird isn’t a Randian.
One thing typically missing from this ongoing conversation in mainstream film criticism: the voices of actual Objectivists. That’s not entirely surprising, given the generally liberal bent of top movie punditry. But we couldn’t help but wonder: What do Rand devotees think of The Incredibles? After conducting a very unscientific survey of a handful of current and former Objectivists, the conclusion seems to be that the movie is Randian, but not as Randian as you might think.
“You can see a connection to Ayn Rand’s philosophy,” says Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow for the Ayn Rand Institute. “These achievers, society fails to appreciate and even resents them. That theme exists in Ayn Rand’s novels, particularly The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But the story of The Incredibles, it’s not really focused on that. It’s focused on the family, not the wider society.” What’s more, in Ghate’s eyes, a truly Randian work would show how, without these exceptional individuals, “crime is going to run rampant,” thus demonstrating how bold individualists are pillars of society — “but there’s nothing like that in the story.”
Ghate also has an interesting nitpick, one having to do with Mr. Incredible’s secret identity. During his exile from superhero-ing, the man of might works for a morally bankrupt insurance company that screws over its customers. One might think of Mr. Incredible’s efforts to cut through that red tape on behalf of the screwed as heroic, but Ghate sees a larger problem in this plot point. “That’s a very stereotypical view of the insurance industry,” he says. “Rand’s view is that the whole field of business is a heroic field. You can have people who are bad actors, but business is creative and built the modern world. There are no parallels there — she has the opposite view [from the movie].”
“I think there are definitely Objectivist influences in there,” says Stephen Hicks, senior scholar for an Objectivist organization called the Atlas Society. In his eyes, the key parallel is the way the Incredibles improve the world by being themselves. “There are scenes with admiration of accomplishment, the respect for achievement, that strong belief that people should be free to do what they want with their lives,” he says. “That view that people who are awesomely talented, when we leave them free and respect them, that their accomplishments will be to the benefit of all of us.”
That said, Hicks points out that Rand’s fictional heroes had an important difference from those in The Incredibles: They were, to a certain extent, realistic. Her protagonists are exceptional, stylized ideals, but they’re not technically superhuman. Rand felt that, “if they’re going to serve a function of motivating us to be better in our own lives, there should be a kind of realism to it,” he says. “That it’s possible for me to take this role model or hero seriously because I can, in fact, become, if I work at it, as good as that person is.” The Incredibles, of course, “does go over into fantasy and the superhero genre, so you’re going into a different metaphysics at that point,” as Hicks puts it.
The most enthusiastic endorser of the Rand-Bird connection was actually a reformed Objectivist who abandoned that ideology right around when he saw The Incredibles in 2004. “I definitely noticed the connection when I saw it,” says John Perich, now a writer living in the Boston area. “The strongest note is the idea that the world needs these exceptional people to keep running.” Perich also sees parallels in the depiction of Syndrome: “He makes it explicit: I’m not just taking you on, I’m taking on this idea that there are special people who deserve special consideration.”
But when it comes to Syndrome, Ghate is skeptical that he fits the ideal of a Randian villain. After all, he, himself, is exceptional: He manages to build an entire island’s worth of murderous gadgets and gizmos. “He’s a standard Bond kind of villain, an evil-genius scientist,” says Ghate. “If you have that kind of mind and can create these kinds of things, as when he fights with Mr. Incredible and the others, he has built something incredible out of himself. That’s not the way Ayn Rand thinks of villains. For her, villains are impractical and incompetent. They don’t want to have to achieve and produce.”
And as for Incredibles 2? We won’t spoil it, but it’s not nearly as Randian as the first one. Bird has accurately described the new villain’s philosophy as “a little bit libertarian,” but it’s not really Objectivist, per se. Hicks is looking forward to seeing the film, but doesn’t expect it to be a primer for young potential Objectivists — nor does he want it to be. “When we go to the movies, I don’t think of it that way,” he says. “I guess in a general way, you want to go and have fun and you want the issues to be about good versus evil and you do want, in a general way, for it to be about learning about the different character types and the struggles and dynamics that are possible in life. But it’s not a sermon.” In other words, sometimes Buck Rogers is just Buck Rogers.