The Incredibles is the closest we've ever got to a cinematic equivalent to Watchmen - closer than even the comic book's own film adaptation. It's deconstructional yet functional, encapsulating yet unreplicable.
Of course, The Incredibles many influences. Fantastic Four is the most commonly-cited, with the Silver Age superheroics feeling ripped from the page at points - most obviously in the driving family dynamic and powersets, but also in more subtle ways like their next foe being Mole Man-riff the Underminer - but nearly every aspect of the film has some rooting in the contemporary media of Brad Bird's childhood: Syndrome's hideout is one gyrocopter away from Blofeld's base in You Only Live Twice, and there are undercurrents of Ayn Rand to some of the villainous ideas (that'll become important later).
Related: Read Our Incredibles 2 Review
But while those all come together to make a Pixar great, they're not the closest relation. Running through the veins of The Incredibles is Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel that simultaneously critiqued and reinvigorated the comic book medium. It may not be as prominent in the design-side as some of the other calling points - indeed, the pair are actually inspired by the same things - but on a narrative, thematic and cultural level, they can't be disassociated. In fact, if you put The Incredibles side-by-side with Zack Snyder's 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, it's the Pixar animation that actually hits closer to the book.
Up front, we're not saying that The Incredibles was necessarily made to be an animated Watchmen. Brad Bird hasn't really discussed the book at all, only ever saying any connections are unintentional. However, while there may not be authorial intent present, there are some unavoidable links that lead to a very interesting conclusion.
- This Page: How The Incredibles Is Really Watchmen
- Page 2: What Incredibles Does That Watchmen (The Movie) Doesn't
The Watchmen Parallels In The Incredibles
Watchmen is noticeable in The Incredibles' DNA from the very premise: retired superheroes are pulled back into the fray by a nefarious scheme that will see their kind wiped out for good. And, for all the familial backbone, the worlds are very similar. Both are, to varying degrees, alternate realities that diverge from our own some time in the 20th Century centered on the emergence of costumed vigilantes, and in the "present" of the stories (1962 and 1985 respectively), superheroes are illegal in the wake of a major public opinion switch, forcing the once supermen into mediocrity, hiding in middle-age. Even the underlying hero distaste starting with the police is there; the cops who Mr. Incredible helps in the first scene of The Incredibles begin to scowl when he ditches chasing Bomb Voyage for a prior engagement, a mirror of Watchmen's Keene Act.
As well as being rooted in some derivation of our present mired in political strife, both stories go to great pains to delineate themselves from other fiction: Helen Parr explains to her children that the men they're fighting are not like the "bad guys on those shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings", while Watchmen has an entire in-universe comic industry of its own. The reasoning is ostensibly different - The Incredibles uses it more to power the children coming into their own than direct commentary - but the rooted realism of both compared to their contemporaries (The Incredibles released the same year as Spider-Man 2, Blade: Trinity, Hellboy, Catwoman and The Punisher, only the first of which comes close to the mark).
If you drill down into the micro-elements of The Incredibles, you find copious Watchmen artifacts too: Edna Mode's infamous and influential anti-cape tirade is essentially an expansion on the death of Dollar Bill in Watchmen, a Golden Age hero gunned down when his cape was caught in a revolving door (an event subsequently dramatized in Zack Snyder's iconic opening sequence); the fire that Mr. Incredible and Frozone end up in early on also has several structural links to Nite Owl and Silk Specter's first mission after returning to their suits.
But if we're saying The Incredibles is Watchmen, then the biggest connection has to be in their villain. Adrian Veidt and Syndrome are both written as twists on the "Republic serial villain", with plans that center on tricking the fearful general population with an unimaginable threat against a metropolis to manipulate a new status quo. They have vast means, immense secrecy, and an unshakable will that overwhelms the heroes. The "alien" and Omnidroid weapons they use are dehumanized threats, both villains sacrifice loved ones for their cause (Bubastis and Mirage, although the latter doesn't die by nature of it being a kid's film), and the discovery of their plan chillingly comes after it's already in motion. Ultimately, for all the self-position - Ozymandias is inspired by Alexander the Great, Syndrome wants the glory of Mr. Incredible - both want to level the playing field of the world, removing their perceived imbalance.
The Watchmen Movie Got Every Except The Deconstruction
Before going further, let's establish one thing: the Watchmen movie is good. Long-believed unadaptable, that Zack Snyder managed to do a narratively faithful adaptation where the comic panels were essentially a storyboard is a minor miracle. His visual style suits the alt-1980s almost as well as 481 BC Greece, and the casting is (mostly) spot-on. Perhaps the biggest praise comes to the biggest change: the "alien" being swapped out for replica Doctor Manhattan bombs may seem like sacrilege, but as the book's decision was centered on it being a comic book - the creature was designed by kidnapped artists - it had no purpose being present in the film, with Snyder's chosen fix tying the overarching scheme more to the characters. The film released theatrically struggles to fully find its voice, but the Watchmen: Ultimate Cut, which readded deleted subplots and the entire Tales of the Black Freighter comic-cartoon, is probably the director's most complete work.
However, despite all that, there's one thing which, even in the four-hour version, Snyder didn't fully convey. He captures the themes of personal regret and global fear, but what's lost in the translation - and is why the graphic novel was deemed unfilmable in the first place - is the placement of the story within the medium and the form's development. Moore's tale was putting a looking glass up to what comic books are and exploring what the ramifications of the tropes and narratives it played with would have on real characters. You see this across his work - Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? was an earlier, lauded attempt - but in Watchmen the scale is staggering.
And little of it is Snyder's film. Why this didn't work on film is pretty simple: Watchmen couldn't be so directly adapted and applied to the then-present superhero movie genre simultaneously. Comic books in the 1980s do not match their cinematic adaptations in the 2000s, and so the best fit was to deal with everything else (this is also why the HBO Watchmen series isn't adapting the book in a direct way). The film gives Ozymandias a rubber suit with nipples in a nod to Batman & Robin (the trailers also used a version of that film's tie-in song), updates Nite Owl to be even more an impotent twist on Batman, and the decision for the villain's plot to be a big blue light is incredibly prescient, but it's mostly superficial referencing, with none of the character's arcs making a greater comment on the medium of film.
The result is a movie that's aged very well in the decade since, slowly shedding its divisive labeling, but is far from being a counterpart to its print source. Although, it could never be - because that already existed.
Incredibles Deconstructs Superhero Movies Like Watchmen Did Comics
As already established, The Incredibles has broad aspects of plot and themes from Watchmen, yet unlike the direct adaptation uses the pieces to tell an entirely original story. Being divorced from a comic book influence and instead rooting those ideas in Saturday serials, Bond and superheroes as viewed before their films truly exploded, Brad Bird was able to present a nuanced take of what a superhero movie is. With Mr. Incredible's failed murder of Mirage the morals that guide a PG-13 hero are pushed; with Syndrome's scheme the logistics of a villain in a grounded world - from the justification of their plan to the logic of monologuing when they are victorious - are recontextualized; and in the family life the limitations of Supers are drawn. This wasn't anything new to comic book readers per se, but it being applied in a movie with consideration for the story being a movie showed incredible understanding of these types of stories.
Indeed, The Incredibles has only gained more weight in the years since. The disgruntled fan as villain has evolved from basement-dweller cliche to commentary on toxic fandom, while the work-life balance the Parr's struggle with almost seems like a rebuttal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's move away from secret identities. The MCU, in fact, feels like an extension of The Incredibles thesis, with a similar balance of influences that has gone on to great success.
The cinematic Watchmen would never be a Watchmen movie - and that's OK. Both the 2009 and The Incredibles offer far beyond the meta-commentary discussed here. But if we're taking in the full impact of both, there's only one that's truly incredible.