Wick-Quoting #19: Technology vs. Family

What happens when you replace superpowers with technology?  Well, first of all, it’s not really a replacement so much as it is an addition.  In Shelly Chappell’s essay, “Fantasy Motif Metaphors: Magical Powers as Exceptionality in Disney’s The Incredibles and Zizou Corder’s Lion Boy Trilogy,” we are only interested in what she has to say about The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird.  “The motif of magical powers as exceptionality,” is what Chappell states as a fantasy motif metaphor in children’s fantasy literature, such as The Incredibles (Chappell 23).  The Incredibles is a film about a family with superpowers that takes down a non-Super (Super being the name that is used to refer to superheroes in the film) villain who uses technology to kill Supers in order to make himself a superhero.  This storyline is the epitome of exceptionality.  In the film, superpowers are rare and a natural born ability, not forced upon people.  Therefore, Syndrome, the main villain of the film, has an inferiority complex that causes him to force exceptionality upon himself through technology.  Syndrome’s efforts in becoming exceptional himself, threatens the Incredible family’s structure of life.  The mother of the Incredible family, Helen’s line, “Everyone’s special, Dash,” combined with his response, “Which is another way of saying no-one is,” tells spectators that even though this is an American family of exceptionality, they are forced to live a normal life, hiding their powers.  Syndrome disrupts this balance with an opposite mentality that even though he is without natural superpowers, he is still exceptional through the advanced technological equipment which he created.  He openly uses his technology physically in order to kill Supers (those with natural exceptionality), forcing the Incredibles to take action—disrupting their “normal” lives.  So, ultimately, it is technology which causes spectators to distance themselves and fear Syndrome.  It is technology which causes characters in superhero films to become so difficult to relate to and threaten family life.

In order to understand the negative impulses which technology brings, we must first discuss how technology impacted lives during the late 19th century in modern cities, from Ben Singer’s article.  During this time, the shock of modernity was common.  The introduction of the streetcar brought a number of concerns and horror.  According to Singer, illustrations of accidents showed not only the body before death, but the look of horror on the bystander’s faces.  These illustrations stressed both the dangers and nervous shocks of city life (Singer 83).  It seems as though technology always comes hand-in-hand with fear.  This is understandable, considering how people fear at first what they do not understand.  Similarly, Syndrome’s physical powers through his technological devices strike fear in the characters and audiences because it is something that all people are not used to.  His technology is an extension of himself, something unnatural which distances him from us as spectators.  And like the streetcars, Syndrome’s weapons cause inconveniences for the one who uses them (even being the cause of Syndrome’s own death in the end from the combination of his jet boots and the jet’s intake).  The fear of the streetcar eventually subsided as the fear of the automobile closely followed (Singer 83).  Fear eventually slips away after a certain amount of time passes, allowing people to confront and overcome the object of fear.  In Syndrome’s case, however, we as spectators are not given enough time to become familiar with and brush off his weapons.  More time is needed in order to dull our senses by hyperstimulus.  After all, we are only given approximately 115 minutes to cope with the fear of the machine.  Re-watching the film only restarts the element of fear from the beginning to the end by secondary identification with the protagonists.

Singer writes in his essay, “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and Popular Sensationalism,” that “in the modern environment, death could drop from the sky, inexplicably” (Singer 84).  We know this to be true from the example that Singer gives about the death of a little girl whose skull was pierced by a rusty steel rod, atomic bombs used in WWII, and technology shown in fantasy worlds of superpowers.  Therefore, technology constantly makes us aware of the dangers of modern life, and that at any moment it can be the cause of our sudden deaths.  This constant, unpredictable fear is directly linked with technology, meaning that a person who creates and controls technology is a person to be feared.  Syndrome, with his technology, destroys the family life of the Incredibles by giving them constant fear for their lives.  The Incredibles take action in order to rid themselves of this fear.  Therefore, technological advances interrupt normal, family life.  We, as people who live in a modern world and have a family life ourselves, can relate to the interruption that technology brings, siding us with the Incredible family and forcing us to both hate and fear the enemy.  After all, it is the television that causes family members to become quiet and uncommunicative during family dinners and the airplane which literally helps separation between family members.

Syndrome contains, as I mentioned before, an extension of himself in technological form.  For Marshall McLuhan, we must accept technological form as an extension of ourselves, as he states in “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis:”

…use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it.  To listen to radio or to read the printed page is to accept these extensions of ourselves into our personal system and to undergo the ‘closure’ or displacement of perception that follows automatically… By continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms.  That is why we must, to use them at all, serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions. (McLuhan 68)

So in one way or another, we all embrace technological form, whether it is through surfing the internet, listening to the radio, or playing the Nintendo Wii.  Syndrome uses his own advanced creations, which are like a mirror images, or projections of himself.  He created his technological weapons in order to carry out his goal of ruining Supers.  His weapons were made for a purpose, the same purpose which he devoted his life to for 15 years.  And as Agent Smith says in The Matrix Reloaded, “There is no escaping reason, no denying purpose, because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.”  The reason why Syndrome exists and the reason why Syndrome’s technological creations exist are one and the same.  So, like the Greek myth of Narcissus, Syndrome becomes a closed system with technology.  Narcissus is viewed to be cold and distant of others, only caring for himself (or the image of himself).  Syndrome is similar, but for him, it is technology which causes his unfortunate drift.  To “serve these objects, these extensions of ourselves, as gods or minor religions” is something that should stir fear (McLuhan 68).  It is gods who are portrayed to be all-knowing, being able to control our lives.  It is thus a scary thought to not be able to have control over ourselves and having to treat objects of technology as deities above us.  Even Supers with amazing powers do not strike the same kind of fear in us, because their powers are a part of themselves—it is them.  Their exceptionality is natural, but even so, we know for a fact that Supers are no gods because we as individuals cannot make direct use of their powers.  And even when Supers save people, Supers also use people to build up their own image.  People use Supers to live a little more safely while Supers use people to serve their honor and duty and be loved by the people.  Both sides benefit.  With machines, however, only one side really benefits—the people.  Technology gives a false identity of godlike power; but it is not natural, it is manmade.

Is it really technology that makes Syndrome such an evil, unlikeable character?  The Joker, one of the most popular villains from one of the most popular superhero franchises, Batman, is a likeable character, despite him being a villain.  I remember watching The Dark Knight at the midnight showing where there were three instances of people applauding during the film.  One time was, of course, during the conclusion of the film, when the credits rolled.  The first time was when the Joker first appeared in the film during the bank robbery sequence.  The remaining time was when the Joker offered his services to the mob and left the room with bombs attached in his suit.  Two out of the three times were in direct response to the Joker’s screen time and the last time is partially also due to the Joker’s overall role in the film.  What makes the Joker such an enjoyable figure to see?  The Joker, unlike Syndrome, contains Batman’s secret desires.  Also, the Joker does not use technology to defeat his opponent, but careful planning instead, and of course, knives, which allow him to engage in a much more personal relationship with his victims.  So by just comparing the Joker and Syndrome in a technological viewpoint, what do we get?  Knives vs. zero-point energy.  One is a lot simpler than the other.  The Joker uses his knives and planning to disrupt Batman’s way of justice.  Batman’s family is untouched by the Joker (not that Bruce Wayne has a family).  Syndrome uses his technology and planning to disrupt Mr. Incredible’s family.

Green ligh... not

I never really was on your side

Not only does technology distance Syndrome from the spectator as an unlikeable character, it also distances Syndrome from his opponents.  With his zero-point energy, Syndrome is able to inflict harm on Supers while being a safe distance away.  The Joker, on the other hand, uses primitive knives, which forces him to make direct contact with his opponents in order to inflict pain and kill them.  We as viewers relate with the main protagonists (the Incredibles and Batman) through secondary identification, more so than we do with the villains due to formal techniques and story elements.  An example is a shot-reverse shot with Batman as he talks to Gordon and Harvey on a roof.  So, in a way, we are the protagonists.  We feel the distance that Syndrome puts between himself and the protagonists.  We feel the breath of the Joker on our necks as he is about to knife a defeated victim.  Therefore, our distance with technology and those that use it is also literal.

Towards the end of The Incredibles, the disruption of technology on the Incredible family is literally seen when Syndrome attempts to take Jack-Jack, the baby of the family, away to raise him as a sidekick.  Syndrome is able to undergo this act with the help of his jet boots that give him the ability to fly.  Technology threatens the family by assisting Syndrome in stealing away the baby.  This makes Syndrome an even more hated figure for trying to take a baby away from his mother.  Ultimately, it is Jack-Jack’s natural response with his newfound powers that overwhelm Syndrome and free Jack-Jack from the evil grasp.  Natural exceptionality prevails even between a baby and a grown man with his toys.

Although we push ourselves away from Syndrome due to his pure evilness by technology, Syndrome is still relatable to us spectators in certain ways.  He is not born with exceptional superpowers, so instead, he gazes upon Mr. Incredible as the fan boys inside us do when we watch Superman on the silver screen.  It is only when after his help is rejected by Mr. Incredible and that we learn that this innocent child, Buddy, becomes the unlikeable Syndrome.  His response of falling into technology to get his revenge is something which most of us wouldn’t do.  So, once Buddy got involved with machines, he becomes dislocated with the spectators as one of the evil villains.

As Chappell mentions, Buddy, or Syndrome, can only try to become exceptional by using technology to enhance his limited physical powers.  Syndrome being defeated by the Incredibles gives spectators the idea that people who are born without powers shouldn’t try to become superheroes, or they might become villains; “only those who are authentically exceptional should be allowed to express their individuality and use, rather than gain, power” (Chappell 25).  This is the opposite view that the recent film, Kick-Ass, contains.  However, the reason as to why Kick-Ass works and the characters like Hit-Girl are allowed to express their individuality even though they lack powers is because they also lack technology, of course, not counting Kick-Ass’ use of a jetpack and bazooka.  It’s no wonder Hit-Girl is one of the better characters in the film.  She being a little girl, spouting derogatory words, and lacking advanced technology is what makes her so fun to watch.

Although technology makes our lives better and brings us together online, it also causes us to be distant with one another.  Syndrome is viewed to be pure evil because of his association with technology, making him hated even more compared to more renowned villains such as the Joker.  While the Joker’s motive is to “defeat the Bats,” Syndrome’s is to destroy Super’s way of life from what it already is.  Syndrome’s reason, or irritant, is that he was not born special or exceptional.  His extension is to desire for physical power – to become a superhero and be accepted.  He does so with technology, which is viewed as cheating in the film where Supers are naturally born.  Technology is something to be feared (it can kill you in the modern world, as Singer points out), and it is something that can break the family.  The Incredibles can be read as a criticism of real-life efforts to control and redistribute exceptionality (Chappell 24).  From Syndrome’s example, it is clear that technology and redistributing it only brings misfortune.  Technology in superhero films is ultimately what causes villains like Syndrome to be unlikeable.

Works Cited

Chappell, Shelley. “Fantasy Motif Metaphors: Magical Powers as Exceptionality in Disney’s          The Incredibles and Zizou Corder’s Lion Boy Trilogy.” 2008. Print.

Macluhan, Marshall. “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis.” Understanding Media. Print

Singer, Ben. “Modernity, Hyperstimulus, and the Rise of Popular Sensationalism.”

Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa Schwartz. University of California, Berkeley: California, 1995. 72-99. Print

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