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A Family of Heroes

May 9, 2009 | by Alan E. Oirich

There's a little bit of Judah Maccabee in the Academy Award nominated film, "The Incredibles."

Hollywood has given two Academy Awards to this winter's story about a family of five that takes up a fight against evil, championing their right to be different.

Funny, that's been the number one winter story for Jews for more than 2,000 years.

"The Incredibles," while not quite the story of the Maccabees and Chanukah, is a magnificent adventure that does have parallels to a historically Jewish struggle -- the fight to retain identity in the face of an overwhelming culture that presents itself as a cheerful, welcoming assimilation.

The Incredibles fight against mediocrity masquerading as excellence.

Just as the sons of Mattathias fought against a subjugation that represented itself as civilization, The Incredibles fight against mediocrity masquerading as excellence.
This theme pervades the picture; and is most memorable at one character's horror at celebrating the mundane by treating every grade school year end as a "graduation."

As in the Chanukah story, the film's drama emerges as a community of once-tremendous power is subjugated and "taken care of" by a government that seems benevolent; and by the time everyone realizes what they've gotten into, it's too late.

In ancient Israel, Alexander the Great, who was respectful (even reverent, according to some accounts) of Judaism, brought his world-busting troops into Jerusalem and began to peaceably integrate the Jews into the greater "global" Greek society he was creating. After Alexander's death, his successive heirs were bequeathed the territory; and there
developed a growing feeling that the Jews and their differences made integration into the bigger world a little more difficult. Maybe if they could work just a little harder to conform ... to be just a little less different.

As The Incredibles opens, an array of super-heroes is happily protecting the world's citizenry. A wisecracking relationship between two heroes (Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl) blossoms into marriage. Ultimately, certain realities set in and lawsuits begin against super-heroes. Plaintiffs claim to suffer from whiplash after being saved from plummeting to their deaths from skyscrapers. Finally, a concerned government institutes a sort of witness relocation program for the spandex set. Super-heroes, in all their "differentness" are driven underground.

Like the fabled Marranos, they are given new names and compelled to drop their "bizarre" practices. Some keep their "traditions" in private, behind closed doors at home, because exposure could mean tremendous danger to them and their families.

Before we know it, the years have passed, and the formerly heroic Mr. Incredible, now in civilian guise, has been reduced to trying to give policyholders a fair shake at the insurance company that now employs him. Out of shape and oversized, a truly great man
confined to a small life, the metaphor of him squeezing into the tiny car he drives to his suburban house is both funny and heartbreaking.

Back home, he and the former Elasti-girl have three kids. We meet Violet, the oldest, who has the power to turn invisible. Their son Dash is a super-speedster. Baby Jack-Jack has not manifested any powers.

But Bob Parr, as the former Mr. Incredible is now called, is not satisfied with the stilted,
cookie-cutter life that has been imposed on him. Along with fellow ex-superhero Frozone, he spends his bowling night parking on dark streets scanning police
radios. The two secretly practice their super-heroics in defiance of -- and in constant fear of - the authorities.

Still, inside the Parr family's suburban household there is no end to the super-stretching,
super-lifting, super-speeding, super-invisibility and just plain super-ing. At home, "Elasti-Mom" teaches her kids that while their powers make them special, they must keep them secret. This mixed message of pride and shame in the family's "otherness" is best encapsulated by the family's attendance at a school footrace, cheering Dash to go faster, only to suddenly shout "Slower! Slow down!!" when he exceeds what should be the normal range of speed, thereby risking exposure as a super-human.

This resonates with a timeless struggle of some Jewish offspring from the times of the Maccabees until today, those urged by their parents to be Jewish . . . just not TOO Jewish.

In the times of the Assyrian Greeks, (the heirs to Alexander's conquest) practicing Jews had to go underground, being their real selves only when no one was looking. This commitment, done quietly in the privacy of their homes, was, as with The Incredibles,
the beginning of the struggle to retake what was theirs.

Interestingly, there's a sort of Grecian cast to the villain in The Incredibles. The origin of his name typifies the way both he and the ancient Greeks preferred their charges to behave in lockstep uniformity. The villain's name, 'Syndrome' comes from a Greek word that refers to several different elements of something all "running together" as one. (Greek syn: together + dromos: running.)

Another accidental dose of Hellenism in The Incredibles is when, at one point, the entire story turns on the word "Kronos." That, as it happens, was the name of the mythical
father of the entire pantheon of gods worshiped by the Greek invaders of Judea.

Still, it is sometimes oppression that brings out the best in people. Would-be master Syndrome, using a secret associated with the word "Kronos", is responsible for "reactivating" the heroes and their offspring as sure as the Greek command to "run with the herd" and to worship the children of Kronos precipitated the Maccabean revolt. Both sets of heroes ended up hiding in caves to defeat their oppressors; and an unanticipated flame figures in the triumph of both the Maccabees and The Incredibles.

The one "uniformity" that IS embraced by the returning Incredibles is that of the super-hero uniform. An old friend designs special costumes in observation of the family's origins. It has long been a principle of Jewish tradition that retaining a Jewish mode of dress was a reason the Jews merited redemption from slavery in Egypt. Both laudable and a key to continuity, such commitment might arguably not even refer to specific styles of clothing. It could be as simple as seeing a certain level of modesty or communal identification as meaningful and consistent with one's values.

While Mr. Incredible, with his enormous strength and near-invulnerability, may represent the most confrontational aspect of combating for freedom, the powers of the rest of the family might be seen as metaphors for their surreptitious existence. Fast escape through super-speed, fading into invisibility and stretching beyond normal human endurance all seem like the kind of powers you would need living underground, just as changing appearance might be considered the ultimate "chameleon" power of survival under those circumstances.

The Incredibles learn that many of the heroes who had gone underground were killed fighting giant war machines much as Judah Maccabee's brother Eliezer perished, bravely attacking an armored Greek war elephant. He died under the falling pachyderm he killed. Syndrome's instruments of war, and the rest of the high-tech gadgets in the film, owe their appearance to James Bond, Johnny Quest, The Jetsons, and half a dozen fifties/sixties views of what life would be like in a high-tech computerized future.

The film is a shining alloy of super-hero, science fiction, adventure, spy film and other classic genres, all overlaid with a chilling post-modern scenario of exile to a suburbia that enforces conformity. With tremendous sophistication, the film unashamedly makes the case that celebrating mediocrity to make a world wherein everyone is special creates a reality where no one is.

©2005 Alan Oirich

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