What ‘Incredibles 2’ tells us about screen time

By Susannah Q. Pratt

During my 1970’s childhood I had a metal Sesame Street lunchbox that had on it a picture of Ernie carrying the same Sesame Street lunch box, which had on it a picture of Ernie carrying the same Sesame Street lunch box…you get the idea. It was my first brush with infinity, and it blew my little six year-old brain.

Two days ago, Incredibles 2 did kind of the same number on me. A superhero movie on the big screen attempted to take on our relationship to little screens, by showing us people mesmerized by the little screens who were watching people on screens…you get the idea. But what, in the end, were we supposed to take from all of this? What did Incredibles 2 have to say about screens?

A quick spoiler-free set-up: the “bad guy” of the movie, Screen Slaver, uses the technology of screens to mesmerize people—all the while villain-style monologing about the dangers of screen addiction. During the quintessential antihero-dominates-the-airwaves moment, Screen Slaver announces to the world that our dependence on screens has made us averse to risk, to travel, to real life experience. He counts the toll that screens take on our mental and physical health. He describes how screens have isolated us, heightened our need to be entertained, to incessantly consume. It was at this point in the movie that I leaned over to my husband and whispered, “Uh-oh. What if I agree with the bad guy?”

It gets more complex. After accidentally discovering the villain’s identity through a screen within a screen (!), our hero Elastigirl confronts Screen Slaver who quickly rationalizes the use of technology to control the masses—suggesting we’re already lost to our screens. And then suddenly, from this confrontation on out, explicit references to technology disappear from the movie. We’re left with straight-up superhero action and joy.

Walking out of the theater, I asked my kids—ages 10 and 12—what they thought the movie was saying about screens. It’s summer so their use of, and relationship to, screens is top of mind for me. I spend most days running to stay one step ahead. As any parent knows, limiting actual screen time is only half the battle. Keeping the rest of the day from becoming simply the hours between screens is the real fight. I was eager to enlist the Incredibles in my anti-screen crusade.

Here’s the thing. When asked, they couldn’t actually tell me where the movie came down on the whole screen issue. And, to be fair, neither can a fair number of adults to whom I’ve since posed the same question.

This is an argument in favor of Incredibles 2. Unlike the black and white, good vs. evil of so many superhero movies, this particular one retains some ambiguity. Our villain has something important to say about our dependence on screens—something I don’t think should be dismissed by the fact it is coming from a villain. (There are also some great feminist messages, but that’s a complete spoiler, and another essay entirely.)  The movie lands right in the sweet spot of our problem with screens: we know the dangers; we can’t stay away.  A screen got us into the mess we are in. A screen is needed to save the day. And all of this comes to you via the medium of…wait for it…a giant screen.

For this reason alone, the movie is worth seeing. Incredibles 2 can be a fresh jumping off point for a conversation we are all totally tired of having—especially with our kids. It opens up a safe space to explore our relationship to the screen, children and adults alike. I don’t think this was an accident. After a fourteen year hiatus, one can only assume intentionality on the part of director Brad Bird and his team.

Consider the final scene of the movie: the Parrs are on their way to a movie when suddenly called into action. With a quick detour to dump a non-Super, they veer away from the theater, mask up, and head off to save the day. I believe this moment was more than the obligatory sequel set-up. I think it was a kind of wink—a suggestion of where we are supposed to come out on the whole issue. The Incredibles, when given the chance, choose against the screen and in favor of the adventure of real life.

Susannah Q. Pratt is a nonprofit consultant by day, writer by night. She and her husband are raising their three boys, as screen-free as possible, in Evanston, Illinois. You can find more of her writing at www.susannahqpratt.com.

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