Deeper Than Clothing: An Analysis of The Incredibles’ “No Capes” speech

The Incredibles is undeniably one of the best superhero films ever made, and one of the best characters in it is undeniable Edna Mode, the brilliant and borderline-unhinged superhero costume designer. She's engaging, colorful, and endlessly entertaining while feeling like a fully-formed person in her own right, the epitome of a perfect supporting character. One of her most memorable moments in the movie, the one that almost everyone who’s ever seen the incredibles can remember, is the famous “no capes” speech she gives Mr. Incredible when he commissions her for a new suit. It's a moment that's as hilarious in its writing and delivery as it is a clever in its conception, and it deserves all the praise in the world. However, I think it's an even better scene than most give it credit for, because it's far more than a hilarious digression: it's an incredibly important piece of characterization that shows us the way in which Edna holds herself responsible for the deaths of the superheroes who died because of the capes she designed into their outfits, and the trauma that engenders.

Before I go on, though, let's head one thing off at the pass. This is NOT a theme or idea that's "too dark" or "too adult" to appear in a Pixar movie or a children's movie. After all, Inside Out dealt unabashedly with depression in children, Coco confronted jealousy, murder, and the breaking of a family without hesitation, and Wall-E was perfectly willing to paint an utterly abysmal picture of humanity's future. Hell, the first preview for Cars 3 was nothing more than a slow-motion demolition of its main character! Pixar is not afraid to tackle seriously hard-hitting topics in their films, and children are perfectly worthy of receiving them. Now that I've said my piece on that, though, on to the analysis! Let's start with visuals. This is Edna as she begins to describe the suit she wants to make Mr. Incredible:

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And this is her after he merely says the word "cape":

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The immediate shift in mood, so distinct and so powerful, is far stronger than we might expect from a person encountering something they dislike, even if it is a pet peeve. This is a woman torn out of the ecstasy of engaging in her true calling for the first time in years by a single word. That kind of a reaction to a single word happens when emotions run deep. Then, when Mr. Incredible dares argue with her, this happens: 

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She's out of her chair, inches from him, the very definition of all up in his face because he's committed the sin of defending capes. Again, this is a reaction above and beyond even Edna's typical overreactive tendencies, the kind of reaction one has when the thing one is reacting to stirs incredibly powerful emotions. Finally, Edna ends the tirade with this face:

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This isn't anger or annoyance. This is rage. This is the reaction of someone dealing with far more powerful emotions than a pet peeve, the reaction that someone has when someone feels deeply and powerfully about what they're reacting to. That reading is borne out by what happens when her tirade is over. Turning away from Mr. Incredible, she walks up the stairs while telling him that she will have a suit ready for him in a few days, an abrupt and complete dismissal, as if she can't stand to discuss with him anymore, a common response to reminders of trauma. In other words, every shot of Edna as she lectures Mr. Incredible on why capes are a no-go for her anymore is loaded with emotion, the kind of emotion that's only possible to muster for something that carries an incredible significance for you. A significance that, with the subject matter in question, can only signify Edna's guilt and trauma.

Her words, though, are even more illuminating. Everyone who knows about the "no capes" speech knows that it includes a laundry list of superheroes who were killed in action by their capes, in sometimes hilarious ways. What's less often remembered is how detailed that list is. The first two entries document not just the name of the superhero that died and how they died, but the exact year and date on which they died. The three examples that follow consist of both name and cause of death, related in the kind of breakneck, off-the-cuff fashion of someone who is often thinking of them, someone who could go on and on and on about superheroes slain by their capes if given the choice. These are the words of a woman who designed every last one of those costumes, who considers those deaths her fault, who's kept up at night sometimes by the thought of having led in some way to their demises.

Let's also read those words in conjunction with a line of dialogue she utters soon before the speech: "I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now." This isn't an empty platitude either, given that Edna so quickly discards Mr. Incredible's prior suit, which she must have spent an incredible amount of time and effort making. That a character so devoted to leaving the past in the past and living in the present has practically an itemized list of superhero deaths-by-capes perfectly preserved in her head makes the conclusion inescapable: she's traumatized by the deaths caused by her mistakes.

And now, we've reached the end of the post, the part in which we consider context. This time around, it’s not quite accurate to say that we’ll be judging the analysis of Edna’s speech on the scene’s place in the larger text, since that doesn’t offer much to help us read it. However, we will be looking at the themes of the film as a whole to support the reading. The Incredibles is, in large part, a movie about the ways the past can haunt us, even if we've moved on or moved past our part in that past. Being forced to recon with past mistakes (and the lawsuits that arise from them) as crime-fighters force superheroes into hiding at the beginning of the film, and living in the past or trying to revive his glory days put Mr. Incredible's family in danger. The very villain of the film, Syndrome, is nothing more than Mr. Incredible's callousness and self-centeredness earlier in life catching up with him. In a film like this, how could Edna's "no capes" speech not be evidence of a woman grappling with a past that still has a profound effect on her? This doesn't make it any less funny or clever or the character any weaker for it; indeed, it shows us that this character is far more than comic relief or a collection of witty one-liners regardless of how funny she is, a woman who thinks and cares deeply about her work and has learned from her mistakes and conquered her trauma even while acknowledging its existence. Something, I think, Edna herself would have approved of.

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With excitement and optimism,

Alex

P.S. All image credits to Disney Pixar.