The Incredibles' Syndrome is the ultimate cautionary tale for toxic fandom

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Jul 11, 2018, 10:00 PM EDT (Updated)

They say that a film is only as good as its villain. The hero needs a seemingly unbeatable force to vanquish, a foe who looks like they might win until the final act. While we the viewers know that good will (usually) win, there still needs to be that tension. That potential catastrophe. If audiences are going to breathe that sigh of relief in the film’s final moments, they need a reason to be holding their breath in the first place.

Part of what makes Pixar’s masterpiece The Incredibles (their best, in my opinion. Feel free to @ me.) so, well, incredible is its acknowledgment of this need. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl may be supers, but the calculating villainy of Syndrome always feels like a genuine threat. Rising up from jilted fan to supervillain, Syndrome’s power is in his ability to destroy that which he once claimed to love so dearly. While he may have declared himself to be Mr. Incredible’s biggest fan and crafted the ill-conceived persona of Incrediboy, he devoted himself to annihilating supers completely the second the reality didn’t live up to his expectations. By tracking down everyone with a superheroic past and tricking them into visiting his evil lair, Syndrome is on a mission to kill everyone linked to Mr. Incredible, including his family, ensuring that he is a broken man before he gets his ultimate revenge.


Syndrome’s transition from Buddy to villain occurs offscreen in the years where superheroes are forced into hiding their powers and stifling their instincts to protect. Even though these heroes are no longer in the spotlight or even using their powers beyond foiling the occasional jewel heist, Syndrome is single-minded in his pursuit of destroying Mr. Incredible for not being amenable during a goddamn hostage negotiation. Perhaps it's the nature of obsession to eventually turn sour, but Syndrome takes it to the furthest degree. With his ominous threat of “if everyone’s super, no one will be,” his intent is clear: if he can’t enjoy superheroes in the way that he wants, no one else can enjoy them either.

If this sounds a little uncomfortably true to life, it should. While The Incredibles was released before the Golden Age (?) of Twitter, the idea of fandom gone bad is nothing new. Just recently Ahmed Best, the actor behind Jar Jar Binks, posted on Instagram that the fan backlash was so strong after The Phantom Menace that he considered suicide. The campaign to remake The Last Jedi without all those pesky women and people of color is still alive and kicking. (Not to pick on the Star Wars fandom, it’s just that its more toxic elements have come to the fore lately.) DC and Marvel have faced their share of sexist and racist trolls — remember the outcry when Michael B. Jordan was cast as the Human Torch? — and who could forget the cultural cancer of Gamergate.

The idea that art is inherently bad if it isn’t made precisely for you has become a pervasive one in the cis white male sections of fandom. While they aren’t luring supers out to their secret island in order to slay them, they are certainly doing their best to destroy the fandoms that they previously dedicated their lives to. The second that those worlds are expanded just a little to offer more space to others, they are now perceived as being hostile to those who used to control every aspect of that fandom. If you see the fact that often-marginalized people are given more space to celebrate the things that they love as a threat to your enjoyment, it’s time to do some serious soul searching and ask yourself why you see yourself as a gatekeeper and why these differing perspectives are considered a threat.

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Like every classic villain, Syndrome has his monologuing moment, and the most telling bit is this: "Now you respect me, because I’m a threat." Syndrome saw his lack of entry into the world of superheroics as a threat to his fandom, and therefore turned himself into a predator in order to bend things to his will. He never considered a world that wasn't fashioned into the narrative that he had built up inside his head, and couldn't face the reality that things were different. 

No one sets out to be the villain. Even Syndrome wanted to be Incrediboy before Mr. Incredible angrily declared “You’re not affiliated with me!” and rebuffed him in order to keep him out of danger. But if your initial response to anything that doesn’t include you or take your perspective into account is to burn it all down, you’re no longer the hero. In fact, a real hero would stand against you.

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