When I call Craig T. Nelson — the voice of Mr. Incredible — I’m not expecting real talk. I’m expecting to hear a Pixar voice artist tell me, very believably, that it was a thrill to return for Incredibles 2 a full decade and a half after the first movie. These kinds of phone calls are fun, but the people on the other end of the phone have no incentive to give honest answers that aren’t about how thrilled they are by the success of a movie/show/book/podcast/Instagram/crime spree. Nelson surprised me. Best known as Coach from the sitcom Coach, Craig Theodore Nelson has spent decades playing vaguely affable and paternal characters. The press push is old-hat for him, but he still showed up ready to dig in. And we did. It was so normal it felt weird.
I’ve been a father for 17 months and I saw Incredibles 2 right after my daughter had her first birthday. I related strongly to Mr. Incredible’s super-dad persona. So I’m on the phone and imagining in my mind that I’m talking to a cartoon character. I’m not. This becomes clear when we start talking fatherhood.
“Every man has to discover for himself what it’s like to be a father,” Nelson says In his voice I hear something I recognize; he ’s tired. Nelson himself is a father of three. “Some of us are pretty bad at it. Some of us are okay. I don’t think we really understand it until we don’t have kids anymore. Hopefully, you don’t wreck it in the beginning and if you do, hopefully, you can salvage it.”
In Incredibles 2, Mr. Incredible doesn’t have the spy-flick role he had in the first movie. Instead, he’s a house husband, mostly at home with the kids, and in very real danger of wrecking his marriage and his kids lives. Is his struggle to not be a breadwinner outdated? Is he from the ‘fifties or what? Nelson thinks that if you think Mr. Incredible’s plight isn’t relatable, you’re crazy.
“Look, even though he felt hurt by not being chosen to be the leader of this super-power family in this particular case, he still adapts to his role and makes mistakes,” says Nelson, who is clearly deeply engaged with the material. “He’s not failing. He gets frustrated. And I think that is really important.” This comment opens the door to talking about anger. If I punch a wall out of frustration, it won’t fall down. If Mr. Incredible punches a wall, there’s no wall anymore. Does male anger have any kind of place in the zeitgeist anymore?
“It’s generally accepted now that men can’t get angry. It’s politically incorrect,” he says flatly. And then, because he’s human, I can actually hear him get angry about this idea. “It’s like a measure of personality now. Everything has to be tempered,” Nelson adds, irritated.
I say that I think Mr. Incredible’s anger is apolitical, Nelson jumps in and says. “It’s just real. That anger is real. It’s just the way it is. I’m sorry. People can have their opinions about it and that’s fine. But that’s not the real world. All of a sudden we’re supposed to repress, but we were told to express! What’s it gonna be next week? Who cares.”
Nelson is being honest and though I’m not sure I agree with him, I know where’s he’s coming from. Frustration and anger are a part of the life of a parent, but male anger is socially unacceptable (so is female anger, but it’s policed in different ways). Arguably, that’s for good reason. By saying “who cares” Nelson seems to be saying every father should perhaps not worry too much about how they are perceived and certainly not be too influenced by political trends. It’s also a reminder that Nelson, unlike most Hollywood actors, isn’t necessarily left-leaning. Back in 2009, the actor appeared on the Glenn Beck show and made some eyebrow-raising comments about whether or not he should have to pay taxes. This isn’t to say Nelson gets his marching orders from Trump’s tweets, he’s way too much of his own man for that.
The point is, Nelson’s comments to me about male anger are extreme, but also very refreshing. This small conversation makes me understand why Nelson has played such a convincing superhero and father; he’s not perfect. He’s not trying to be. He’s Mr. Incredible not Mr. Impossible.
“If you’re a parent, you’re going to parent the best way you can,” Nelson says, as a way of explaining himself. “That’s not true of everybody, but it should be. Most people have children and they’re not ready to experience it. Maybe that’s why people are waiting longer to have kids now. I mean, it’s a tough world to bring a kid up in now. There are so many things that are dangerous now that don’t seem to really be a part of what you want them to enjoy.”
Nelson and I push through our frustrations and our fatigue not only of being fathers, but thinking about being fathers, and eventually, figure out how to talk about the movie again. Incredibles 2 has a lot of sympathy toward stay-out-home dads, and even more sympathy when those dads lose their cool over small things. The moment this crystallizes in Incredibles 2 occurs when Mr. Incredible tries to help his kids with their homework and is furious that the math textbooks have changed from when he was a boy. (“How can they change Math!” he fumes.) This sort of tilting at windmills is, in my limited experience, part of fatherhood. It’s impossible, in the context of a busy life, to not have these sorts of complaints. Nelson agrees.
“For the most part superpowers aren’t part of it,” Nelson says. “It’s all about the issue of the family itself.” The rest of our conversation is pleasantly about this kind of thing. I talk to Nelson about my fears raising my daughter in the world today, he sighs and commiserates. I picture him nodding his head in support, I imagine Mr. Incredible’s large hand on my shoulder, telling me I’m a good dad, even if I’m not sure all the time.
“It’s all about that question,” Nelson says at some point. “Who is Mr. Incredible in this family?”
At the end of the phone call, I’m not sure there’s a good answer to that question. But that’s okay. Mr. Incredible doesn’t know everything and I sure as hell don’t either. We’re both working on figuring out our own lives and bound for different conclusions.
Incredibles 2 is out on Blu-ray November 6 and out for digital download on October 23.