Disney used to be best known for its children’s animation. But over the last decade the House of Mouse has become the House of Hulk. Princesses and neotenous animal companions haven’t vanished. In terms of market share and screen dominance, they’ve been shouldered aside by the thundering pectorals and power beams of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with its Iron Men and various betighted Captains.
Jared Bush and Byron Howard’s Encanto, Disney’s latest animated feature, is both a capitulation to the zeitgeist and a protest against it. The film, which features a family with special magical abilities, merges MCU superhero tropes with Disney’s animated loving heroines to create a kind of cross-genre company hybrid. But Encanto also gives the superhero genre a good talking (or singing) to, questioning its motives and its morals in the name of more family-oriented Disney fare.
Encanto’s critique of superheroes is in part in line with the MCU’s own effort to rethink the genre. Since the new wave of superhero films kicked off in the 2000s, it has mostly centered on the heroism and the empowerment of cisgender, heterosexual white men: Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Iron Man, Captain America. But in recent years, the MCU has slowly begun to tell superstories about other people, most notably in 2018’s Black Panther, focused on Black heroes, and 2019’s Captain Marvel, with a woman protagonist.
2021 has been a watershed in the movement toward more inclusivity in the MCU. Of the four MCU films released this year—Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home, only the last features a white male protagonist. Eternals is the first MCU film to star a woman of color, and Shang-Chi has fewer white actors in major roles than even Black Panther. The MCU’s new Disney+ television shows have also featured women protagonists (in WandaVision and Hawkeye), Black protagonists (in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) and queer heroes (in Loki).
These aren’t just cosmetic changes. An MCU in which all the stories are about cishet white men is an MCU in which whiteness and maleness become superpowers in themselves. When Shang-Chi or Black Widow or Sersi get to save the world instead, it challenges the default not-so-super idea that white men are the only ones who have, or should have, power.
Encanto fits neatly beside the newer MCU offerings. Set in a Colombian village, the film is about the family Madrigal, (almost) all of whom have extraordinary gifts which look a lot like superpowers. Mother Julieta (Angie Cepeda) heals people with her cooking; sister Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super strength which allows her to carry piles of donkeys on her back; another sister Isabela (Diane Guerrero) makes flowers grow everywhere. Others in the family can control weather, tell the future, talk to animals, and shape shift. The Latina and Latino heroes use their gifts to help and protect the other villages, in line with that old Spider-Man dictum, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
The one exception is the protagonist Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz. Like everyone else in her family, Mirabel was supposed to receive powers at a coming-of-age ceremony. But for some reason, the ceremony didn’t work. Now she’s the one Madrigal without any particular abilities. Worse, when the Madrigals’ magic starts to fade and cracks appear in their magic house, Abuela (María Cecilia Botero), the leader of the Madrigals, blames Mirabel.
If this were an MCU film, Mirabel would gain her own superpowers (Flight? Superspeed? Spreading love and understanding?) and save the day.
Instead, Encanto is about how Mirabel is heroic precisely because she doesn’t have any gift. Luisa with her super strength feels she has to carry every weight, literally and figuratively, or she won’t be a good person. Perfect Isabela wants to create weird cactuses and vines and prickly things but worries that if she doesn’t just make pretty flowers, no one will love her. With no abilities of her own, Mirabel is the ideal person to teach her family that they don’t need to be powerful and perfect to be valued.
The person who most needs to learn this lesson is Abuela herself. As a young woman with infant triplets, Abuela fled a genocidal attack on her village with her husband. He died giving her time to escape. That’s when she was given her miracle; a candle that burns eternally giving her children and their children magical abilities.
The details of Abuela’s flight and of the miracle are fuzzy—so much so that it feels more like a dream than a backstory. Trauma and survivor’s guilt become a fantasy of power, invulnerability, and generous sacrifice. Abuela wants her family to be perfect and strong because she still feels afraid and vulnerable. Being a superhero is a painful extension of being a victim.
The idea that superheroes are born of trauma is firmly embedded in the genre. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman when his parents are killed in front of him. Spider-Man chooses to become a hero when his actions lead to the death of his uncle. Tony Stark builds his Iron Man suit after being badly injured; his superpowers literally protect his weak heart. Shang-Chi’s mother dies and he’s raised by a cruel father.
To some degree, characters in these stories are empowered by overcoming trauma. But you could also see the trauma as creating or inspiring the empowerment. What doesn’t kill you—whether a radioactive spider bite or the destruction of your home planet—makes you stronger.
In mainstream superhero stories, trauma that leads to strength is generally worth it, narratively. You watch stories about Batman and Iron Man and Shang-Chi because they’re powerful, after all. If they had to suffer first to save the world, that’s a reasonable trade-off, right?
Encanto isn’t so sure. In the film, Abuela’s focus on power and abilities and specialness and saving everyone doesn’t heal suffering, but perpetuates it. The magic house was always built on a weak foundation, because trusting in power is a kind of weakness. It’s only when Abuela stops trying to save the villagers and lets them help her that she gets a house solid enough to hold a family together. Real empowerment, Mirabel insists, comes from loving and helping one another, not from magic strength or a magic shield.
Disney has too many financial incentives to take that lesson to heart. But it’s still nice to see the company think about it briefly before the next round of MCU films hit theaters.
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