What would happen to superheroes if the public - usually awed and grateful in comic-book stories - turned against them, seeing them as menaces whose exploits wreak havoc on innocent bystanders?
That question energizes "The Incredibles," the new movie from Disney and Pixar. The answers, decked out with slam-bang action and witty dialogue, are great fun to discover.
The hero is Mr. Incredible, also known as Bob Parr, his bland secret identity. By his side is Elastigirl, a stretchable superheroine who becomes his bride in the movie's early moments. The future seems bright - until Mr. Incredible meets a would-be protégé who dreams of being his ward, Incrediboy, and joining in his grand adventures.
Mr. I wants nothing to do with him, but the kid's interference causes a couple of missteps, allowing a criminal to escape and abruptly stopping a runaway subway in its tracks. What good is a superhero if he can't capture every crook he goes after? And hey, why shouldn't passengers sue the superhero for injuries they incurred on that wild subway ride?
It isn't long before the government bans superheroes. The inimitable Mr. Incredible is now just Bob, a small-time insurance clerk with a nasty boss; and the gifted Elastigirl is an everyday homemaker. Two of their children have obvious superpowers, but they're forbidden to cultivate them.
But then Mr. I gets a phone call inviting him to participate in a mysterious mission. His wife wouldn't approve, but he can't resist. So off he sneaks, and from here on the movie is a nonstop explosion of plot twists and visual effects.
For all its clever filmmaking, "The Incredibles" hardly tells an original story. Admirers of "Mystery Men" and even "Spider-Man 2" will find much of the tale familiar, which is a disappointment coming from writer-director Brad Bird, who broke new ground with "The Iron Giant."
This said, "The Incredibles" is sharper and smarter than any animation since "Shrek 2," making it one of the season's supermovies. At it's best, it's almost as incredible as Mr. I himself.
• Rated PG; contains cartoon violence.