There's an elegant symmetry at play here. One could argue, I'd say with very little effort, that no superhero movie released since The Incredibles debuted in November 2004, has improved upon it.* And now, finally, something has, and it's Incredibles 2, a very long-delayed follow-up that's also one of the most wholly satisfying sequels in... ever? I mean, it does the whole "improves upon an already-great original" thing, building out the world of the first film, taking its implications seriously, going over new ground with its characters that takes seriously the arc they already underwent last time, respecting its aesthetic while taking advantage of 14 years of technological advance, and, almost incidentally on top of that, including some of the very best action sequences that the genre has ever offered.

Not bad for a movie that, by all indications, writer-director Brad Bird didn't really want to make. Pixar Animation Studios has always had a strict rule that the director of a film needs to sign off before a sequel can be made, and this was likely especially true of The Incredibles, Pixar's sixth feature, which came to the studio from an outsider, and which has always remained somehow a distinctive outsider. So the failure of an Incredibles 2 to manifest before now, despite the increasing popularity of superhero movies and the obvious sequel hooks, has always seemed down mostly to Bird's disinterest. One can never be certain about what goes on behind closed doors at Disney, but it's seemed clear enough that the failure of Bird's weird utopian sci-fi adventure Tomorrowland led to him making Incredibles 2 in penance. And yet, it's certainly no make-work project. Starting with his feature directorial debut, the 1999 masterpiece The Iron Giant, Bird has always been something that seems fundamentally impossible: an auteur filmmaker working in the intensely collaborative world of American studio animation. And like any great auteur, he's not going to check out of a project just because the bosses forced it on him.

Incredibles 2 is, beyond question, the work of someone who wants to see what he can do with the medium. And 3-D computer animation is, by all means, a medium in desperate need of being pushed to the edges. The big thing, in this case, is the lighting: it is among the most conspicuously-"lit" animated films I've ever seen in fact, right from its very opening. Which picks up right the instant that the first movie ended, with the super-powered Parr family - superstrong dad Bob AKA "Mr. Incredible" (Craig T. Nelson), endlessly stretching mom Helena AKA "Elastigirl" (Holly Hunter), invisible daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), ultra-fast son Dash (Huck Milner), and apparently power-free baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) - giving pursuit to the mole-man bank robber, the Underminer (John Ratzenberger). In one striking moment, Bob rides the Underminer's huge drill machine into the depths of the earth, and for a few seconds, all we see is a strong backlight that manifests as a rim of light around his arms and head. In a series that has been hellbent on evoking '60s pop culture style and especially the bold, clean coloring of Silver Age comics, this moment is still a stand out: Bird and lighting cinematographer Erik Smitt (his first feature in that role) have found a way to make CGI animation capture the flat graphic quality of a vintage comic book without actually undoing its 3-D qualities. And this is not the last time that this will be done - in fact, it is more like a warm-up. Elsewhere in the film, two fistfights take place that both use this same edge lighting technique, and the same amazing flattening effect happens; it's gorgeous and dramatic and particularly for the first of those fist-fights (the same sequence that's causing problems for people with epilepsy; I'm sympathetic to those people and sorry for them, though a version of Incredibles 2 that didn't cause seizures would, in a very real way, be a worse movie), which is just a magnificent action setpiece - one of several points where the film does better work in staging comic book action than any film since Spider-Man 2, in no small part because of that lighting, which captures the iconic power of a great comic panel as well as I've ever seen in any movie.

That's one reason, anyway, why Incredibles 2 triumphs as an action movie (something that, to my recollection, no animated film ever has done before). It's also more generally the case that Bird and his creative team understand the capabilities of the medium, and avail themselves of all the tools Pixar has developed over the years - but without diminishing the stylised simplicity that was used in 2004 to overcome technological limitations that no longer exist - to create setpieces that are simply way the hell cooler than would feel remotely possible in live-action: in the film's other big standout, when Helen has to stop a runaway train, there are many amazing flyover shots, impossible angles, and an overall wonderful sense that the camera has the same freedom as any superhero (Mahyar Abousaeedi was the camera DP, and every bit as critical to the film's look as Smitt); there are glowing colors on the train, Helen's costume, and the rose and orange clouds and sky in the background; the action itself involves Helen's body snapping and stretching with such abandon that it's almost impossible to follow the ins and outs of the choreography, even though it's all being shown from wide angles in longish takes. Given the state of filmmaking technology, there's certainly no reason that this couldn't be done in a live-action comic book movie, but it would feel wrong. It's all simply too much, too exciting and too energetic and too colorful and too fun. It needs the veneer of unreality that animation provides, and this is the cheat that Bird gets to exploit over and over again in every aspect of design, movement, and humor. By this last item, I"m mostly thinking of the film's third top-level fight scene, a comic number involving a raccoon that's entirely the stuff of cartoon slapstick, yet it effortlessly fits into the film's reality.

The point being, Incredibles 2 is utterly infatuated with being a superhero movie, and because it's animated, it gets to be a way better one, since there's no constraints on reality, and no limits to what the characters can be or do. This makes it a great popcorn movie, great action movie, great cartoon, great comedy, great whatever-you-want. It's hugely creative in the way that can only happen when a filmmaker finds himself with no limits and plenty of ideas; honestly, it might be the most purely joyful, purely fun movie Pixar has ever made.

The nasty way of saying the same thing is that it's one of the most emotionally hollow Pixar films. This is a studio, after all, that makes something of a game out of being able to make the audience cry. And if Incredibles 2 has a big limitation, that's definitely it. The Incredibles wasn't by any means a tearjerker, but it had a clear story with a strong hook and stronger arc: the stuff and balderdash of superhero adventures used as a metaphor to explore how being in a family means sacrificing some things and gaining some others. Incredibles 2 expands on that rather than repeating it, for which I am grateful, but it never has that one singular hook: the film lacks the directionality of its predecessor, with a bigger but also messier plot, involving a rather trite twist about the villain that feels way too similar to the recent villain reveals at Pixar's sister studio at Disney. This makes it, in some ways, a much better comic book-feeling movie - the universe is much bigger than last time, with more heroes and a much expanded role for Samuel L. Jackson's Frozone, and the lack of a clear narrative spine is part of what allows that to happen - but a much less psychologically acute one.

It still has plenty of emotional appeal: the much bigger role given to Jack-Jack, as well as the richer vocal performances from the obviously older Hunter and Nelson, see to that. And it's fun as hell. Whether that adds up to making it a Pixar all-timer is hard to say, though in this moment, I feel happier about the studio's prospects than I can remember feeling at any point in the 2010s. This is an obvious cash grab turned, though one director's genius, into such a joyous orgy of popcorn movie energy, lovable characters, and overall good feeling, and how can one avoid feeling hope in the face of such a thing?

NB: It's a small role and not of much importance, but three cheers for being the film to finally get Isabella Rossellini a spot in the Pixar canon.

*For the purposes of this thought experiment, I've decided that the Nolan Batman films are often great cinema but not always great "superhero movies".