Friday, May 6, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Megamind

What do you get when you mix the Hollywood trend towards animated films that aren't solely for kids, the Hollywood trend to have at least 3 superhero movies a year, and the cultural trend to be as postmodern and self-referential as possible?

Megamind. The story of a conniving blue-skinned alien who gets his kicks out of being a supervillain—until he defeats his archnemesis and gains ultimate control over Metro City. Turns out that ultimate control is kind of boring, so Megamind creates a superhero to balance the power vacuum, at which point Things Go Wrong. There is, naturally, a Sassy Reporter Girlfriend as well.


I'm not generally a fan of Will Ferrell movies. His humor tends to fall flat for me, and a number of the plots tend to be … juvenile, let us say. So when I heard he was going to be voicing a supervillain 'hero', I was nervous. Was this going to be another instance of him overacting? Was there going to be a plot, or just superpowered hijinks for two hours? I'd nearly resolved not to go, and then I saw the trailers.

Turns out that Megamind is not only story about a supervillain, and not only a Shrek-like send-up of superhero films, but it's also a commentary on what it means to be a villain and a hero, and a story of redemption. There's a clear message that "There's good in all of us."

Let's dissect it, shall we?

Megamind and Metro Man are sent to Earth by alien parents from planets that are being destroyed. Metro Man ends up in a wealthy, all-American family. Megamind ends up raised by convicts. They wind up in the same school, where Metro Man bullies Megamind and Their Rivalry Is Born™. Megamind turns to a life of crime because so many other avenues are closed to him because his creativity gets him into trouble and nobody cares for his skin color.

So far, so standard, except notice that Megamind is not only a geek, but he's also a person of color? It's easy to say, "Yes, I get it, Hollywood. He's a bad guy because he isn't white, and he's kind of weird to boot." But then Megamind has a change of heart, and he gets the girl, and at the end of the film, he's kind of a hero. It's a message of hope, and a surprisingly enlightened character arc. The dark-skinned weirdo can be a good person, accepted into society? Who knew?!

The Rivalry™ is very much a game for our villain and hero. It's sparring matches, competition, a challenge. When Megamind defeats Metro Man, he's excited, yes, but there's also a big undertone of "That actually worked? I actually won? How is that possible?" It's bittersweet. Megamind goes on his crime spree anyway, but it quickly gets boring. He realizes that the fights were never about control, they were about competition, and he needs someone to compete with again. Unfortunately, he ends up giving powers to a schlub, and the second act of the film kicks off.

So, this schlub? He reacts to superpowers in a pretty realistic manner. His 'space parents', Megamind and Minion the sidekick, train him up, drill him on justice, and give him a snazzy costume, and he's cool with that because he's so in awe of having superpowers and being someone for the first time in his life. But then he realizes that it's so much easier to have fame and wealth if you steal it. Yep, he turns into a supervillain himself, right on the eve of the unveiling Megamind's planned for him. This leads to a genuinely nerve-wracking climactic fight scene, even if kooky weapons and kid-targetted hijinks show up as well. Titan, the superhero-villain, is just too powerful, and too corrupted by that power. Also, he's decided it's his right to have Sassy Reporter Girlfriend Roxie as his girlfriend, when Megamind's genuinely in love with her. One more reason for Megamind to defeat him.

It is real love, by the way, between Roxie and Megamind, not the bog-standard lust-as-love, we're-adding-a-girl-because-we-need-a-love-interest Hollywood model. They flirt. They commiserate. They like the same things. They have great conversations. They share a sense of humor. They team up to 'take down' Megamind. They're cute, and we get to watch them fall in love on screen. And then Roxie finds out that the guy she's hooked up with is really Megamind in disguise, and there's a horrible break-up which reinforces Megamind's opinion of himself as the hard-done-by geek/villain who will never get the girl. Luckily, Roxie sees the light during the climax and ends up fighting alongside Megamind, rather than playing damsel-in-distress the whole time. Girl power is go! Contrast this with Lois Lane, who may be tough but stays on the edges of fights, and who's more in like or lust with Superman than she's in love with him, in most forms of canon.

It's also notable that Metro Man is not the antagonist, the way Captain Hammer is Doctor Horrible's. The antagonist of the story is … Megamind's hubris, I guess, and to an extent his lack of confidence. Metro Man's there to be a foil, to be the nominal superhero in a story about villains, and to make a comment about power and fame not being everything—also a cool, positive thing for a Hollywood film to be saying.

Megamind's a surprisingly intelligent superhero film, in other words, right up there with The Incredibles. It has a lot to say about heroism, surface judgements, and human nature. It has positive messages that hit adults as well as kids. It's smart, funny, and original. Obviously, I really liked it, and I'm betting most superhero fans will too.

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