As occasionally happens, the year 2010 saw the release of two otherwise unrelated films premised on essentially the same basic idea: in this case it was animated comedies centered around supervillains.
Of the two, Despicable Me became a powerhouse franchise with three films and counting, two spin-offs, and endless cultural exposure through its “minions” becoming practically the new mascots of Universal.
Meanwhile the comparatively obscure cult classic Megamind had to content itself with merely being the superior film.
What Makes Megamind the Superior Film
There’s really a lot that could be said about this movie. I wouldn’t call it a great film: there are some gaps in the writing and not all the jokes land (though most of them do). But it is a very good film, with strong storytelling, endlessly quotable dialogue (“I’m in a heated existential discussion with this dead-eyed plastic desk toy”), and some really good superpowered action scenes. It’s one of that best brand of satire (like the superior Galaxy Quest or the superlative Princess Bride) which provides all the real thrills, joys, and fun of the works it’s parodying even as it uses the material for comedy.
But even rarer than that, it’s a villain-centric story that doesn’t try to undermine the moral premise of its source material. Unlike, say, Wicked (where the Wicked Witch of the West is a persecuted outcast, Glinda is a ditzy collaborator, and the Wizard is a corrupt monster), Megamind takes an unexpected and much more interesting approach to the Superman formula.
The set up: in ‘Metro City’, the superhero Metro Man (who is Superman in all but name) wages perpetual war against the evil Megamind (who is something of a cross between Lex Luthor and Brainiac, being an evil supergenius alien). The supervillain’s plots mostly involve kidnapping Metro Man’s ostensible girlfriend, intrepid reporter Roxanne Ritchie (you get the idea).
At the start of the film their battle has been going on for so long and has become so predictable that almost no one takes it seriously anymore. Oh, they mostly all play their roles, but the truth is that they’re, as one character later describes it, just going through the motions.
In particular, the damsel in distress is so jaded that she doesn’t even flinch at any of the villain’s deathtraps and spends most of her hostage time sniping at him (“Can someone stamp my frequent kidnapping card?” “You of all people should know we’ve discontinued that promotion”). In any case, no one, least of all Megamind himself, actually expects him to win.
But then the unthinkable happens: he does.
Which leads into the central idea of the film: what does a villain – this kind of villain – do without a hero? The first step is pretty predictable: Megamind takes over the city and indulges in a crime wave, able to do whatever he wants with no one to stop him, only to quickly find that he’s become bored and existentially depressed. Having defined himself as ‘the bad guy’, he now realizes that he has no purpose without a ‘good guy’ to challenge him. This leads to a scene where he and Roxanne end up both standing before a giant statue of Metro Man, wondering what to do in a world without a hero.
Up until now the film has been fun, though fairly standard parody fare. But it’s about this point that things start getting very interesting.
Character Based on Action Rather Than Identity
The story diverges into two distinct threads for most of the second act: in one Megamind hits on the idea to create a new hero to take Metro Man’s place, and via some cartoon sci-fi nonsense accidentally ends up bestowing the superhero’s powers on Roxanne’s shiftless cameraman, Hal. Seeing a perfect tale of untapped potential in the dumpy loser, he sets out to train him as a hero (using a previously-established holographic watch to disguise himself into a hilarious caricature of a certain iconic actor).
The other thread has Megamind using that same device to start a relationship with Roxanne in disguise. During this he not only helps to ‘battle’ himself (“I tried my best, but he’s too fantastic!”), but also gets to experience life as a ‘normal’ person. This leads to some lovely, heartfelt moments, like when he’s left stunned at receiving physical affection for perhaps the first time in his life.
More importantly, it gives him a chance to discover that his villainy, petty though it may be, nevertheless has consequences. The city is now littered with trash and debris, the enriching cultural sites are emptied, and the people live in a constant state of anxiety because of him. His lashing out at how hard life has been for him only serves to make life harder for everyone else.
But it isn’t just the common people who have to suffer the effects of his actions: Megamind discovers that they have real, negative consequences for himself as well. Not from being punished, but simply because they are what they are.
As in all secret romance plots, there comes a moment where Megamind asks Roxanne if she would still like him if he weren’t normal: “Say I had the complexion of a popular primary color, as a non-specific, random example.” She responds with the standard answer that you don’t judge people by how they look, but on their actions. Only, as he realizes a moment after she says it, that’s no comfort to a supervillain.
Then, when his secret is revealed (it’s a hardly a spoiler to say that that happens), he tries to plead his case by asking, “what about not judging a book by its cover?” But she throws that right back in his face with a list of his many crimes, concluding, “Do you think I would ever be with you?” To which, of course, there’s only one answer. The bad guy doesn’t get the girl.
This is really the point that Megamind has to get through his giant blue head: his marginalization and his status as a villain are not simply because he isn’t ‘normal’. He hasn’t been left out in the cold because of privilege or convention or anything of the kind, but because of his own choices. His looking different and having had a rough childhood do not excuse his actions.
How Evil Really Looks
And now we come to the second major thread. As noted, all this time Megamind has been training Hal to become the new hero, Titan (“It was the only name I could trademark”). Still operating on a ‘good means privileged’ paradigm, Megamind assumes that, when gifted with amazing powers and the right coaching, Hal will naturally behave the same way that Metro Man did.
But it doesn’t work like that. Hal isn’t a ‘mute, inglorious Milton’ just waiting his chance to reveal his untapped potential. He’s a self-centered, amoral idiot seething with resentment, and whose mediocrity is due only to the fact that he lacked the character or capacity to do anything really bad. Granted superpowers, all he can think about is how to make them benefit himself, which soon devolves into simply enacting revenge on a world he feels has wronged him.
Tighten (sic. Superpowers don’t make Hal any smarter) is a surprisingly frightening villain for what is otherwise a lighthearted comedy. He starts out as a dumpy idiot with an underlying creeper vibe and boundary issues. Then when he goes off the rails, he becomes an angry, sadistic, and downright murderous monster. And all with Superman-level powers.
In short, Megamind was playing at being evil. Hal is the real deal.
This leads to a climax where the Superman formula plays out once again, only this time ‘Lex Luthor’ is the hero and ‘Superman’ is the villain (though done without subverting the actual ‘Superman’ of the film). Also, unlike the opening, this time it’s played completely straight: the villain is really evil, the girl is really in danger, and the hero is really required to be brave and self-sacrificing.
The result of all this is something like a deconstruction of a deconstruction. We take a protagonist who thinks he lives in a world where good and evil are only matters of privilege and convention and tell the story of him discovering that this isn’t the case: past hardships aren’t an excuse for causing harm, bad actions carry their own consequences, and real evil isn’t at all fun or cool, but crass, small-minded, and ugly. And on the other side, goodness requires self-sacrifice and hard work, but likewise comes with its own, much richer rewards.
The Best Kind of Satire
Topping if off is the fact that, whether by accident or design, the final step in Megamind’s redemption comes when he confesses his sins to another character, foregoing any excuses, admitting that he was fully in the wrong, and asking only for the chance to try to make things right.
But the best part, and what truly makes the film stand out, is that even after we’ve moved from a world of cartoon morality into one of the real thing, the structure that we’re presented with remains exactly the same. Again, it’s still good versus evil, still the ‘eternal trio’ of hero, villain, and girl. What has changed is who is in what role, but more importantly the fact that there are now real stakes and no one is just playing a part.
That is why I put this as one of the best type of satire: because here the parody is used, not to undermine the moral premise of the original, but rather to reaffirm it.
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