Megamind is a satiric take on the Superman mythos, seen through the eyes of a supervillain who’s part Lex Luthor, part Brainiac. Instead of a rocket ship bearing an infant survivor from a doomed planet to Earth, there are two ships from two planets. Fate deals the infant survivors very different hands: One is a superpowered golden boy who grows up privileged and smugly superior; the other grows up on the fringes of society, an outcast with one asset: his superbrain. It seems the two are destined to battle each other forever, or are they?
The Superman mythos is dominated by the initials L.L. (Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lightning Lad, etc.). Megamind turns to the next letter in the alphabet, although the pattern extends only to the spit-curled hero, Metro Man (Brad Pitt), and his evil archnemesis, Megamind (Will Ferrell). Why is Tina Fey’s spunky gal reporter named Roxanne Ritchi rather than Mia Madsen? Then again, considering the level of confusion I’m already suffering from the antagonists names, I keep thinking the hero’s name is Mega Man; perhaps it’s just as well there aren’t more M.M.s. Megamind’s sidekick is called Minion, and they live in Metro City, but those only have one “M” apiece.
Throughout history, flamboyant bad guys from the Wicked Witch of the West to the Joker and Darth Vader have threatened to upstage less colorful good guys. Recently, animated family films have turned the spotlight directly on the bad guys, most recently Universal’s charming Despicable Me. Megamind is from DreamWorks, which has been on a roll lately with How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda. Some would extend the roll to Monsters vs. Aliens, another role-reversing film, but one I found mean-spirited and subversive. Megamind is kind of subversive too, but it’s not mean-spirited, and I find it enjoyable in a way that I don’t Monsters vs. Aliens.
On the one hand, Megamind offers a jaundiced look at a Superman figure who embodies all of the invincible sanctimoniousness that Batman partisans have always claimed for the Man of Steel. A lantern-jawed clown, Metro Man is a shallow supercelebrity with no self-doubt or self-awareness, a parody of muscle-bound perfection who literally walks on water and takes his godlike status for granted. Later on, (the tell-all trailers shamelessly give it all away, but I won’t spoil it here) there are revelations about another side of Metro Man, but it doesn’t exactly humanize him, at least in a good way.
And yet, even in this deconstructed form, the Superman archetype remains potent enough that when Metro Man drops out of the picture his absence leaves an existential void not only for Roxanne Ritchi, but even for Megamind himself. Standing in the newly opened Metro Man Museum before a titanic statue of the Man himself, the supervillain and the reporter struggle to make sense of a world without iconic goodness. The departure of Metro Man dimly echoes the death of God in the 1960s. Even Megamind recognizes that evil exists only in relation to goodness, though the way he goes about trying to act on this insight is the sort of thing that would only make sense to a supervillain.
Eventually, there’s a new super on the scene, named Titan. Power-wise, he’s in Metro Man’s league, at least in principle, and Megamind has high hopes for him — but it turns out that what makes a hero, even a hero of Metro Man’s caliber, isn’t necessarily as easy as following the formula. Hilariously spoofing a certain iconic performance in the original 1978 Superman, Megamind offers Titan a pedagogy in heroism.
But not only doesn’t Titan have the right stuff, his story arc darkly suggests that a seemingly harmless loser’s very mediocrity might be all that restrains him from becoming something much worse. Titan exemplifies humanity in its corruptibility and fallenness; if Megamind’s antihero protagonist status evokes sympathy for the marginalized, Titan reminds us that the marginal are no more inherently sympathetic than anyone else.
At the same time, Megamind is aware that goodness didn’t actually begin and end with Metro Man. As long as there is evil, more than one character suggests, good will rise up against it. It might not come from a would-be hero like Titan; it might come from Roxanne, or possibly even Megamind himself.
Megamind isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it’s good, clean fun. Some readers may know I’m no fan of Will Ferrell, but he’s good in the role, and a rapid cross fire of words between Megamind and Metro Man simultaneously recalls Ferrell’s brilliantly loopy non sequitur tangents (see lions versus tuna in The Other Guys) with the surreally florid metaphorical fancies of The Tick. It’s even funny how Megamind mispronounces a lot of words: clearly someone who spent a lot of time as a kid alone with books (he said, with the voice of experience).
Brad Pitt, who had a starring role in one of DreamWorks’ best hand-drawn animated films, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, is effective in a smaller role. Tina Fey brings strength, character and humor to the critical role of Roxanne.
There are some clever twists and riffs on comic-book conventions, from Metro Man’s superspeed to the possibility of an unexpected superweakness. The villain’s third-act defeat can be seen coming a long way off, but the climactic stunt is an inspired application of one of Megamind’s nefarious devices.
If in the end, I have a caveat about Megamind, it comes down to the ambiguity of Metro Man. Though not ultimately unsympathetic, Metro Man is seen, finally, in a decidedly nonheroic light. Unlike Pixar’s vastly superior The Incredibles, which affirmed the heroic archetype even as it cross-examined it, Megamind suggests that sometimes the hero isn’t really a hero at all. That may not be problematic in itself, but it might be symptomatic of a larger issue that, repeated in film after film, can become a problem.
Children need heroes: icons of courage, compassion and self-sacrifice to look up to and aspire to imitate. Part of growing up is coming to understand and accept that even the best of our heroes have feet of clay, and all of them will let us down in one way or another. But that knowledge should come gradually, tempered with deep respect for the tremendous accomplishments of men and women with feet of clay. The heroic image of the knight, the saint, the ideal mother or father should remain a lively ideal in our imaginations, tempered by reality, but not sullied by cynicism.
A child’s capacity for hero worship shouldn’t be squelched by cynical deconstructionism. Not that one movie will do that. Megamind is a fun, silly, entertaining movie that families will enjoy and will do no one any harm. But I wouldn’t want to raise my children on a diet of film after film that skewers the pretensions of would-be heroes. My kids and I spend plenty of time with Spider-Man, Zorro, Msgr. O’Flaherty (of The Scarlet and the Black), Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, Luke and Leia and Han, Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn, and many others. We’ll watch Megamind too.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
He also blogs at NCRegister.com.
Content advisory: Animated action violence. Fine family viewing.