The world of kids’ movies labors under the burden of worthy but dull messages. It’s good to be yourself. It’s okay to be different. Virtuous people will triumph, meanies will suffer and the guy with the greatest integrity will win the girl, if there is a girl to be won. Although Megamind’s ending is all that a conservative parent might want, en route to that closure, the movie manages to wriggle free of some of these conventions. It creates spaces, however temporary, where even very young viewers might work out that no one is locked into a single role for life and that genuine choice means more than either-or.
The movie begins as an apparently traditional battle of good versus evil. Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and Megamind (Will Ferrell) are exiled aliens dispatched to earth where they have battled for control of Metro City for as long as they can remember. But within minutes of the movie’s opening, the script exposes the contradictions in the superhero genre, and refreshingly sets out to explore what happens if a villain wins. Metro Man, all bulging muscles and steroidal overkill, constantly outfoxes Megamind, an anime-skinny manikin with a bulging blue head, but never quite manages to vanquish him. And so they lock themselves into routine struggles for dominance, most often played out over the body of news reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), whom Megamind regularly kidnaps and Metro Man equally regularly frees.
When, one day, Megamind unexpectedly defeats Metro Man, his life loses direction, turning into a meaningless round of mindless destruction and casual killing. Fearful for his sanity, he decides to re-inject purpose into his existence by creating a new opponent, the genetically modified superhero Tighten (a brilliant Jonah Hill) from lifetime dweeb Hal, Roxanne’s downtrodden camera operator. But nurture outfoxes science, turning the newly empowered Tighten into the avenger for every insult he has ever suffered. As Megamind’s plan to create fulfilling combat with a worthy enemy backfires, he faces the conundrum of what to do in a world with two super-villains and no hope of good. In the (alas) transient upturning of traditional morality that is so appealing to kids, Megamind does not decide to fight for good because it’s the right thing to do. He does so because it’s his last chance of escaping boredom and exercising his intelligence against a worthy enemy.
For kids (and adults) familiar with the superhero genre, Megamind’s riffs on its history provide much of the incidental pleasure that textures the brisk plot. A Superman-like premise—Megamind and Metro Man are both aliens sent to earth as children—leads to more conventions, some upended, others intact. Megamind conjures a meek, Clark Kent-like alter ego as an inarticulate museum worker named Bernard, and Roxanne ends up tied, inevitably, to the radio mast of the tallest building in the city. One of the wittiest gags is Ferrell’s impersonation of Marlon Brando in Superman as Space Dad, the white-coiffed dispenser of banal wisdom into whom Megamind transforms himself to train Tighten. Indeed, Ferrell’s performance as Megamind drives the movie. He seems liberated by the medium, and his voicing of Megamind explores subtle ranges of introspection and emotion, quite unlike his live-action roles.
As petulant and clever as Megamind may be, he’s not the only protagonist bored by the superhero movie routine. Metro Man is also anguished at doing the same thing over and over again. That he too seeks an alternative (here, made specifically mundane, eating peanut butter sandwiches, playing bad guitar, and feeling responsible to no one but himself), might strike longing chords with both adult and kid viewers.
Still, we anticipate that, just as popular culture offers alternatives to social norms with one hand, it inevitably snatches them away with another. Roxanne casually confesses to Megamind that she and Metro Man were never the item the whole of Metro City assumed them to be. Superficially, it could be exactly the kind of comment a young woman, eager to dismiss the alliances of her past, might say to a romantic prospect. But it’s also a gratuitous moment within the arc of a very tight plot. At its most innocent, her disclosure might simply suggest that not every male-female relationship need invoke heterosexual pairing. Or it might instruct that women leave behind platonic relationships with men when they fall in love, that friendships between men and women are incompatible with romantic attraction.
It’s hard not to suspect that the film is presenting Metro Man’s self-liberation as an aberration. A man who could abandon not only the daily grind of fighting evil but also the cutest, smartest woman in town, to live alone, away from society’s expectations, may be a not-so-subtle intimation that he is not interested in women and is not the heterosexual hero the genre usually applauds. Along with this possibility, the movie provides an alternative ending to the usual celebratory heterosexual coupling. And doors to individual interpretations remain open right to Megamind‘s conclusion.
For the cynical viewer (of any age), the film’s trajectory punches a hole the size of Texas through Megamind’s euphoria at defeating the bad guy and also conquering Roxanne’s heart. For how long can his redemption hold? Once again, he has defeated his rival and enjoys unchallenged power over Metro City. If he plunged into anomie even when he could unleash unrestricted evil on Metro City, how satisfying will he find a life without challenge once the dizzying novelty of “doing good” has evaporated? Does the resolution of Megamind imply that the love of a feisty woman banishes existential angst? It does, viewer, it does, just as movies, animated or not, have done since their earliest reels turned. But with any luck, preteen skeptics will skim past the bug-eyed smooching and recognize that change is good, and that lasting change comes from individual soul-searching and decisiveness, not from the heady whiff of fleeting pheromones.