Friday, January 27, 2012

How Beauty and the Beast Tries Not to Creep You Out

Though I love Disney's Beauty and the Beast, I can't get on board with the backlash against the backlash, the disdain for any attempt to describe the film as representing Stockholm Syndrome or metaphorical domestic abuse. Usually this rebuttal is that the film is about the Beast becoming a good person, and Belle never puts up with his shit, so that those who criticize the film's morality simply aren't looking at its contents properly.

That's not really the issue, though. The fact is, there's no way to intellectually "prove" that Beauty and the Beast is or is not about this sort of thing. Relating the specifics of its story or the intention of the writers will not talk viewers out of their gut reactions. Nor should there be any need to try: viewers ought to be open when a work disturbs them. It doesn't mean they want the work censored, or think it's actually bad: it might just creep them out in ways not intended by the people who made it.

Asking myself the question, "Does the plot of Beauty and the Beast unintentionally make me uncomfortable?", well, I love the film a great deal, because it is well-crafted in terms of plot and animation, has actual character development, and it's likable with good songs. I love the character of Belle, and the design of the Beast, and when they start falling in love, it feels very natural and true to the characters rather than a generic love story. But...I can't help but wince a little when I think about the conditions of the movie.

I can't get over the idea that when they start falling in love, Belle is still technically his prisoner. Sure, she's happy, and the Beast isn't getting a free ride, either--he has to learn to become a better person, and sets her free when she needs to go. But Belle is only there because she was imprisoned. I believe in the central romance well enough, but I just can't forget that. At the start Belle was terrified: she was crying, despairing, and so on. I can't forget it.

Fiction is funny because sometimes you're okay with witnessing things that would disturb you in the real world, and sometimes you aren't. No one can predict how they will react, and no one knows how to create a work so the audience will completely forget about the real world and look at the fiction only in terms of its "objective" creation and not their own values or experiences. Many viewers forget entirely about the real-world suggestions found in Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed the story as-is, but no one needs to apologize for a piece of fiction making them uncomfortable.

The particular backlash towards criticism of Beauty and the Beast, however, may be founded on how hard the film tries to make its potentially unsettling aspects presentable for a modern, egalitarian audience. Given the way popular art is designed to evoke emotions, Beauty and the Beast should not be attacked for trying to do this, but it can be studied as an expert way to create a movie that gets viewers to feel what you want them to feel, and render a potentially disturbing situation palatable.

I went briefly over the ways the film does this in my initial review, but I'm going to talk about the attempts again. The makers of the Beauty and the Beast were apparently cagey enough to understand that some might find the idea of a man trying to woo his prisoner unpalatable in the 1990s. So, they do the following:

Firstly, Belle, the heroine, is an egalitarian dream. She is strong-willed, intelligent, and adventurous. Giving her this strength makes it seem as though she is on equal footing with the Beast, and therefore there is no problem in what they do together. 

A lot of us nerd girls also identified with her, and so we are even more willing to give her experiences the benefit of the doubt, lest we start seeing our empowerment fantasy as a simple victim instead. It ought to be a lot more complicated than that, since the Beast still has power over her, but I can see why Belle's characterization makes many people want to go with it.

As a particular example, Belle is technically in the castle of her own free will. She must stay, because she willingly gave herself in exchange for her father, whom the Beast had imprisoned. In the eyes of many viewers, Belle is less the victim because she acted for herself, and stays in the castle in part because she chooses to obey that obligation. Furthermore, she only starts to love the Beast when he realizes he must be nice to her and actually tries.

However, I don't forget that Beast had no reason to keep Belle there except the most mercenary one: here is a girl that could break my spell. The situation is treated as an awkward romance opportunity, completely ignoring the fact that Belle has no choice but to stay there. Perhaps in real medieval France, the Beast would also be obliged to keep her out of dishonouring the castle, but this being Disney, we can't assume historically-accurate values when not in evidence, and put the onus for Belle's freedom entirely on the Beast. Still, I can see why that part worked for most viewers, too.

Secondly, the film gives the Beast an even worse "beast" to play off. Enter Gaston, who actually and overtly does want to enslave Belle in marriage. Gaston is vain, callous, anti-intellectual and sexist. With him around, sticking his chauvinism right in your face, of course audiences are more likely to root for Belle and the Beast, because the disturbing stuff there is only subtextual and unintentional. Since Gaston is everything that a liberal-minded woman would hate, this also helps to explain why many progressive people would come to the defence of Beauty and the Beast while decrying similar works.

Thirdly, just gloss things over. When it comes to portraying the Beast, the film very speedily moves away from his initial threatening entrance to replace it with something more along the lines of grouchy and awkward. The scenes where the Beast appears bristling and cloaked in shadow are extremely brief, and his look also softens for the first time when he hears Belle's offer of exchange, which is very early in the film. The film is then ready to make the viewers sympathetic towards the Beast in earnest, to make them forget about that small period where he seemed truly monstrous.

After Belle is set in the castle, the Beast is portrayed as less a terrifying monster than a big, hairy man-child taking his first steps at an awkward courtship. He gives this impression that he is, if not yet likable, is somehow non-threatening. When he starts yelling at Belle's door to come down to dinner, no matter how loud Robby Benson is in that scene, one never gets the impression that he actually would break in and hurt Belle.

It makes some sense, since he was transformed basically for being a brat, but it's also a convenient way to defuse the audience's dislike of the scenario, by making them believe the Beast isn't that bad. It turns the narrative into "woman civilizes man-child" which has its own set of philosophical problems, but is also more benign than the "woman is successfully wooed by her monstrous jailer" angle.

Furthermore, by making the Beast's learning to be a nice person into the central character arc, viewers sympathize with him even more. Belle may be the initial viewpoint character, but it's Beast who goes through the most changes in the story; he is the protagonist, she is the love interest. Because we see him doing nice things for Belle without being prompted, starting with saving her from the wolves after he chased her from the castle for almost touching the enchanted rose, it is easier for the audience to forget that she is technically his prisoner. He loses his childish grumpiness and starts to try to love her in earnest, giving Belle gifts that cater to her interests and self, such as the castle's huge library. We love the Beast because he tries and succeeds to be good, and so it is harder and harder to think of him as a jailer. Just as with Belle's strength, the movie tries to redeem its scenario simply by moving away from the most black-and-white understanding of victimizer and victim. Most of us know intellectually that it's more complicated than this, but we are willing to go along.

Finally, Beast makes the decision to let Belle go when she sees her father lost in the woods: it might cost him his human form, but he loves her enough to do it. Very few, perhaps, could hold onto their objections after such an unselfish display. Introducing such a modern, progressive notion of love also further serves to soften viewers towards the situation the Beast created. After all, he really must see her as a person if he can let her go at this most crucial time, right? Of course, because it's held up as the ultimate proof of their love. Intellectually viewers know that if the Beast were a good person he never would have held her captive at all, but emotionally, one can be pulled in by an individual character's circumstances.

Another justification is not found in anything specific to Beauty and the Beast, but a general unspoken conceit in fiction: the most moral option may be one that would destroy the story as it was, and therefore the character must engage in suspect actions in order to further the plot. The plot proceeds because the Beast and his servants want to keep Belle there regardless of her desires, on the chance she may fall in love with him and break their curse.

Belle is not consulted and does not know their circumstances; if she did know about their plight, it would have killed the suspense of the romance if she agreed, or made it too dark if she disagreed. To some, this serves as justification for the actions of the Beast. If he didn't keep Belle captured, there would be no story, and so it is pointless to complain about his actions.

Yet it is not that easy for anyone to get rid of their instinctive reactions to a plot that hinges on this behaviour. No matter how hard Beauty and the Beast tries to frame a scenario where the actions of the title Beast are considered entirely justifiable, someone is going to be uncomfortable with it.

Like I said, it doesn't entirely work for me. It does because I enjoy the film, but it doesn't because I am still mildly uncomfortable with the main scenario. Still, whatever I do feel, the thorough and meticulous way the film tries to cast Beast and Belle in a palatable light while keeping true to the original prisoner motif is admirable in its craftsmanship. It makes for good product.

This does not mean viewers who feel disturbed by the film are "wrong" or just aren't taking into account the fact that the Beast needed to become a better person before Belle truly loved him. No, sometimes, whatever a story does, a viewer is disturbed by it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Um. Okay.

Until now, I disbelieved speculation that the second season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was catering to the Bronies. The only apparent proof was that the series sometimes indulged in insanity and weirdness, and I remained unconvinced--in fact, I was damn happy it was there, because it proved that girls' cartoons can be nuts, too. Along with the season 1 crazy moments that were already there in season 1.

However, then we got "Derpy Hooves" made canon. Come on, really? First of all, I can't see making a periphary demograhpic's meme character canon being anything but a bad idea. Catering to fans almost always puts a series in a creative slog, not to mention...isn't part of the appeal that the character isn't canon, but is just a weird fandom easter egg? It sounds almost like the Ghostbusters cartoon--Silmer managed to dodge being annoying by being used sparingly, and then he became insufferable when the spotlight, making the lesson that gimmick characters are best shown judiciously. This isn't exactly the same thing, since Derpy will likely never be a regular, but a similar principle is going on here.

Secondly, "Derpy" sounds so unlike an MLP name that it becomes even more jarring. Some fans thought for a while that the background pony's name was really "Ditzy Doo", based on an offhand reference, and, though I'm new to anythihng MLP, that sounds far more like a pony name than "Derpy".

Thirdly, she doesn't sound cartoon-stupid: she sounds like an actual mentally disabled person. That is what's far too disturbingly adult, not Twilight Sparkle going insane, or Fluttershy appearing to wrestle a bear when she's actually just giving him a massage. That's what's out-of-control Brony catering, not making toys of the male characters. It's disturbing.

From the looks of things, reaction to Derpy's brief canon appearance and speaking role overwhelmed discussion of the actual episode, which further proves what a monumentally stupid idea this was. Sheesh.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Defence of the OTHER Prince Adam

When I rediscovered my childhood love of Beauty and the Beast, it made intense a disagreement I had already had with a lot of its fans: the idea that the Beast should never have transformed back into his human self (officially called Prince Adam in supplemental material). At first, I disagreed on sheer abstract principle: I was so damn sick and tired of stories of human women being able to fall in love with strange male beings that I didn't want Beauty and the Beast to go any farther than it already had. Afterwards, I realized that to desire the Beast to remain untransformed goes against both what the film was actually building up towards, and what the character himself actually wanted. In other words, it's an arbitrary desire based on personal sentimentality rather than the actual contents of the film.

For some fans, it's just about being unable to empathize with a character that has a different body and voice type than the one they had spent the entire film experiencing. I can understand that--after all, I've been there. Some simply find the prince ugly on his own, which again I can see, though I very much don't share the opinion. Other times, however, dislike of the Beast's transformation is phrased in terms of spiritual enlightenment: the film ought to have taken its endorsement of love transcending appearance to the logical extreme, and have Belle live completely with the persona she had fallen in love with, because she had done it in spite of his monstrous visage.

Fantastical xenophilia is often used as a metaphor about accepting others for their differences, or transcending petty physical concerns for the higher realm. However, when it is always about a human female learning to love a male being of another species/form/attractiveness level, all the progressive implications are erased, and it seems more like a male fantasy, designed to coddle the egos of certain men, by telling them that women are too pure and good to care about looks. This is why I don't endorse Beauty and the Beast on those terms; what it is telling us on those terms is nothing shocking or new.

(This is also my response to anyone who complains that Quasimodo didn't end up with Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame)

However, this aspect of xenophilia/transcendence actually isn't the main focus of Beauty and the Beast. While in the prologue, the enchantress warned the prince not to be deceived by appearances, and certainly such messages can be derived from the titular romance, the main message is actually "Stop being a dick and you will get a beautiful girl to fall in love with you" not, "Learn to love yourself as a Beast".

Belle does learn to accept the Beast, but it doesn't really change her character. The true character development is instead in the Beast's nature, and does not involve his learning to accept his appearance as permanent. Instead, he learns not to be an overgrown brat, explicitly so that he can become human again. Although he learned to be a nice person while still a Beast, his monstrous state was originally a symbol of his nasty nature. To become human, therefore, symbolizes his success at overcoming this nature.

Not only is this transformation the main focus of the film, it is something the Beast actively desires. He keeps Belle around because he wants the curse to be broken, and freaks out when she almost touches the Rose, his timetable for when the transformation will become permanent. He also shows active distaste for his form, shredding his own portrait, locking away Belle's father after he thinks Maurice is staring at him, and referring to himself as a "monster". Finally, when he is at last returned to human form, he is overjoyed.

In short, everything in the film points towards the Beast wanting to become human again, and there is no reason given as to why he would not wish it so. In fact, if you listen to the audio commentary for the film, one of the intentions for the story was that the Beast was losing more of his human nature as time went on, to the point where he might have eventually lost his sapience.

Because of all this, it becomes petty to demand a film change everything it was building up to, and a main character change everything they wanted. There are many stories where characters have their goals altered or thwarted, but in the best cases it is built up by the plot and supported by the story's themes. To simply introduce failure in the end without reason or support is bad writing. As Beauty and the Beast exists now, there is nothing that suggests that the Beast would or should remain untransformed in the final reel, and to do so would make the film far too dark and too much of a waste.

Compare it with Shrek. When this movie tries to subvert the Beauty and the Beast story by Fiona turning permanently into an ogre instead of the human princess she expected, it's foreshadowed and endorsed by events in the story. Since Shrek is an allegedly egalitarian subversion of the Disneyfied fairy tales, the audience expects Fiona's, "This is not how a princess is supposed to look" line to be challenged. In addition, her anguish about her ogre form already seems more flimsy than the Beast's equivalent, in light of the fact that Shrek is an ogre, too, and she has already become attracted to him.

Furthermore, Fiona is marrying Farquaad, who is clearly wrong for her, just to break the curse, meaning that working to break the curse is not associated with positive character development as in Beauty and the Beast, but in unnecessary negativity. Learning to accept herself as an ogre coincides with general positive development, i.e. finally rejecting Farquaad and accepting Shrek as her lover, the man she was actually having a good time with. Thus, when Fiona remains an ogre, it is actually what the plot was leading towards. Beauty and the Beast did not create the same expectations.

Many people who protest the Beast's return to human form might instead be considering it from Belle's POV. Belle, like a good chunk of the audience, has fallen in love with the Beast as he is, and so must find it difficult to accept the change. And she briefly does, her face quirking as she looks at the new human form, only accepting him when she sees the same eyes that he has always had.

It might provide more fuel for the anti-prince fires: Belle having brief difficulty accepting his form for a second is transformed into a daydream that he remained a Beast. However, Disney's Beauty and the Beast is unusual in that while Belle is the viewpoint character in the beginning, the Beast is the character who develops the most, and who is considered the actual protagonist. Therefore, any of his desires trump Belle's when it comes to what form he has: because he is the protagonist, the Beast "deserves" to dictate what will happen with his body, and as we've already seen, he wants to become human. Or if you want, simple logic: who decides what their ideal body should be--the owner of the body, or the person who's fallen in love with it? The owner, of course. In addition, if it is about love transcending appearances, then Belle does should not care what he looks like either way, right?

Alternatively, male viewers might look on the Beast as a power fantasy and feel disappointed when it is taken away. But again, this is not what the character or the narrative wants, so the desires of viewers are moot.

Essentially, the Beast's returning to human form is the only way the story could have ended. To have it otherwise would be like Star Wars without the Death Star blowing up. The Beast is the protagonist, he wants to be human, already has a lesson to learn about emotional control, and so there is no reason for him to permanently remain a Beast once he has succeeded in his quest to not be one. Love beyond appearances already exists in Beauty and the Beast (for women, at least), and it must eventually stand aside for the plot development and the fulfillment of a character’s goals.

Not to mention it would seem pretty half-assed to have him stay a Beast, while the rest of the castle's servants transform back into humans and the castle to shed its semi-grotesque nature. If one wanted the Beast to remain a Beast, they would have to be watching a far different film than the one that actually exists.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Not Featuring Harlock: Simon Furman's "Space Pirates" and Post-Movie Transformers

The breadth of my interest in a fandom's material tends to decrease the longer I am in it: I go from devouring everything in sight to becoming entirely too choosy. Recently, I've come to very mildly regret almost entirely losing interest in the old Marvel Transformers comics. This, also spurred by receiving The Transformers Vault for Christmas, lead me to buy one of the many reprinted collections with my Christmas money, to see if they still held up.

I picked something from the Marvel UK run, which ran concurrently with the US Marvel comic but had many more issues as filler in between their stories, allowing for a more epic scope. Out of these, I chose the IDW Space Pirates book because it covers familiar territory.

My favourite G1 Transformers have almost entirely been (with the exception of Marvel Shockwave) the ones introduced in the animated Transformers movie. The third season of the cartoon did me a huge favour by making these characters the main cast for its period, but the Marvel Comics almost entirely avoided these characters in their main storyline. There was no overhaul like the cartoon series, in which one cast virtually replaced another. Rather, the comics just added more and more to the cast, with a chance of characters from any era putting in an appearance.  It might be due to more care in the writing, making the story progression more organic.

In the US, those TF:TM characters they did introduce were tertiary until Galvatron appeared late in the run as a major villain. The UK comics, however, had an alternate future universe that seemed heavily based off of the cartoon's season three. This universe frequently crossed over with the main continuity, but was rarely the subject of its own tales, and thus was secondary. At the same time, certain TF:TM characters did exist in the main continuity and showed up frequently, albeit in far different contexts.

At the time, I was hungry for anything featuring the TF:TM characters, and the Marvel UK material was a great way to get my fix. This was before reprinted collections, and I read these comics in small, almost illegible .jpgs off now-defunct websites. I enjoyed them very much, but at some point, I began to drift away from the comics, so that when the paperback collections were released by various publishers, I never picked them up.

I regret that a bit now, since I enjoyed reading Space Pirates, as well as the additional stories that were included in the volume to create some sense of sequence in IDW’s cherry-picked collections of UK series. . If I had more money I would gladly buy the rest of the UK collections, even those without my favourite characters in them. However, despite this enjoyment, Space Pirates and the other stories lack the emotional connection that would make me love these comics as much as G1 season three, even when the comics are better-written

The main problem is that while the plots are far and above the cartoon, Simon Furman's writing lacks a heart, of sorts. I can see some defining character traits, but a lot of the time, the Transformers seem terribly generic except for a few standouts. Their voices start to blend together, which is probably inevitable with such a large cast, but it does dampen the appeal. There's also large amounts of third-person dialogue and clunky exposition, making the comics seem less like a work that could stand on its own to non-Transformers fans who are less inclined to put up with the cheesiness.

Sometimes the characterization is disagreeable rather than dull. Cyclonus, appearing in one of the other stories in this volume, is the worst offender. He's a total moron, probably the most stupid character in the book. It's not just difference from the cartoon that's the problem—he'd read as insufferably dumb to a non-fan, too. One of the worst parts is when he lets slip a secret in a fit of anger, just a few panels after he was told not to.

Arcee in Space Pirates is a close runner-up, and since she's the only female Transformer in the cast, it makes Furman suspect in other ways. She deserts her post to go on a joyride, allowing the Quintessons to take over Autobot City, never gets a chance to fight as she is shot, used as bait, then limps around after Hot Rod while he does the important stuff. I never was all that fond of Arcee, and she could be as bad as this in the cartoon, but the comics is supposed to be better-written.

(Of course, what could you expect from the same writer who's taken multiple swipes at the concept of female Transformers and viewers who want to see them? Look at Prime's Rib and Spotlight: Arcee for examples)

I loved Shockwave in other Marvel comics, but here his "logical" personality is replaced by a more generic leadership. One could replace him with Megatron or several other of the comics' many Decepticon leaders, and little would change. Soundwave also talks like a normal character instead of his famous terse monotone, but doesn't get any new personality in return, except for a brief moment where he almost wants to reconcile with the Autobots after they team up against the Quintessons. Was anything ever really done with that? Springer, who is only seen in the main universe, is a generic hardass warrior without his quips or swagger. Scourge is presented as a more generic warrior-leader, obviously the brains of the outfit when Cyclonus is around, and he's kind of boring, too. It's not simply that they are different, but that the differing characterizations aren't that interesting.

When they appear, Cyclonus and Scourge are also working against Galvatron, to the point of wanting to kill him. I realize that Simon Furman is not obligated to stick to the cartoon's portrayal of the characters as Galvatron's loyal soldiers, but I do a mental pearl-clutch nonetheless. Scourge in the cartoon was a traitor once, so I could picture him doing something like this...but even so, it's not my thing.

This is a "Best of" series, so smaller, incidental stories are skipped over, though advertisements for these stories remain. Ideally a series of graphic novels collecting the entire UK run would be preferable, not just the "big" stories, though several complications make that difficult.

I've spent so much time ragging on the Space Pirates graphic novel, what's good about it? Well, all the things I complained of didn't entirely spoil the proceedings. I was still enjoying a comic that read like it could be a multi-part episode of the cartoon's third season, even hearing some of the character's lines in their cartoon voices (even if a few lines didn't sound like something they would say). Essentially, the Quintesson homeworld is in danger of being destroyed, and one of the planets they "scout" for re-colonization is Cybertron. Lead by General Ghyrick (one of those lobster-hands "executioner" type Quintessons), they attack Autobot City and Cybertron itself, hoping to overpower the Transformers and take  Cybertron.

The time rift that almost destroys the Quintesson planet is tied to the larger storyline, but it could easily have been replaced with another plot device. The continuity is obviously different, above all the fact that the planet suffered an entirely different fate in the TV series, but the connections are undeniable.

There is still something to be said for the plot being better than anything the cartoon produced at the time, and it still has some nods to individual characterization, such as Hot Rod's brief moment of self-doubt when he's about to die, or his hot-headedness as Rodimus Prime.

The additional stories I've spoken of, the ones leading into the next volume, are also entertaining, and would never pass for an episode of the cartoon for various reasons. It is nice to get some of the TF:TM Decepticons in this volume, too, though in a different story than the TF:TM Autobots.

I am judging too much based on the cartoon, and the comic is arguably better, but the cartoon is what's been rolling around inside my head for far longer, and I consider its portrayals to be the definitive versions of Rodimus Prime, Galvatron, et. al. This comic may be better-written, but it does not draw me in emotionally as the cartoon did.

As for the artwork, I mostly like it. I enjoy Dan Reed's unconventional Transformers art, and so on. My only complaint is the simplified new colour schemes for some characters: Particularly bad are Hot Rod coloured almost entirely in magenta and silver, and the bipedal types of Quintesson which are a uniform purple and green.

In short, the comics are long on plot, short on character. I can't let go of my attachment to the cartoon, but beyond that there are still things to pick apart. The Transformers comics have a cast of dozens, but as all the memories come flooding back, I can remember few characters that stand out or that I emotionally connected with. At the same time, the stories are gripping, and not completely devoid of emotional investment. I wouldn't be averse to acquiring more copies of the UK comics, though I would start with the ones starring the "future" characters and whatever the mainline Ultra Magnus gets up to.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

An Extremely Belated Megamind Review

There's a lot I could hate about Megamind: unlike the other CGI Dreamworks films that I've enjoyed,  it doesn't stray as far from the studio's stereotypes: it has a pop culture references, a dance-party ending, and arched eyebrows all over the movie poster--yet I liked it. It's been called derivative of The Incredibles and Despicable Me, but it doesn't feel that way. There are certainly a lot of jokes that better superhero parodies have done before, and better, but Megamind appeals more as a comedic character study than as a straightforward superhero parody. Sure, it’s funny sometimes, but the actions of the four major characters are what really sell it.

Megamind (Will Ferrell) is one of those typical ineffectual, villains-in-name-only supervillains, but he actually has some character development. He goes through an existential crisis after killing his arch nemesis Metro Man (Brad Pitt)--not new, but done in an interesting way, because eventually Megamind decides that maybe he doesn’t have to be a villain after all. It’s not done sappily or rushed, and you end up believing it.

Even before that, he's a pretty entertaining character. I'm normally opposed to celebrity voices, and don't care for Will Ferrell, but he is just having so much fun in his role as Megamind that I forget all the cash-grabbing and mugging and just plain like the character. Despicable Me came out at around the same time, but Megamind is a completely different character from Gru: he is energetic, naïve, and dorky, perpetually imitating rock-star showmanship, and he never really fights against the possibility of changing his role.

Megamind walks around in black and spikes to the tune of power rock anthems, and looks wonderfully silly. It's the same songs you've heard a million times, but as I said, he's just so much fun. His playlist includes AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and "Back in Black" (the former censored by a conveniently compromised radio), and Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle". The Dance Party Ending, which serves a symbolic purpose but still seems very forced, is set to Michael Jackson's "Bad". It's all very obvious choices, and it can be faulted for doing something easy. Yet it's not dated, since the songs are enduring. There is a lot of pop culture in Megamind, but nothing that will become dated, except for his "No You Can't" parody of Obama's "Yes We Can" posters.

So, Megamind's way of coping with his post-Metro Man malaise is to try to create a new hero so he can get himself back in the game. This ends up backfiring horribly when he accidentally infuses loser cameraman Hal Stewart (Jonah Hill) with superpowers. Megamind disguises himself as a midget parody of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El to mentor him into being a hero, but Stewart, as "Tighten" (because he can’t spell "Titan", despite being a nerdy sort), just decides to be a worse villain than Megamind ever was.

Megamind has to team up with Metro Man's platonic Lois Lane, Roxanne Richter (Tina Fey), whom he's actually been in love with all along. Oh, and Metro Man isn't dead, just faked his own death because he wanted to be a folk singer instead.

The proactive stance that Megamind takes makes him endearing, and after you watch it a few times, one might start to think that Megamind's villainy, ineffectual though it is, is a product of his circumstances (being raised in a jail after his pod crashed there, being picked on for being different), and that he might have always had the potential to be the hero. In fact, though the film is pretty clunky in spots, it seems to be about deciding one's own destiny. Megamind doesn't have to be a villain, and Metro Man doesn't have to be a hero.

Yes, yes, to be fair, Metro Man faking his own death, driving the city into mourning and letting Megamind run amok for his very brief period makes him look like a total asshole. But one of the funny things about fiction is that you can sometimes live with people's actions that would be horrible in real life. You get the feeling that despite this trickery, Metro Man isn't meant to be an asshole like, say, Captain Amazing from Mystery Men, and you want him to stay retired if he wants, because Megamind will be the superhero from now on. In fact, though I'm not terribly invested in making sure Superman-type characters aren't portrayed as huge jackasses, I somehow like that Megamind didn't go the route of making the "traditional" hero a jerk. Besides going into hiding, Metro Man seems to deserve every ounce of praise the public gives him.

In the same vein, I enjoyed that Hal, who looks like a CGI Seth Rogan character, first seemed like he would end up a "lovable loser" actually turned out to be a nasty little bugger once he gets the powers of a god. I read it as not being about power corrupting, but rather that Hal was that way all along, just that he was just powerless to act on it. Roxanne didn't have to learn to "give him a chance", as so many other films would have had her do, because Hal never had a chance. Granted, Megamind pretty much fills that role of "nerdy loser that the female lead learns to love", but it's not quite as blatant as it would be if Roxanne fell in love with Hal instead.

The relationship between Megamind and Roxanne is something that survives on sheer virtue of conceptual interest. The two characters don't have much romantic chemistry, even when Megamind is dating Roxanne while impersonating the human Bernard (Ben Stiller). The two characters are wonderful as co-collaborators against Tighten, but that is it. The idea of these two characters as a couple is still enough to sell the movie, but one can't feel the truth in their gut.

The problem is partly that Roxanne is just not that interesting a character. It seems like the writers and director think they're being subversive by having her act resigned and snarky in the presence of the superhero world, but it goes back to another trope: that the female character in a comedy may be the smartest, but she's also the dullest. And so it goes. She gets a couple good lines, but normally she's just kind of…she has a personality, she's active, a generic "strong normal woman" but she's still not terribly interesting. Which is a shame, because Tina Fey is awesome.

I was one of the many viewers who thought the staging of the scene where Megamind is contemplating who to give the new hero powers to meant he was thinking of choosing Roxanne. That might have made her a more engaging character, even though I really like the plot as-is, because of the way it subverted Hal as the "lovable loser".

It goes without saying that Megamind's sidekick Minion (David Cross) is adorable, an alien fish in a bubble atop the body of Ro-Man Extension X-J2, that infamous gorilla-in-a-diving-suit B-movie alien. Minion's choice of transportation is just one of the many suggestions that the makers of this move are enamoured with B-Movies and superhero culture. All three main characters have alliterative names, like many Marvel Comics heroes, and "Hal Stewart" is named for two different Green Lanterns. In this light, the many references to Superman (the character of Metro Man, the origins of both Megamind and Metro Man, Roxanne's role as a reporter, and Megamind as "Space Dad") are likely desired rather than obligatory. Megamind also represents the cliché of the frail-bodied, giant-brained alien "genius", though in this case the term "genius" is very relative, and his frailness isn't played up.

Overall, although some parts are painful, or not all that they could be, Megamind was surprisingly enjoyable. The main character is a lot of fun, the plot is an interesting take on several clichés, and the Dreamworks stereotypes aren't as grating.