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.

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