There’s only really so much you can do with a character like Superman, who, as the overbearing, overpowering and ultimately alien avatar of truth, justice and the American way, hasn’t really evolved much since his debut in 1938. Superman has been part of the American cultural lexicon for a long time now—I know something like five people who, as children, owned copies of Action Comics #1—but little about him fascinates the imagination anymore, and probably hasn’t since the 1978 film. What remains most interesting about the Man of Steel is his origin story. You don’t have to be a nerd to know that Superman was the last son of a dying planet, that he was shoved into a rocket with nothing more than a blanket and a CD-ROM of the accumulated knowledge of his planet. We know these things, have known them for some time, and know some tremendous stories with the premise that Superman didn’t land in a Kansas cornfield, never became Clark Kent. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Megamind isn’t one of those tremendous stories, but it comes loaded with the accumulated knowledge of what makes Superman great, and happens to be a pretty good story in its own right.
Will Ferrell: Megamind
Tina Fey: Roxanne
Hal/Titan: Jonah Hill
Minion: David Cross
Metro Man: Brad Pitt
Far Fucking Out
It escapes some people that the first draft of Superman had him as a villain, a poor man plucked from a breadline and experimented on by a mad scientist. Under the influence of the scientist’s telepathy potion, the superman grows a giant head and has designs on world domination. Megamind (Will Ferrell), looks a little bit like the original superman and has similar plans, though his chosen place of dominance is Metro City, which is protected by a scene-stealing, baby kissing hero by the name of Metro Man (Brad Pitt). Megamind and Metro Man have what Megamind calls “a glorious rivalry,” though “glorious” isn’t exactly the adjective most would lavish on the villain’s never-ending string of defeats. That changes, however, when Megamind discovers Metro Man’s weakness and kills him in broad daylight.
No longer a C-level villain mired in a hopeless quest to defeat his nemesis, Megamind does what any good bad guy would do and ransacks the city. But, without the promise of another battle with Metro Man, life for Megamind is rather boring. He mopes around his lair, lusting for the glory days. Purposelessness isn’t exactly Megamind’s bag, so, rather than drift aimlessly, he develops a potion that will turn a regular man into a Metro Man. He accidentally juices up Hal (Jonah Hill), the cameraman for Roxanne (Tina Fey), the newswoman he has a horrible, horrible crush on. Hal becomes Titan, and once it becomes obvious to him that superpowers aren’t what turns Roxanne on, Titan goes rogue, destroying the city at a clip that a poor sap like Megamind could never hope to match.
But…wait. Titan was supposed to be the good guy in all this, smashing Megamind’s nefarious plots with a bare minimum effort, snapping photos with tourists and attending ribbon cutting ceremonies for new stores that open in the rubble of old stores destroyed by Titan vs. Megamind superbrawls. Yeah, well, life doesn’t always work out that way. The funny thing about destiny is that the only people who know theirs in advance are in books or on the screen. Megamind probably never figured on killing Metro Man, but he does. Megamind probably never figured he’d date a woman like Roxanne, but he does. Megamind probably never figured on a lot of things, and his superman going crazy on them is certainly one of them, but like many an animated hero before him, he finds that destiny isn’t pre-ordained by circumstance.
While Megamind does a good job of riffing on its influences, it is at times maddeningly hamstrung by its desire to be cheered and by its potential to become a franchise rife with easily repeated jokes. Megamind’s biggest misstep is its music. Nothing happens in this movie if it isn’t set to some ancient, easily predicted rock anthem. It’s possible that I’m nitpicking, but believe me, in any other film, were the bad guy to strut through a devastated town to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” you’d feel patronized to the point that your gag reflex kicked in. The old maxim in storytelling is “Show, don’t tell,” meaning that you want your reader or viewer to feel the point of what you’re doing without having to lead them to that feeling by the hand. Megamind, like most Dreamworks animated features, grabs a megaphone and screams at its audience, like so:
- “Bad to the Bone” by George Thurgood and the Destroyers: HE’S A BAD DUDE! BAD, I TELLS YA!
- “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC: THE HERO HAS BEEN BEATEN AND THE BAD GUY IS WALKING TRIUMPANTLY AND THAT’S BAD, REAL BAD.
- “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton: IT’S FUNNY THAT SUCH ARCHETYPICALLY STRAIGHT CHARACTERS ARE LISTENING TO SUCH AN ARCHETYPICALLY GAY STONG. HAW HAW HAW.
- “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘n Roses: OBVIOUSLY A HUGE FIGHT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN. BE PREPARED FOR AMAZEMENT.
And so on. The Hans Zimmer score is there just to be a Hans Zimmer score. At no point in time does anything approach the level of, say, The Incredibles or Superman or even Zimmer’s The Dark Knight, superhero film scores that underline what’s going on without coming across as lazy. Obviously, that comes with a disclaimer. Maybe I’m too old to appreciate the humor in using songs like “Kung-Fu Fighting” in a movie where a panda uses kung-fu, or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Pixar. But these little things continue irk me in just about every Dreamworks film I see, and when I’m irked by the little things, the bigger flaws really stand out. Megamind shows that the studio knows what it’s doing—now it just needs to find enough confidence to do it without relying on the same old pratfalls.