There are very few riffs on the big superhero icons that have yet to be played. Within the officially licensed playgrounds of characters like Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the Hulk and Wonder Woman and the like, they’ve played every variation on the theme imaginable, and that doesn’t count all the unofficial ways people have digested and re-digested this material and these archetypes. Post-modernism has given rise to a rich tradition of taking these characters and intentionally inverting the basic ingredients to see what will happen.
Which is a long way of saying “Megamind” isn’t particularly cutting-edge in terms of the way it plays with the DNA of Superman and Lex Luthor, but it is smart about it. Director Tom McGrath and screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft & Brent Simons start with some very familiar origins, and from those very first moments, they’re playing with expectation. Megamind is launched as a baby from a dying planet, his spaceship programmed to take him to Earth. On the way through space, though, he encounters another spaceship with another baby, and that’s the spaceship that lands in the perfect place, with the perfect parents, with the perfect baby inside eventually growing into the beloved hero Metro Man. Megamind’s spaceship lands inside the walls of a prison, where he is raised to be a criminal. He embraces his identity early on, hating Metro Man for all of his advantages and for the way he’s beloved. Their lifelong rivalry falls into a pattern that should be familiar to anyone who ever read a comic book. Megamind kidnaps Metro Man’s girlfriend Roxanne Ritchi, Megamind threatens the city, and Metro Man saves the day. Over and over and over.
So what happens if Megamind wins? What happens if he does the unthinkable and actually kills Metro Man? What happens to Evil without Good to bounce off of?
That set of questions frames the rest of the running time, and although I would describe “Megamind” as a superhero comedy, this isn’t a film that just goes for the laugh at the expense of everything else. Will Ferrell’s performance as Megamind is oddly touching, and he reveals the vulnerable insecurity that fuels much of Megamind’s “evil.” His one consistent relationship is with a blue alien fish that lives in a bowl on top of a robot body, Minion, and David Cross does nice work in support of Megamind. Once Metro Man is gone, Megamind is forced to explore his feelings about the oft-kidnapped reporter Roxanne Ritchi, voiced with a healthy sense of skepticism by Tina Fey, and there’s a better love story told between the two of them in the film than in 90% of what passes as “romantic comedy” in Hollywood. When Megamind realizes that he has to have an adversary, the way he solves that problem adds a very different wrinkle to the idea of who’s a hero and who’s a villain.
Dreamworks Animation has had an exceptionally strong year for a studio that has traditionally produced slick but disposable movies. The “Shrek” franchise, the studio’s signature series so far, isn’t going to have much of a shelf life thanks to the way it manages to be absolutely of the moment, from the soundtrack to the pop culture references to the guest casting in the sequels. I just don’t see kids 20 years from now feeling a connection to the material or the style of a film like that. This year, though, Dreamworks has turned out movies that feel more self-contained, more like real movies than joke machines. “How To Train Your Dragon” and “Megamind” suggest that the studio has turned a corner, and that they’re finally easing up on the non-stop connections to the larger pop culture in favor of fundamentally good storytelling. What an innovation.
Technically, the film’s very striking, and the 3D print I saw made great use of the immersive quality of 3D, particularly during the big superheroics in the film. There’s one other character I’ve barely mentioned, played by Jonah Hill, and that’s because I’m determined not to be as revealing as the ad campaign, ruining the film’s narrative reveals. Hill’s character has the greatest evolution over the course of the film, and he does really strong work at each stage of the character’s transformation. The fact that the film flirts with some real darkness in terms of character and content was a surprise, but it feels organic, and it’s handled just right, never tipping too far.
Overall, “Megamind” is a rock-solid example of how to take familiar material and wring new life from it, and the film’s sense of humor should appeal to both hardcore fans of the genre and to general audiences alike, a tricky balancing act that not many films get right. “Megamind” may not be as punk-rock rude as “Kick Ass” or as genre-defining as “Watchmen” or as transgressively filthy as “Super,” but in its own way, “Megamind” manages to be both commentary and comic book, and I have no doubt audiences will eat it up.
“Megamind” opens Friday, November 5, in theaters everywhere.