"Megamind" Uncovers the People Underneath the Superhero Costumes

At first glance, Megamind feels just a little too familiar. Dreamworks' latest animated adventure comes in on the heels of Universal's similarly themed Despicable Me, and it dwells in the long shadow of Pixar's The Incredibles. There's a whiff of Watchmen about it, with its deconstructionist take on the characters that populate the world of the comic-book superhero. Even its eponymous antihero is stitched together from a handful of well-known personalities, from real-life mad scientist Nikola Tesla to long-time Flintstones botherer the Great Gazoo. And then there's the plot itself—by its very conceit, Megamind is a mash-up of the superhero tropes that comprise a sizeable chunk of our modern myth-making.

So if we've seen it all before (and recently at that), why is it so entertaining?

Part of Megamind's appeal is the execution, from its strong voice performances to its often stunning animation and design. When you scratch the surface, though, it quickly becomes apparent that Megamind isn't as trite as you might think. It's dressed up as a superhero spoof that explores the protean nature of good and evil—tough to do in a kiddie movie where no one ever does anything particularly nasty—but it has far more to say about the concealment, and subsequent revelation, of the things that ultimately define us. It's more concerned with the secret identity than the superhero.

The plot is familiar to anyone well-versed in the Superman myth. A child is rocketed from a dying world to our own, where he is taken in and raised by humans. This time, though, there are two extraterrestrial immigrants. The first, a perfect little boy who will grow up to save cities and literally walk on water, lands in the middle of privileged upper-class America. The second, a strange little blue thing with a snaggle-toothed space fish (voiced by David Cross) to keep him company, crashes into a prison for the criminally insane (okay, so there's some Batman stuff in here, too), where he is taken in and raised by inmates.

The two are rivals from the outset. The child who will one day be the superhero known as Metro Man (voiced by Brad Pitt) is worshipped by his classmates and adored by his teachers, while the future Megamind (voice of Will Ferrell) is constantly scolded and picked last for sports teams. (Picked last and then tormented by Metro Man, whose super strength gives him a brutal dodgeball arm.) If they're going to be rivals, then, Megamind decides to do it properly: He'll become the supervillain to Metro Man's caped and perfectly coiffed crusader. He doesn't really want to hurt anyone, though; he just wants to share a bit of the spotlight for a change. So when one of his diabolical plan-type-things actually works and Metro Man meets a grisly end, Megamind doesn't know what to do with himself. Like Samuel L. Jackson's character in Unbreakable, he needs someone to push against. He tries to recreate Metro Man using dandruff from the erstwhile savior's cape, but he only succeeds in creating a villain far more dangerous than he himself ever wanted to be. Ultimately, he'll have to become the sort of hero he's spent his life trying to vanquish.

Like most of Dreamworks' animated films, Megamind is packed with pop-culture references, many of which are aimed at comic books and superhero movies. There's Roxanne Ritchi (voice of Tina Fey), a Lois Lane-ish news reporter who's been kidnapped by Megamind so many times that her fondest hope is that he'll someday wash the bag he keeps putting over her head. There's an endless stream of fandom in-jokes, the best of which is a running Marlon Brando gag, and pokes at the one-liners that constitute a big chunk of superhero/supervillain dialogue.

That's all window dressing, though. The real meat of Megamind is its thoughtful treatment of the lengths to which we'll go to conform to expectations, good or bad. Except for Roxie, the film's characters are rarely what they appear to be, thanks to costumes and identity-altering gadgets. There's a constant stream of reveals and unmaskings as the characters shed their facades and embrace their true selves. A harmless-looking schlub of a guy can destroy a city, and a villain in baby-sealskin boots can save the day. It also has quite a bit to say about our heroes, and how we treat them. We expect them to solve our problems, but do we really care what happens to them in the process? When Metro Man's death is broadcast to the citizens of Metro City on Jumbotrons, their horror mostly stems from their concerns for self-preservation. They don't mourn Metro Man, just their sense of security.

All of that would amount to nothing if Megamind didn't entertain, and it does that plenty. The script is sweet and often insightful, and the film offers a glimpse at the potential of 3-D effects in the hands of filmmakers who aren't interested in the standard sight gags. It might not be particularly original, but it sure is an awful lot of fun.