"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
On this holiday, let’s talk about one way to take the occasional vacation.
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This space is reserved normally for my opinions about DC Comics’ superhero characters, but I don’t think the movie Megamind is too far out of bounds. Of course, Megamind tells a Superman story from the eponymous villain’s point of view, specifically featuring Megamind’s ultimate triumph over his lifelong rival.
The movie’s familiar analogues include the nigh-omnipotent Metro Man, tenacious reporter Roxanne Ritchi, and her red-haired cameraman Hal Stewart (himself perhaps named for a pair of Green Lanterns). Megamind isn’t so easy to pigeonhole. He shares an origin with Superman (infant rocketed from a dying world), and he’s a blue-skinned extraterrestrial with a giant bald head, but apart from his fantastic intellect he has no powers. Therefore, not quite Luthor, not quite Brainiac.
However, screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons don’t seem particularly interested in exploring Luthor’s or Brainiac’s particular nuances. Instead, they set up Megamind generally as a good kid steered bad. Virtually from birth, Megamind has been overshadowed by, and even subordinated to, Metro Man. The latter’s spacecraft deflects Megamind’s capsule away from a friendly family and straight into the Metro City prison yard. When the two wind up at the same one-room schoolhouse, Metro Man proves more popular. Eventually, Megamind realizes that his purpose in life is to oppose Metro Man, and that becomes the movie’s central theme. Again, not quite Luthor, but that’s not the point.
In fact, my first reaction to Megamind was that it had missed one major point of the Superman mythology — and then I realized the same was true for the current Superman books. Neither Megamind nor Superman seem to have much use for Clark Kent.
SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR MEGAMIND…
[… although to be fair, the movie’s big twist was — as you might expect — spoiled by one of the trailers….]
As mentioned above, Megamind’s chief conceit is that the villain would lose direction and purpose without the hero to oppose him. This is nothing new to superhero fans, since it has become part of the Batman/Joker relationship. Indeed, the Luthor/Superman relationship is almost the opposite: to the current Luthor, Superman is an obstacle (if not an outright fraud), keeping him from realizing his full potential at the top of the pecking order. The Earth-1 Luthor of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s was marginally more sympathetic, because the stories suggested that he could actually use his intellect for good if he weren’t constantly redirecting it against Superman. Megamind combines that perspective with the “Joker needs the Batman/Joker deserves the Batman” element to produce a character who just needs to work through some issues.
Megamind also fills the Metro Man-sized hole in his life by romancing Roxanne, the hero’s putative girlfriend. Said romance is facilitated by the movie’s main “secret identity” subplot, where Megamind steals the identity of Bernard, a hipster-type who works at the Metro Man Museum. Behind Bernard’s glasses, Megamind can open up to Roxanne not just about Metro Man, but about the person he would be but for Metro Man. This leads to the inevitable (and predictable) public unmasking, followed by a rain-drenched dumping. However, the two reunite to stop the menace of Titan, the hero-gone-bad Megamind created as a Metro Man replacement.
And that, in turn, leads us to what could have been a really meaningful secret-ID subplot for the movie’s actual superhero. It seems that Metro Man faked his own death after realizing his heroic career would never leave him a moment’s peace. He then retreated to his “solitary fortress” (I think that was the movie’s phrase) in order to spend more time developing a musical career. Megamind and Roxanne try to convince him to come back, and for a while they seem to have succeeded; but no, it’s just another holographic trick designed to throw Titan off guard.
This is not to say that Megamind’s climactic battle isn’t entertaining. I’d sure love to see Megamind’s sort of classic-rock-infused “presentation” in the next Superman-movie villain. Instead, the problem is with me: when I see Superman, or a reasonable facsimile, I’d like him to be heroic. It doesn’t take too long for Megamind to reveal Metro Man as a preening pretty-boy — capable, nigh-omnipotent, and true, but ultimately lacking the balance a secret identity would have provided. When Metro Man realizes that he doesn’t have to be a superhero all the time, he stops being a superhero entirely. It’s a false choice, and it means Metro Man doesn’t grow or change as a result of the movie’s events. I realize the movie isn’t called Metro Man, but it wouldn’t have taken much, and it would have left Metro Man (and by extension Superman) looking better in moviegoers’ eyes.
Indeed, Superman seems to have acquired a perpetual image problem. As we all know, the common knock on Superman is that he’s “hard to relate to,” not just because he’s so powerful, but because no one could have all that power and still be such a paragon of virtue. Mark Waid may have said it best in a 2003 interview with CBR:
Originally … Clark Kent was unique among super-heroes in that he was the “mask” and Superman was the “real” person…. That was a huge part of the genius of the character and a huge part of what contributed to his longevity. Before about 1985, no one ever whined that they “couldn’t relate to Superman.” You weren’t supposed to relate to Superman. That’s what Clark was for. He was our touchstone. The half of Superman which readers can actually relate to because we all (Jesus, especially comics fans) want to believe that even though we may be put upon and bullied by the world from time to time, we know what those who pick on us or look down at us don’t — that if they could see behind our glasses, they’d see a Superman.
Megamind turns that inside-out. Metro Man is the bullying “jock,” so Megamind the “nerd” takes revenge by becoming a supervillain. Again, this isn’t really a Superman movie, so Metro Man doesn’t need to be especially sympathetic — but the “real” Superman isn’t helped at all by an analogue who thinks retirement is his only hope for sanity. Furthermore, thanks to the “New Krypton” and “Grounded” storylines, Clark Kent has been (and may well be) out of the spotlight for the better part of two years. If Waid is correct — and I have no complaints with his theory — then that necessarily makes Superman less relatable. Clark has the job, the apartment, the love life, and the underwear on the inside. Superman (at least in “New Krypton” and “Grounded”) has a series of ethical questions.
Of course, the movie does play with the idea of a secret identity — a couple of them, actually, since Megamind adopts an hilarious Brando-esque persona to pose as Titan’s trainer/mentor — but it doesn’t present either as anything sustainable. (I suppose the mountain-man beard and Ben-Grimm-style trenchcoat we see Metro Man in at the end of the movie could be the beginnings of an alter ego, but I would really have liked him wearing a suit and glasses.) Instead, Bernard and “Brando” are part of Megamind’s character arc, and their eventual reveals help him work through those issues to become a more complete person. Naturally, this also includes the general public accepting him in all his macrocephalic glam-rock glory. Eventually Megamind replaces Metro Man as Metro City’s beloved hero; but I’m still not sure Megamind understands what drove Metro Man away.
Accordingly, my main criticism of Megamind comes from its reliance on an either/or philosophy. It starts from the jock/nerd antagonism which fuels Megamind’s hatred of Metro Man, and is personified in the nerd-turned-jock Titan (who is entirely selfish with his powers). The movie concludes with Megamind on top and Metro Man moved willingly into the background, like there’s no room to share.
Honestly, it may work best for the movie for Metro Man to stay out of sight, considering all the work Megamind has to do to replace him fully in the public’s eyes. At the risk of sounding like a bad self-help guru, Megamind must accept himself as a complete person as much as the public must accept him as a hero; and he can’t really do that if Metro Man’s still a distraction.
Nevertheless, I don’t think the movie did right by Metro Man. Sure he’s a self-satisfied, square-jawed caricature, but much of his value as a character comes from the archetype he’s representing. Superman isn’t “the hero who could be you,” he’s the hero you want to be — the hero you imagine you are. When “Metro Man” makes his dramatic entrance in the movie’s final battle, saving Roxanne with some well-aimed laser vision, it’s a cliché; but it works. You want to believe that Metro Man has found a way to reconcile his inner life with his public responsibilities — or at least you want to believe he hasn’t stopped being a hero. Superman would have found a way to get out of Megamind’s spotlight without going into hiding, probably while using his own good reputation to bolster Megamind’s. I liked Megamind the movie and Megamind the character quite a bit, but I was disappointed I didn’t like Metro Man as much.
Clark’s life not only lets Superman take a break, it allows Clark to focus on what Superman can and cannot do. Conversely, losing sight of Clark draws more attention to the more impossible aspects of Superman: “if he can do X, why couldn’t he have done Y?” After all, Clark can do things Superman can’t; including putting a practical face on Superman’s limitless abilities. Take away Clark, and Superman becomes a lot like Metro Man: a spitcurled collection of special effects, spouting empty platitudes and subject to existential angst.
Superman’s depths and dimensions have been explored so exhaustively that it’s a shame Metro Man didn’t benefit from them. It would be a bigger shame if future Superman stories continued to downplay his more humble alter ego.