I have only seen the first Despicable Me movie, and this was a fair time after its initial popularity. Certainly it’s not the first time I have been late to the whole popular kids movie bandwagon, as it’s happened before with Madagascar and Frozen. I had seen the trailer, focusing on the villian protagonist and his rivalry against another villain who was beating him out, and that coloured most of my impression of the film, even when later Minions became such a thing. However, like I always do, I eventually bowed to pressure and watched it, just to see what all the fuss was about.
A part of me had hoped it really would be as simple as a villain rivalry, without it becoming a villain redemption story, but being a kids movie, I always knew deep down that hope was doomed to fail from the start. Yet still I clung to the thought, cheered at his villainy behaviours and quietly tensed at his moments of redemption. It isn’t that I didn’t care for him as a character, or the kids who he let into his life and changed him. I guess I was just tired of the cliche.
It was no Megamind. Sure, Megamind follows the same formula of villain redemption (I never said I hated that formula; I love it), but there is something about Megamind’s character that appealed to me stronger than the protagonist of Despicable Me, there was something more in it not only of his journey, but his rival’s. It was the dichotomy they were both pushed into, that they each had to play out, and that they both grew tired of and ill-fitted for. They were both living a lie forced on them by society, and they both eventually managed to break out of those roles, and I really loved it.
There was another thing I loved about Megamind, though. That was the fact that, unlike most stories, Megamind actually got his play of the city. As a villain, he actually won. And we got to see what that actually looked like, because that never happens. The typical superhero movie is all about the fight, not the ends. But like it or not, there’s an actual socio-economic consequence to all that fighting, and it was allowed to happen in Megamind’s city. Megamind came to own everything in that city, yet it was hollow, because he wasn’t ever fighting for anything. What did he really want the city for, what would he do with it? The truth is, he only wanted it to prove that he could, to prove he was worth something and that he wasn’t just some loser villain. But that brought him nothing.
And then, of course, his journey brought him to hero status led not just by the love of a girl, but by the playing out of his good vs evil fantasy. Once again, he was able to prove himself, this time as a hero, he got the girl, and was presumably able to live a more fulfilling life.
When it comes to Despicable Me, I suppose there are also certain things to like about it. The children the protagonist adopted were meant to used as tools, and that is how he used them. But at the same time, they were not tools, they were children, and he needed to do right by them. They weren’t things he could control, to a point, and at one point I remember that he was forced to play by their rules in order to put them to sleep. That was an important moment, but it was the start of him changing, of him letting down his guard and letting someone else dictate his actions. It was prioritising something besides him and his plans. And then when he sent the kids to infiltrate his rival’s lair, I got excited, thinking they were about to become partners in crime, that he would raise them to be like him.
But that’s not what happened. It went the other way, and they influenced him to be like them. And I’m not saying that if this story was real life, I’d necessarily be rooting for them to follow in his footsteps. But there’s something to be said for fiction, and the wide range of experiences it can represent. If it had gone the other way, though, what message might it have sent to the audience? Who might become its audience? Who would watch a story like that?
Certainly I would. Perhaps it would garner an audience of outcasts. Perhaps it would raise a controversy from parents if nothing else were changed. Who knows? Films today are growing into a more nuanced view of good and evil, so perhaps this is all just part of the transformation into a newer, more complicated view of the world and how it works. What might the next two films of Despicable Me have become, if the first film had been about the dark path? What would the endings look like to make the films acceptable? If they didn’t end in a celebration, or a scene of bonding, what would they be?
The answer’s up to your imagination.