Megamind may initially seem like a superhero spoof in the comedic vein of Shrek, but it reveals itself to be smarter, funnier, and infinitely more sympathetic than that. In some ways, Megamind is a rebuff to the prevalent comic book precept that demands that we revel in snarky, "edgy" super-stories that champion the bad guy instead of the good. According to comics writers like Mark Millar, co-creator of Wanted and Kick-Ass, if "real" people ever got superpowers, they would be almost certainly abused before they were used for altruistic goals. Megamind responds to such stories with a narrative about a villain that suffers from a major identity crisis that leads him to question whether or not he even wants to be bad anymore.
At the start, Megamind coasts comfortably on the fumes of Will Ferrell's goofy voiceover narration. Ferrell plays the titular evil genius, an alien that formed a fierce childhood rivalry with Metro City protector Metro Man (Brad Pitt) simply because he was never as good at impressing his kindergarten classmates as Metro Man was. Years later, at a citywide celebration of Metro Man's accomplishments, Megamind lures Metro Man out to one of his secret hideouts and kills him. The revelation comes as a shock not just because the film is only just about to finish its second reel, but also because that central conflict between good and evil is still largely the crux of the superhero genre. Now with Metro Man out of the way, Megamind doesn't know what to do with himself. He grows increasingly restless and eventually begins to fixate on Lois Lane-type reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey), who indirectly inspires him to do something to fill the void in his life left by his dead arch-nemesis.
The deceptive thing about Megamind's formulaic first act is its sloppy humor makes it easy for one to think that screenwriters Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons are just blindly adopting a fanboy's know-it-all stance and making fun of genre clichés. Hal Stewart (Jonah Hill), a Jimmy Olsen-type cameraman whose name and occupation is meant to recall three different Green Lantern characters, is the most vocal representative of that mentality: He teases Roxanne by asking, "What's your name? Just kidding! I know everything about you!" because he really thinks he knows her not as an individual character, but as a pulp archetype.
Hal is a stand-in for Millar's narrow-minded mentality: There are no new stories left to be told so why not nihilistically embrace generic excesses and just have a little fun? In that same vein, Megamind is filled with cheap but intermittently very funny pop-culture parodies, like an extended Marlon-Brando-in-Superman impersonation, a Donkey Kong sight gag, and even a nod to Jimmy Olsen's signal wristwatch. It's easy territory for Schoolcraft and Simons and even the cast, and that shows in several ways, especially in how limited Ferrell's performance is. When Megamind narrowly escapes a hail of falling rubble and earnestly panics with a deadpan, "I'm seriously scared right now," you really don't buy it, even though we're not supposed to.
Still, Schoolcraft, Simons and director Tom McGrath know when to stop goofing around and are more than capable of proving that their film is as clever as they think it is. The budding romance between Ritchi and Bernard (Justin Theroux), an alter ego Megamind forges using a shape-changing wristwatch, is charming in its own way. McGrath's masterful use of space perfectly complements Fey and Ferrell's wonderful chemistry in a scene where the two mourn Metro Man's passing on opposing sides of a memorial site. The film's creators similarly do everything in Megamind's climactic final battle just right: The scene has weight, humor, and a keen sense of pacing. A flimsy balance is found in the end and most of Megamind's potential as an earnest and knowing cartoon is realized.