I got around to seeing Megamind this past weekend; I enjoyed the film and some of the implicit psychological "lessons" it conveyed, but was also uncomfortable with one of the take home messages.
Here's an overview (with no more spoilers than what's included in the film'strailers) to better understand the psychological points I'll make. Basic plot: Two different alien babies (from two different planets) land in the U.S. One baby is superpowered, is adopted by a wealthy family, and goes on to be a Superman-like character named Metro Man; the other baby (who happens to be bald, has a large cranium and blue skin), is supersmart, lands in a penitentiary and is raised by the inmates, and grows up to be a villain named Megamind.
Both children go to the same school for gifted youngsters; the child who will become Metro Man is the teacher's pet and is a popular kid, whereas the child who will become Megamind is ostracized by his peers. Megamind is physically different and intellectually different; he is clearly more intellectually gifted than his peers, which we can tell because we see him inventing various technologically-advanced devices while in elementary school. He is essentially shunned by his peers for being different, and because of the particular ways in which he is different his classmates expect him to be "bad." Their beliefs about him, in concert with his social isolation, led him to develop an "evil" self-image and to behave accordingly.
To me, the take home message from this early part of the film boils down to: how other people treat you affects your self-concept and behavior--in essence, who you become. If you're repeatedly treated as if you've done something wrong, pretty soon you might well start acting the part that people have cast you in, and come to believe it to boot.
This premise is not far-fetched. Megamind's experience was based in part, on evocative interaction, a type of interaction between genes and environment in which an individual's genetically influenced characteristics (in this case, his blue skin and baldness from birth, which were also characteristics of his parents) evoke responses from others. (Click here for an article describes evocative interaction in the first few pages.) In Megamind's case, such responses are mistrust, social distancing, and a predisposition to view Megamind's behavior in a negative light. People had stereotype of Megamind as "other" (in a not good way, in contrast to Metro Man's being a different "other") and treated him accordingly. Megamind was also subject to his microenvironment--the environment created by his very presence; people's characteristics create their own microenvironments (discussed in Kosslyn & Rosenberg, 2001 and in Adam & Marshall, 1996).
The child who becomes Metro Man, by virtue of his alien/genetic athletic superabilities and good looks, creates a microenvironment in which he is looked up to, is popular, and people's behavior toward him elicit his heroic actions. In contrast, the microenvironment of the child who becomes Megamind, by virtue of his own alien/genetic differentness, leads people to behave in ways that create a sense of alienation in him.
Over the course of the film, when Megamind is disguised as a normal looking human, he is treated differently: he's assumed to be a decent person and treated as such, and he is liked by a beautiful woman. Lo and behold, he starts to feel and act like a decent person, and his self-concept and identity transition from villain to hero. To me, the message is clear: if you treat people as villains without cause (as happened to the Megamind child), they'll come to act that way. Treat them with respect and dignity, and there's a better chance that they'll act that way than if you treat them as villains.
Which leads me to the (implicit) message of the film that I wasn't so enthusiastic about: nerds who are marginalized, ignored, or treated poorly may become villains because of such treatment. Implicit in this movie is that villains only = nerds gone bad. In this film, the two villains were nerds (and marginalized) before becoming villains, and they found their solace by becoming evil. Is the moral that people should treat nerds nicely, or to beware of nerds for what they might become (and so marginalize them even more?)
On a lighter note, the film pokes fun of various superhero tropes: the predictability of superhero stories, "destiny," the burden of being a superhero and the "fun" of being the villain. It even parodies the Austin Powers films--with the heroine subjected to the threat of alligator infested waters--and the Godfather!
Adams, G.R. & Marshall, S. (1996). A developmental social psychology of identity: Understanding the person in context. Journal of Adolescence, 19, 1-14.
Edwards, C. P., Tretasco de Guzman, M. R., Brown, J., & Kumru, A. (2006). In X. Chen, D. French, and B. Schneider (Eds.) PEER RELATIONSHIPS IN CULTURAL CONTEXT (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 23-51.
Kosslyn, S. M., & Rosenberg, R. S. (2011). Exploring Psychology (Fourth edition). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved. Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is DrRobinRosenberg.com. Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.