Every now and then, a narrative trend comes along that I neither care for nor understand. I get why many trends catch on. I’ve even been caught up in a few. I remember when stories about asteroid impacts became popular, as well as romance stories that relied on best friends falling in love. Some lasted longer than others. Some burn out. I think “Friends” alone killed the whole friends-falling-in-love-gimmick.
However, certain trends seem to catch on for all the wrong reasons. I’m not just referring to the gimmicky tropes of every sitcom attempting to rip off “Seinfeld,” either. These are narratives that attempt to troll the audience in hopes of a bigger reaction, as though that can somehow take the place of a compelling story.
Lately, the trend that I’ve found particularly frustrating is the idea of subverting expectations. It’s become a major buzzword in recent years, but not for good reasons. It became a big deal after the fan reaction to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and only intensified with the final season of “Game of Thrones.”
Now, I don’t want to get into extensive discussions about those emotionally charged subjects. I’ll let the fan bases continue to debate that in whatever way they see fit. Instead, I want to take a moment to look at this trend, note how it can be done well, and highlight why recent attempts are misguided and counterproductive.
While subverting expectations sounds cunning on paper, it’s one of those concepts that’s difficult to make work. The concept is simple. You take an audience’s expectations about a story, build up some narrative tension, and then go in an unexpected direction that changes and enhances the impact of that story.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s downright toxic to itself. I would argue that neither “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“ nor the final season of “Game of Thrones” succeeded in that effort. However, one movie did succeed in this effort and it did so back in 2010, long before this trend even began.
That movie is “Megamind,” a film I’ve praised before for how it parodies the superhero genre. There’s a lot more I can say about this underrated gem, but this is one element that I feel is more relevant now than it was when the movie first came out. To date, I’ve yet to see a movie subvert expectations as well as this one.
The way “Megamind” goes about this is not at all subtle, but it’s still powerful. It’s in the premise of the movie. It asks what happens when the evil genius supervillain actually defeats the handsome, square-jawed superhero? What do they do afterwards? Why did they pursue this goal in the first place?
The first 15 minutes of the movie do an excellent job of setting up the basic, generic premise of every superhero narrative since Superman. Metro Man is the hero. That’s how he carries himself. That’s how others see him. That’s how he’s perceived. Conversely, Megamind is the villain. That’s how everyone sees him. The prison warden himself says it before the opening title screen. He’ll always be a villain.
Everything is in place for a traditional hero-versus-villain struggle. Old concepts like justice, hero worship, and public perception come into play. Then, in the first real battle we see between Megamind and Metro Man, the unthinkable happens. Megamind, despite his grandiose boasting and casual bumbling, defeats Metro Man.
It’s not framed as some M. Knight Shamalyan twist. It’s not an attempt to shock the audience. It’s not some minor plot point, either. In fact, the rest of the movie is built around this sudden subversion of standard superhero stories. Every event, choice, and character moment stems directly from this subversion. It’s not just a minor element of the plot. It is the plot.
What makes it work is how this subversion helps tell a very different kind of superhero story. It’s not just about flipping the script for the sake of novelty. It makes a case that superhero narratives are capable of doing much more than simply having the hero save the day from the villain.
Throughout the movie, Megamind finds himself playing a part in every tried and true trope we’ve come to expect in a superhero movie. He starts off being a villain because that’s what he assumes he’s meant to be. He starts questioning that assumption because by defeating Metro Man, he finds himself without a greater purpose. In pursuing that purpose, he find out that those assumptions had serious flaws.
Such assumptions weren’t inherently right or wrong. It was a matter of digging a little deeper into the concept of heroes and villains, finding out along the way that the role he thought was right for him wasn’t the one he ultimately wanted. By the end, he still dresses like a villain. He’s still not nearly as handsome or powerful as Metro Man. However, he still chooses to become Metro City’s greatest hero.
This subversion of expectation works because it’s used to build a story rather than just tweak a few details. Moments like the revelation about Rey’s parents being nobodies or Arya Stark killing the Night King had only minor shock value, but they didn’t really factor into the larger plot.
If someone other than Arya had killed the Night King, then it wouldn’t have changed much in terms of how the last few episodes of “Game of Thrones” panned out.
If Rey’s parents turned out to be someone important in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it wouldn’t have substantially altered how the events that followed played out. Rey still wouldn’t have joined Kylo.
Ultimately, those subversions just felt like trolling. These details that people thought were important just turned out to be tricks or ploys meant to get a reaction. It comes off as both dishonest and insincere. They might not have been intended as such, but given the fan reactions, I can understand that sentiment to some extent.
You thought all those prophecies about Jon Snow and the Night King meant something? Well, that turned out to be a big waste of time.
You thought Rey’s parents would impact the course of the movie? Well, that was just a complete waste of time, at least until “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” changed that.
At times, it felt like the story was tempting people to get engaged and then slapped them in the face the second the plot went in a different direction. As a result, it didn’t feel at all surprising or engaging. It just felt insulting.
Contrast that with “Megamind.” At no point does the plot attempt to demean the audience or anyone who enjoys the traditional superhero narrative. The subversion is in the synopsis. That same subversion is used to build a larger story that fleshes out characters who started out in generic roles, but ultimately embraced a different role.
This shift never feels forced or contrived. It’s not done just to get a cheap thrill or to stand out. At its core, “Megamind” uses the concept of subverting expectations to tell a better story than it could’ve told if it stuck to the traditional superhero narrative. That’s why it works.
Unfortunately, that’s also why other recent attempts keep failing. Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a comic book, or a video game, the concept has been used in a misguided effort to do something different. Subverting expectations has become synonymous, to some extent, with doing something new and bold. The importance of telling a compelling, coherent story is never more than secondary.
I get the importance of trying new things, especially when that genre has been played out in so many forms. However, doing so does not mean taking audience expectations and defying them in a way that feels blatant. At best, it just makes the story confusing. It’s just different for the sake of being different. At worst, it insults the audience and makes them feel denigrated for enjoying that narrative in the first place.
It can be done and done well. “Megamind” is proof of that. It doesn’t just subvert expectations for the superhero genre. It dares to build a story around it and even have a little fun with it along the way. It doesn’t at all take away from the genre it parodies. It just uses it as a foundation to tell a unique story.
No matter how many expectations you subvert, there’s no substitute for a quality story. “Megamind” gives us that and the undeniable charm of Will Ferrell. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.