A couple weeks ago, Despicable M3 came out, and it introduced children to Trey Parker, killer ’80s music, and fundamental flaws in the Rotten Tomatoes rating system. For the rest of us, the movie didn’t offer much. After the monumental success of the last two-and-a-half movies, it got some prime movie real estate and has already made upwards of $450 million on a global scale, but saw a swift drop in revenue as soon as Spider-Man hit theaters. It also suuuuucks. It lacks the humor, compassion, and focus of the other two movies, replacing 95% of its actual humor with clever-isa ’80s references and the crude slapshtick that went over so well in the Minions movie. It also opened my eyes to the troubling politics of this franchise, which seems perfectly content to bait Marxist theorists, but only offers up contemptuous takes that people all over the aisle can be upset with.
Before we get into it, we should first examine other “villain movies” of Despicable Me‘s time. I’m not necessarily referring to movies from the bad guy’s perspective, but specifically films that take a classic villain or archetypal villain and play with our perceptions of good and evil through portraying them on a more personal level, Grendel-style. This seems oddly specific, but it was practically a bona fide trend in the early ’10s. Most notably, there’s the big three: Despicable Me, Megamind, and Wreck-It Ralph, all of which also happened to be animated kids’ movies (it never ceases to baffle me how out of these three, Despicable Me was the most successful by a long shot).
Now, the message of Megamind is a little hard to pin down, because it’s a surprisingly-nuanced film. The general theme is that archetypes of “good” and “evil” can’t exist unless they’re in constant opposition to each other. If you take this to represent the two-party system or class struggle, you’ve got a handy-dandy interpretation right there. There’s certainly ample evidence of the “villainous” Megamind representing the lower class and his foil Metro Man representing the upper. Each born on a dying planet, Metro Man gets a cushy upper-class upbringing, his solid-gold escape pod landing under a wealthy family’s Christmas tree and his powers being celebrated by his peers from a young age. From birth, Megamind is less privileged, given a smaller, shoddier spacecraft and being forced to share it with his friend and confidante, Minion. His craft lands at the Prison for the Criminally Gifted (subtle), raised by criminals, and becomes an outcast for his “dangerous” intellect. Oh shit, is that a critique of the prison-industrial complex as a tool of oppression in goddamn Megamind? Told you this movie was juicy. Later on in the movie, Megamind attempts to create a new hero, the hero becomes a villain, and he becomes a hero, i.e. the very thing that he fought against his entire life. Now that’s Marxist.
The theory behind Wreck-It Ralph is a bit simpler. In attempting to research it, I was delighted by monarchists decrying Vanellope’s throwaway line about democracy as an unnecessary, single instance of political commentary in an otherwise… pure movie? I mean, sure, it was unexpected (which is sort of the idea behind, y’know, jokes), but it’s not like it’s uncharacteristic for Vanellope and Ralph to embody democratic principles. Ralph is a marginalized minority who teams up with a disabled young woman to take down a tyrannical king and save the video game world from King Candy’s imperialism. It’s a pretty clear-cut liberal message that one ought to expect from Disney.
Looking at Despicable Me, if we want to consider villains a marginalized group as they are in the other two, it seems to fall left of Ralph, but not as far into Marxist territory as Megamind. Gru and his fellow villains are shown to exercise a sort of direct action, snatching goods and symbols of power from the upper class in an attempt to break down the corrupt society that keeps them in the shadows. Gru joins the Anti-Villain League in Despicable? Me Too!, ratting out his fellow villains and working on behalf of the status quo, but after being unjustly dropped by the organization at the start of D3spicabl3 M3, he and his upper-class wife become free agents pursuing justice regardless of who it favors. It doesn’t perfectly add up, but it seems like an okay answer, right?
Well, there’s one hole in this interpretation: the Minions. You can’t look a foot into the Despicable Me franchise without recognizing the Minions as a hateful, mocking portrayal of the working class. Where Megamind’s Minion is portrayed as the protagonist’s equal, the Minions are Gru’s fat, lazy, dependent, thoroughly incompetent and morally bankrupt underlings. Once you look at it from this angle, it becomes clear that the villains aren’t minorities; they’re governments. They exploit their disposable workforce for the purpose of petty one-upmanship and showy displays of strength, they borrow money and advice from Lehman Brothers to put their unpaid populace to work destroying the planet and building weapons of ever-increasing scale, and they do all this with reckless abandon right under the noses of watchdogs and civilians with no repercussions. And Gru’s not just the protagonist, he’s the hero. We’re constantly reminded that he’s a good guy and he’s a softie at his core and he helps get rid of the villains that are even worse than him so we should unequivocally support him. Meanwhile, the Minions are shown to be a primitive, lesser species, constantly seeking out a new master to oppress and exploit them, and speak an exaggerated pidgin language mixing elements of Spanish and English. Oh, in the third movie they do stage a strike… and it takes all of 20 minutes in a correctional facility for them to all realize they’re dependent on Gru and run back to him, perfectly content to work for no pay doing the exact opposite of what they were striking for.
It becomes clear that the message of these films isn’t anti-communist. It isn’t just right-wing. It seems like the Despicable Me franchise is specifically anti-poor people, which seems like a position we can all agree is pretty fucked up, right? It’s as baffling as it is unavoidable. The Minions are even the villains in their own movie, and Illumination Entertainment brings this message into reality by perpetually exploiting them for profit. They speak a wacky language, they all look the same, they defy gender norms, and make no mistake; you’re supposed to hate them. Sure, kids are supposed to giggle at their goofy antics, but adults are meant to find them detestable, vile, hard to even look at, let alone tolerate. And it worked, didn’t it? Of course, the likely truth is that Chris Meledandri, the multi-millionaire producer behind this franchise, only intended to be funny little yellow dudes the kids could appreciate while adults enjoyed the more mature humor littered throughout the film. He may have worked out some anti-working-class aggression in how he built the characters, which is still something that ought to be criticized regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, but it’d be unfair to go as far as to call the movies a deliberate piece of anti-Marxist propaganda. At best, they’re an accidental one.