I wasn’t going to write this article. For most of M3gan, the writing wasn’t bad, just aggressively average. I was having a very neutral movie-going experience. And that’s fine. The concept was cool to the point that average felt like getting my money’s worth. Especially with how many movies actively upset me. Like Smile or Glass Onion or Morbius. M3gan was better than that. But then the last 10 minutes happened.
There were three things that really bothered me. So let’s go through them. Spoilers ahead.
Cady’s mastery of Bruce
Early in M3gan, Gemma shows Cady a robot named Bruce. Gemma built Bruce years ago and he just hangs out in her garage. He looks like Cleatus, the giant robot football player that makes random and inexplicable appearances during Fox’s NFL games. Bruce will, if you put on some gloves, become aware of and mimic your gestures. So if you wave, it waves. If you high five, it high fives.
Most long-time movie watchers recognize this for what it is: a Chekhov’s Gun. By the end of the movie, we should expect Gemma or Cady to use Bruce to fight Megan. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s cool to have two robots fight. I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, how the scene played out was a classic example of bad writing.
Gemma and Megan are in the middle of a slobberknocker. Megan gets the upper hand. Then Cady shows up, which pauses the fight. A brief discussion leads to Cady declaring there’s another member of the family that Megan didn’t know about: Bruce. Reveal: Cady’s wearing the gloves. Double Reveal: Bruce rises from beneath a knocked over bookshelf. Cady now fights Megan through Bruce. They go back and forth for not very long before Bruce takes hold of Megan then rips her apart. Cady wins (kind of)!
The issue here is that we never once saw Cady use Bruce. During Bruce’s introduction, Gemma was the one wearing the gloves. And was behind Cady as Cady interacted with Bruce. So Cady never really saw how to use Bruce. To go from that initial interaction to her suddenly winning a hand-to-hand battle with the most advanced AI in the world is…certainly a choice.
And, look, I know, this is a movie where Allison Williams builds a toy so cutting-edge it can cloud-hack security systems, cars, whatever. Shouldn’t I be able to suspend my disbelief and not overanalyze things like this? Not really. I kind of hate it when people try to excuse bad writing by telling you to “suspend your disbelief”.
Suspending your disbelief is an agreement to accept certain facts about the foundation of the story. I can suspend my disbelief that people dream-share in Inception. I can suspend my disbelief that Tony Stark is a tech wizard who can build an Iron Man suit, in a cave, with a bunch of scraps. I can suspend my disbelief that wizards exist and go to wizard school. These are basic concepts that shape the world of the story. They’re not Get Out of Jail Free cards that mean anything goes.
For example, if Harry Potter suddenly conjured a rocket launcher and used it to blow up Voldermort, no one should say, “Hey, suspend your disbelief!” It could work if weapons like that were introduced as part of the world. Like say in Order of the Phoenix, Sirius took Harry, Ron, and Hermoine into an empty classroom and said, “Hey, I have a secret spell to teach you. Avada Rocketarmos.” Then it becomes a plot point that can lead to Harry blowing Voldemort up. But if it happens without any explanation whatsoever? That’s not a time you should suspend disbelief. That’s a time you should say, “Hey, that’s bad writing.”
The disbelief M3gan asks you to suspend is that this advanced toy exists and Gemma is that talented. Those are the extra rules of this world. Beyond that, everything else is grounded in reality. Most of the movie is a string of very logical causes and effects with plenty of basic exposition. If Cady inexplicably began teleporting, that’s bad writing. It’s no different when she pilots a one-of-a-kind robot without any prior experience and wins the fight.
All you need to make this work is a line of dialogue. Or a 30-second scene of Cady practicing with Bruce. And, you know, maybe the filmmakers behind M3gan had something like that but it got cut because they didn’t think people would care about such a small detail. But small details are often the things that affect us the most. Because even if we’re not conscious of what’s wrong, we’re so well-trained as viewers that we feel something is wrong. And that leads to a lingering sense of wrongness. A “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it just wasn’t that great.” It’s an issue with logic.
Granted, some people don’t care all that much about narrative logic. They care more about fun-factor, cool-factor, the broader entertainment value of a moment. Which is completely fine! We all entitled to our preferences. And there’s even a movement called post-cinema that encourages a lack of exposition, especially the kind I’m talking about here. So this isn’t something that will bother everyone. But when the rest of M3gan was so grounded and made such an effort to flow logically from one action to the next, it’s just a bit jarring when that goes out the window. (This actually leads to a larger discussion about tone. But I’ll put that at the bottom in case anyone wants to check out those thoughts.)
Do the thing because it’s a thing to do
Another issue I had comes right before Cady fights Megan via Bruce. Megan’s escaped the Funki toy company headquarters, stolen a car by cloud-hacking its computer, and arrived at Gemma’s house. It’s late at night. Gemma hears something and goes to the living room to see what it is. Megan appears. The conversation starts tense then escalates to a physical confrontation. Gemma gets the upper hand after she smashes a glass of water against Megan’s head, causing a temporary short-circuit. Gemma runs away. Just before she gets out of the room, Megan reactives and gives chase. Except Megan’s glitchy. So she moves in this jerky, exaggerated way.
I’ve seen a lot of horror movies that use “unnatural movements” to induce a sense of creepiness. It’s often pretty cool. Like Hereditary has a scene where a character becomes possessed then the next shot is them hanging in the upper corner of a room, like a spider. They even creep across the wall to leave the room. It’s unsettling. Exorcist has the famous crab walk scene. When the zombies in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead started running, that was terrifying. The anime Attack on Titan uses unnatural movement to great effect with its giant humanoid monsters. Even Stranger Things used a version of it in season 4 when Vecna possessed people. He’d break their arms and legs.
So what’s wrong with M3gan doing something similar? My issue isn’t so much that it happened, but the execution. First, we were shown Megan being built. She has a titanium body and all these layers of flesh. Then all of her wiring is encased in the titanium body. We literally see her without a face. Multiple times. It doesn’t make sense that a glass of water to the dome would glitch her out. Especially to the point she walks as creepily as she did.
But even if we accept that. What are the consequences of the glitchy movement? Nothing. Like 5 seconds after it happens, it’s over. Megan’s back to moving normally. Which means the only reason the glitchiness happens is because the filmmakers wanted it to happen. They thought it looked cool. They thought it was a fun trope. “Wouldn’t it be freaky to see Megan move like that?” So they included it. Personally, I think that’s a terrible reason to include something.
Like, look at Terminator. The original. There’s a chase scene that results in a crash. The heroes are in a flipped car. The T-800 is on the road. Suddenly, a giant semi speeds up and can’t break and hits the terminator. So the driver stops, afraid he hit a person. Of course, the T-800 is still alive. It eliminates the driver and gets in the truck. We see how getting dragged along the road has messed up the cyborg’s face, revealing some of the metal beneath the skin. Another chase ensues, as the T-800 tries to run Sarah Connor over with the truck. Except a bomb goes off and turns the truck into a fireball. Sarah and Kyle think they’ve escaped. Only for the T-800 to rise from the wreckage. It’s skin is completely gone. All that remains is the metallic skeleton and glowing red eyes. It’s terrifying. And it moves in this jerky machine-like way.
That unnatural movement was earned. The only thing that’s forced is having a big semi hit the T-800. But that’s completely within the realm of possibility. It could have been any car and blowing it up would have had the same skin-melting effect. And there’s no going back. This is how the T-800 looks for the short time that’s left. In this reduced form, it gives chase, still set on its mission of eliminating Sarah Connor.
Hereditary earns it as well. The possession is the culmination of all the creepy things that have been happening up to that point. Now we’re seeing just how freaky it can get. So it’s not forced or done just because it’s cool. It’s a natural extension of everything that’s come before.
M3gan? Not so much. Again, this isn’t some huge dealbreaker. But the rest of the film was so carefully crafted that a moment like this hit a nerve for me. The rest of the movie was so slow that, by this point, I was really hoping for a great payoff. That forced moment of unnatural movement was the moment I realized, “Nope, the wait will not be worth it.”
Speaking of not worth it…
Payoffs? What payoffs?
The biggest complaint I have about M3gan is how boring the payoffs are. Part of what makes horror so fascinating is seeing how creative the movie can be with its premise and monster. Michael Myers and Freddy Kruger and Predator all kind of do the same thing. But they’re all such different and dynamic experiences because of how those films lean into the concepts. Michael Myers is this small town home-invader. Kruger appears in your dreams. And the Predator hunts people for sport. So when you have a movie monster like Megan, there’s such potential. A humanoid Barbie doll that kills? What does that even look like?
I think it could be awesome. But what M3gan delivers is pedestrian. Blasting someone with a high-powered weed-killer sprayer is a good concept but it’s not something unique to Megan and her capabilities. Same with the kid in the woods. Megan chases him but then he just falls down a hill and a car comes. The only time it’s kind of signature is when she dances before going after David. Even then, when she catches him, it’s just a stab. There’s zero creativity.
M3gan has this great concept but then the actual horror elements are just generic as hell. Compare that to 2020’s The Invisible Man and how well that movie did engaging with its premise and how unique some of the scenes were. Man. Invisible Man was so good. Now I’m disappointed in M3gan all over again.
By the time the final fight was happening, I just wanted something that felt completely unique to Megan’s character. And we did not get that. Or anything close to it.
Having said all of that, I want to acknowledge some of the good writing. As a portrait of dealing with grief, M3gan moved me a lot. The thematic stuff was working for me. Beyond just Cady processing the death of her parents. Gemma’s arc dealing with technology vs humanity was pretty cool, too. You can’t replace the human element with technology. Even if we could, it’s not something we should do. It’s not what’s best for anyone. So there are a lot of positives. It’s just the very end was so generic and cliche that it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Bonus talk about tone:
Tone is a difficult thing to discuss because a lot of the time it’s thought of as referring to the tenor of a scene. The tone of the opening scene might be happy, which sets up the tone of the next scene which is tragic, which leads to a tone of sadness, which turns into a powerful moment of friendship, which brings back a sense of hope, which leads to a different kind of happiness. One minute in Terminator 2 you have the characters running for their lives. The next? They’re crying over Arnold lowering himself into a vat of molten steel.
But tone can also refer to the broader tenor of a work. The tone of a TV show like South Park is very different from the tone of The Sopranos. Within those works, the tone of individual scenes can be similar, but the larger tone sets expectations of what’s possible. South Park is a cartoon where there are really no limits to what can happen. While The Sopranos is grounded in realism. If one episode of The Sopranos involved Al Capone waking up in New Jersey, circa-1999, then deciding to fight Tony Soprano for control of the mob, that would be a total and complete break in the show’s established, overall tone.
You have shows like Atlanta that found a way to transition from an established tone of realism to a more surreal tone that allowed them to do some truly baffling and interesting episodes. But it’s not something that a movie can usually get away with. If a film is going to switch from grounded to surreal or surreal to grounded, it usually happens around the 20-minute mark. And usually there’s a narrative reason for this switch. Like in The Matrix or Everything Everywhere All At Once. The world as the characters know it changes, so the overall tone of the story changes. It’s a functional evolution. If the switch is narratively motivated, it can technically happen at any time. Doesn’t mean audiences will buy it. But it works logically.
With M3gan, the broader tone is realistic. It’s a world just like our own but with some technology advancement that we suspend our disbelief to accept. It’s not the world of The Mask where cartoon logic applies. Or This Is The End where everything is so consistently over the top that you’re not supposed to take anything seriously. There’s this great indie movie called Turbo Kid that just gets absolutely outrageous and it does so because of how well it handles tone.