'Despicable Me 3' and Cinema's Soap Opera Problem

Only the rarest of projects (see: 'Star Wars') does well by using the long-lost-brother plot device.
Courtesy of Universal Studios; Courtesy of Photofest
'Despicable Me 3' (left), 'Star Wars'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Universal and Illumination Entertainment's Despicable Me 3.]

With any film series, sometimes a misstep is inevitable — and for Despicable Me 3, it's misstep surprisingly involves a trope from the soap opera world.

And that’s not to say that the movie contains poor lighting or schmaltzy over-the-top acting. Rather, the plot hinges on the long-overused trope of the “long-lost relative,” a cliche so old that Sophocles was writing about it in ancient Greece with Oedipus Rex and has been parodied in the form of All My Circuits on Futurama, Moody’s Point on The Amanda Show and the 1991 movie Soapdish.

In DM3, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are fired from the Anti-Villain League when they fail to stop Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a former ‘80s child star turned villain whose sense of fashion, weaponry and music is stuck in the Reagan era. Now unemployed, Gru finds out that he has a twin brother in a foreign country in a Parent Trap-esque reveal confirmed by his mother (Julie Andrews). Said brother is Dru (also voiced by Carell), Gru’s double in every way except for the fact that he’s got a full head of luscious blonde hair and is terribly inept at supervillainy.

The only problem is we’ve seen Gru in three different movies up until now (if you count a cameo in Minions) and never once have we gotten a single hint of Dru. Even after his introduction, Dru shoehorns in the reveal that villainy is a family tradition and that their father was one of the greatest bad guys of all time, while also getting the films back onto the “despicable” track, so to speak, since Gru renounced that life in the previous installment.

And here's the problem: The characters accept this development just a little too easily, which ultimately cheapens a reveal that could have helped them grow in beneficial ways for an audience that includes young and impressionable children. The appearance of this long-lost brother adds nothing new or valuable to the franchise. Rather than be suspicious of this identical twin he’s never met, Gru agrees to return to his dastardly ways for one more heist when Dru shows him their father’s old skintight suits and villain car (basically the Mach Five with all the gadgets it’s got on it). Why would he implicitly trust what is basically a total stranger he’s never met before to aid him in attempting to steal the world’s largest diamond? The eventual heist sequence of Bratt’s Rubik’s Cube-topped lair, while fun, is just an excuse to show how bumbling of a supervillain Dru really is. Sure, it’s funny to see him mess up with all his spy gadgetry, but this was a prime opportunity to dig deeper into the psyche and background of the Despicable Me brand.

Imagine if Gru was more wary of his brother and it turned out that Dru was working with Bratt as a double agent to capture Gru, Lucy and their adopted daughters, Margo, Agnes and Edith? Or perhaps the film explored the duality of our protagonist by driving home the point that Gru, while once pursuing the path of supervillainy, has actually had a heart of gold all along?

Despicable Me 3 is hardly the first big franchise to fall into this soap opera trap. It’s reminiscent of the way Spectre poorly tried to tie all of Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies together via the idea that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was James' adoptive brother; a fitting comparison, as one could argue that Gru is a pastiche of cinema’s greatest supervillains and what franchise has these in spades more than James Bond? It’s a plot device that doesn't really breathe new life into a story or add extra depth to a popular character.

Granted, it can sometimes be used to great effect when a foundation is properly built and hinted at in order to create a mythology (i.e. Luke and Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy). The trope can sometimes provide substantial dividends, like when Quicksilver made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it comment in X-Men: Days of Future Past about Magneto being his father that led to a huge emotional payoff in X-Men: Apocalypse.

But when a film brings these things out the blue, it is asking the audience to swallow a canonical pill without a precedent to actually make it believable. Dru could've been a great foil to Gru, but he's just an infective villain meant to elicit some laughs from his incompetence. He doesn’t add much to a story that feels like three: Gru meets his brother, the Minions go to jail (they’re still as cute and hilarious as ever) and Bratt tries to send Hollywood into space with bubble gum; a story that borrows elements from The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible and Guardians of the Galaxy. Dru is merely a deus ex machina delivered from the animation deities to allow this franchise to continue since he takes up the villainous mantle right before the credits begin to roll. If the franchise wants further sequels, however, it will need to make more dynamic choices when it comes to storytelling than rehashing the ones used during daytime television.

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