Warning: Spoilers for Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
I did not expect a thoughtful movie when I bought a ticket to see Captain Underpants. I assumed that it would be worth the price of admission for some potty humor and nostalgia. The movie I ended up watching had all of those things, interesting commentary, refreshing morals, and it was pretty good to boot.
Captain Underpants (both the movie and the popular series of books by Dav Pilkey) follows George Beard and Harold Hutchinson, two elementary-aged troublemakers and comic creators/distributors. Their most popular comic follows Captain Underpants, a brief-clad superhero “able to leap tall buildings without getting a wedgie.” Because these books are so short, however, the movie expanded the story and the characters’ relationships.
In doing so, the movie strayed from typical formulas. George and Harold never fought each other or otherwise became competitive. Rather, they go out of their way to support one another. George and Harold have seemingly opposing talents: George can write, and Harold can draw, but neither can do the talent of the other. Still, their friendship is based on mutual respect, and they combine their talents to produce the Captain Underpants comics. Even when Harold attempts to write a story (and turns everyone into dolphins in the process), George accepts his friend’s limitations and goes along with the improvised backstory anyway.
In other movies, this may lead to frustration or challenge with both accepting at the end that they do not have to be in competition with one another. However, George and Harold start with a healthy, supportive friendship. They allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable and admit their sadness and longing for each other’s company when threatened with separation, but this is met with understanding and thoughtful promises to plan to spend time together outside of the classroom.
George and Harold face their problems with emotional maturity and a willingness to listen to one another. The film uses this to contrast the two trouble-making protagonists with the villains. The main differences between Principal Krupp and Captain Underpants are how he expresses emotion and how he interacts with the boys. Principal Krupp is emotionally withdrawn from most characters (as evidenced by the romantic sideplot with the lunch lady Edith). Anger is the exception; he expresses himself by lashing out. He makes it his mission to separate the boys, who exemplify everything that he is not and everything that toxic masculinity wishes to quash.
Conversely, Captain Underpants is accepting of the boys and his own emotions to the point of ridiculosity. He quickly adds the boys into his personal squad (calling them his sidekicks) and welcomes their advice without question even though they are younger, smaller, and less powerful than he. In opposition to the closed-off Krupp, he allows himself to be outwardly emotional and unaffected by others laughing at him. When Krupp becomes himself again, the traces of change left by his time as Captain Underpants change his life for the better. Rather than being strong by refusing to be emotional (an idea frequently reinforced by toxic masculinity), Krupp’s life does not start to get better until he allows himself to feel emotions other than anger.
This metaphor becomes more clear when Professor Poopypants is introduced as the main villain. He quickly teams up with Melvin to take the happiness and joy away from George, Harold, and the other children. Melvin represents the toxic emotional male ideal: he is mostly blank, unable to feel joy, or laugh, but he is easily tempted by evil and anger. Likewise, Poopypants represents the fragile male ego: he yearns for power and respect and is strongly affected by feeling as though he is being laughed at.
The combined team of Poopypants and Melvin act as the patriarchy in the climatic battle. They shrink Captain Underpants and attempt to suck the joy and emotions out of George and Harold. George and Harold approach the problem like they would with one another. They try to reassure and support Poopypants by giving themselves silly names and explaining that he can cope with these blow to his ego in healthier ways. Still, this is not enough. It is only through their friendship and unwillingness to bend to anger and violence that allows them to persevere. To reaffirm this moral, the actual fight between Poopypants and Captain Underpants is not shown. This visual erasure further bucks the patriarchal inclination towards violence and lashing out.
In the end, Captain Underpants is a hero to himself. George and Harold may be younger and less powerful than Krupp, but when he subconsciously accepts that cooperation trumps competition and healthy emotional expression is greater than emotional withdrawl, he can truly be happy and satisfied. Still, the toxic leakage that bring the toilets to life is akin to the toxic masculinity that permeates our media and culture: for now at least, Captain Underpants’s work is not done.