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The LEGO Batman Movie

February 10, 2017
The LEGO Batman Movie

After the genius that Phil Miller and Chris Lord brought to the screen with The LEGO Movie, a follow-up was inevitable, if only to get a good return on the investment in developing the brick-animation software. Miller and Lord may have passed on directorial duties to their animator Chris McKay, and writing to a team headed by Seth Grahame-Smith, but The LEGO Batman Movie pulls off something close to that same mixture of smart and zany that made The LEGO Movie such a joy.

And while it may not have the wide-ranging scope and out-of-left-field twist of its predecessor, The LEGO Batman Movie does something that’s been needed for a long time: it disassembles the Batman myth. So to speak.

For a long time now, Batman has replaced Superman at the top of the DC totem pole, in part because he’s a lot more adaptable to the “grimdark” aesthetic that many comics have adopted in order to reassure a physically-aging but emotionally-stunted fan base that it’s still okay to read comics. I mean, heaven forfend a grown-up like something silly and fun for once. It seems hard to imagine now, but Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was seen as a dark turn, and it’s a giant party next to Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s DCEU version of the character. The push has gone so far in that direction that even Superman has to go dark and gritty.

I’d say that this all covers up the fact that the character is himself, at heart, an overgrown, emotionally-stunted man-child. Except it doesn’t cover that up at all; the grimdark Batman positively revels in it, turning “I have unresolved daddy issues” from an admission at the outset of recovery to an excuse for all kinds of antisocial behavior. They couldn’t have picked a better spokesman for that particular marketing push. And fine, if people want that sort of thing they can have it, but as we’re seeing in the DCEU it’s become a cancer that metastasizes into other properties, as if this is the only way for superhero stories to be.

Some of this, ironically, originated in Alan Moore’s attempts in Watchmen to examine superhero stories critically. He tried to shine a light on the darkness that was already living inside any attempt to fuse superhero stories with realism, but the genre responded by pouting that it liked the darkness. The LEGO Batman Movie tries the other tack: since Batman is such a perfect mirror for the sort of batfan who insists that this is actually the best version of a superhero story, let’s just show how ridiculous and immature that position is.

And indeed, this Batman (Will Arnett) is his own biggest fan. Everything comes back to him, and everything he does is awesome. But he lives alone on a literal island, sharing the cavernous Wayne Manor only with his long-suffering guardian, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). He’s so insistent on remaining aloof that he won’t even admit to having a special — if antagonistic — relationship with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis).

But that starts to change when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over for her father as police commissioner in Gotham City, and right off the bat she writes off the Bat. He’s been doing this forever, and crime is still awful. As of course it must be for the myth to continue; the script of a kids’ movie obviously doesn’t go into this, but Batman is an essentially fascistic figure, invested more in the continual struggle than any sense of progress. Sounds oddly familiar, come to think of it.

Batman responds to this criticism the way he must: by throwing a tantrum. It only gets worse when the Joker and the rest of the rogues’ gallery surrender themselves, leaving him with nothing to do but care for his accidentally-adopted ward, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). And so he acts out by stealing the Phantom Zone projector from Superman, breaking Joker out of Arkham Asylum to send him away with the worst villains of all time. Which, naturally, is just what Joker wanted; we can’t break all the tropes, can we?

Of course, doing all this in the LEGO context helps us see how ridiculous this all is, and also how fun it can be when you stop worrying about whether your stories are acceptably “grown-up” enough to enjoy. It also provides the exact sort of distance that’s missing in more “serious” treatments of the character, which get so close to him that they forget how silly the whole idea is to treat him realistically in the first place.

For all my criticism about how the character has been used recently, I’m far from opposed to Batman. But he’s better as an icon, not an ideal; he stands for the ways we end up hurting ourselves when we don’t allow other people in, and for the toxicity of traditional masculinity taken to its extreme. The LEGO Batman Movie recognizes that he’s a warning, not a role model, and does its best to take this myth apart for the kids it speaks to.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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