Lukewarm Takes #9: The Lego Batman Movie
There is so much animosity towards DC and its cinematic universe these days that it can be easy to forget that all Marvel’s Distinguished Competition has really done was make a few bad movies, not live-stream themselves murdering a bunch of puppies. Then again, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad weren’t just any old bad movies. No, they had the fortune and misfortune to be seen, and seemingly reviled, by just about everybody.
As befits a movie pitting probably the two biggest superheroes in history against each other, Batman v Superman was absolutely massive. Perhaps because it serves as such a rickety springboard for a whole bunch of movies seemingly no one is excited to see, about such figures as Cyborg and Aqua Man, and one that people overwhelmingly did (Wonder Woman), Batman v Superman seemed to take up the cultural space of four or five terrible, bloated epics and consequently engendered an equivalent amount of not just disdain but hatred. People hated Batman v Superman with a ferocity wildly disproportionate its actual cosmic significance but appropriate for its historic, overwhelming awfulness.
The same was true of Suicide Squad. David Ayers’ garish super-villain team-up blockbuster. The movie didn’t have the prestige of Batman v Superman. Instead of household names like Batman and Superman it had to settle for a household name like Will Smith doing the ensemble thing as second-rate super villain Deadshot, and the insufferable Jared Leto bucking for most overhyped performance in film history as the Joker. Thanks to Ryan Reynolds’ slightly better received red-suited Merc with a mouth, Deadshot isn’t even the most popular comic book assassin with Dead in his name.
People despise the recent slate of DC movies (with the exception of Wonder Woman of course) with such a passion that it’s similarly easy to forget that we’re not too far removed from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which has faded a little in the public mind, an inevitable consequence, perhaps, of a characteristically overreaching and messy but often riveting final entry, but was enormously well-received at the time.
Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the uncontested iconic performances of this millennium and while Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman Vs Superman are rightly criticized for their dour humorlessness, Nolan managed to inject a fair amount of dark humor into his trilogy, thanks largely to villain turns by Ledger, Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow and Tom Hardy as Bane that were scary but funny as well.
The Lego Batman Movie serves as a bizarro world version of Zack Snyder’s glowering cinematic universe. Where Snyder’s grim explorations of the agony of existence take themselves very, very seriously, The Lego Batman Movie is a sustained goof, lighter than air. Where Snyder treats comic books as sacred scriptures, The Lego Batman Movie embraces the absurdity of a world where the epic, iconic mythologies of the comic book world are realized using the seemingly unlikely but shockingly versatile and durable raw material of digital representations of characters from a popular children’s plastic building toy.
The exquisite irony of The Lego Batman Movie’s relationship with its live-action counterpart is that the animated plastic version is infinitely more real and more human than the one starring two-time Academy Award winner Ben Affleck. I cared more for the plastic toy version of Bruce Wayne brought to gloomy life by a perfectly typecast Will Arnett a whole lot more than I did about the one Affleck played.
Arnett has one of the great manly growls in pop culture, right up there with his 30 Rock antagonist Alec Baldwin. He specializes in playing cocky alpha males who can never quite hide the fact that they are sad little man-children who never got over their dad not hugging them enough as children.
That’s The Lego Batman Movie’s Bruce Wayne, although, to be fair, he does have that whole “parents being killed” thing to help explain his chilly disposition. As the movie opens, Bruce Wayne is triumphant in his dominance of Gotham City but he is also terribly, terribly alone. Loneliness has long been a core characteristic of Bruce Wayne. He is separated from the rest of humanity by his secret identity and sacred duty to protect his city, but he’s also separated from the rest of humanity by his narcissism, arrogance and depression.
The Lego Batman Movie really leans into Bruce Wayne’s pervasive depression and loneliness. It also continually acknowledges another characteristic of the dashing millionaire by day, crime-fighter by night, intense napper during the afternoon (you’d have to assume, otherwise when does the man get any sleep?): despite, or perhaps because, he devotes so much of his time and money and energy and resources to protecting the weak and punishing the wicked, he’s kind of a raging asshole. Why wouldn’t he be?
Bruce Wayne is a solitary man but since The Lego Batman Movie’s core audience is children, that means that over the course of the film, this arrogant, unhappy loner will have to learn how to put aside his ego and control freak tendencies to become part of a team and a family.
That’s essentially the message of pretty much every children’s movie, or TV show ever, although a fair number are also clear-cut propaganda for believing in one’s self, never giving up and following your dreams. But The Lego Batman Movie devotes enough time and energy to establishing the full depths of Bruce Wayne’s solitude and quiet despair for his emotional thaw to resonate emotionally.
Between Bojack Horseman and The Batman Lego Movie, Arnett has voiced characters of enormous depth, melancholy and power, despite being, respectively, an anthropomorphic depressive horse with substance abuse issues and the plastic toy version of a man who dresses up like a bat to fight crime.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t think he needs anyone to be happy, or really, that happiness should be any kind of a goal, but the path to spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization begins when he more or less accidentally adopts Dick Grayson, a wide-eyed orphan whose enormous eyes and wardrobe make him look distractingly like a young Roger Ebert.
Michael Cera is an impish delight as Robin. He’s adorable without being cloying or maudlin. He’s the exuberant yin to Batman’s grim yang as well as a character that comes close to single-handedly redeeming and justifying the much, and often richly maligned teenaged sidekick archetype.
The film’s plot finds Zach Galifianakis' The Joker giving himself up to the authorities in hopes of being sent to the Phantom Zone, where he can attain all manner of terrifying new powers while also unleashing some of the baddest, most nefarious and evil characters in all of filmdom, or at least the ones owned by Warner Brothers, the entertainment powerhouse behind not only the D.C Universe, but also Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and seemingly everything that their rivals over at Marvel/Disney don’t possess.
Watching The Lego Batman Movie flex its synergistic muscle by roping in not just a bevy of high-profile Batman villains like Harley Quinn and Two Face, but also villains from such seemingly far-flung properties as Harry Potter (Voldemort), I found myself thinking, as I did during The Lego Movie, that the filmmakers were getting away with something.
It’s impressive enough that the filmmakers get to exploit, in Batman and Superman, two of the richest and most beloved mythologies in all of pop culture. That The Lego Batman also gets to play with Voldemort, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings and the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard Of Oz seems almost like cheating, in the best possible way.
It’s wildly, wildly excessive, but like The Lego Movie, wild excess is The Batman Lego Movie’s joyful aesthetic. Besides, the film’s culture-mashing, mix-and-match sensibility mirrors the way children who play with Lego, and toys in general, think and behave. When my son Declan plays with his action figures, he does not delineate between which ones belong in the D.C Universe, and which ones belong in the Marvel universe, and which ones belong in the world of Star Wars.
No, to Declan, they all belong in the world of play, and in the world of imagination. They’re superheroes, or super-villains. Being a little under three years old, he blissfully doesn’t understand yet that there are rules involving superheroes and licensed characters and valuable creative and intellectual property, let alone understand what those rules might be, or how they are dictated overwhelmingly by money and commerce.
The the underlying beauty of The Lego Batman Movie—and I do not think it is hyperbolic or inaccurate to describe the movie as a film of true beauty—is that it respects children, and its audience, and it respects the way that children play, and think, and the ways that children make sense of the world and create new worlds in the bottomlessly fertile ground of their imagination.
The high-powered team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who recently created a disturbance in the force by getting shit-canned from the upcoming Han Solo stand-alone movie (Solo’s solo, as it were) did not direct The Lego Batman Movie as they did The Lego Movie, but they produced. To its credit, The Lego Batman Movie feels like a Lord-Miller production (I’m hoping the Han Solo movie does as well, but who knows how much of what they’ve filmed will make it into the final cut?).
Lord and Miller’s touch is felt most strongly in the movie’s ability to seamlessly fuse genuinely clever post-modern tomfoolery with human emotion. God help me, I laughed a lot at the manic misadventures of plastic representations of Bruce Wayne and his super-associates (it still might be a bit of a stretch to call them “friends”, even after all that narrative-mandated spiritual growth) but I also felt for the movie’s Bruce Wayne, who is right up there with Christian Bale, Michael Keaton and Adam West’s in my estimation. That’s right: I think the Lego Batman is way better than all the Batmans nobody likes.
Like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie was designed to be seen dozens, if not hundreds of times, by small children for whom any movie worth seeing is worth seeing fifty to one hundred times. The movie is overflowing with ideas, with jokes, with spectacle and riotous good humor.
I nurse a very strong suspicion that several dozen more viewings of The Lego Batman Movie loom in the very near future. And I am totally okay with that. I’m more than okay with that. I’m excited about it. The Lego Batman may be a starter Batman, not unlike Adam West, but he’s a pretty great Batman regardless, also like Adam West.
I’m excited that my son has a Batman he can get excited about in 2017. Hell, having suffered through Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad and dreading Justice League, I’m selfishly excited that I have a Batman I can get excited about as well.
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