Look, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve read the title and it seems like I am about to launch into a fully fledged discussion of how and why The Lego Movie Batman Movie distances itself from hegemonic gender stereotypes and you are worried because, let’s face it, it’s a kids movie. Can’t we just let it be? Must we over-analyse everything, even animated children’s movies made from Lego?
The answer is no we can’t let it go, and yes we must analyse everything. Also, I 100% disagree that The Lego Batman Movie is for children, or even a “children’s” film (whatever that means anyway) and my evidence for this is as follows. When I watched the film, none of the children in the cinema laughed at any of the jokes. They didn’t even bat an eyelid throughout the ‘history of Batman’ montage. Myself, and the three other adults I went with, couldn’t catch breath for laughing so hard for the entirety of the film, so tell me – who really got the most out of their overpriced cinema ticket here? (probably the children as they almost certainly didn’t pay for themselves but whatever… you get the point).
Batman (the Lego version) first appeared in 2014’s The Lego Movie as a side character. Arrogant, self-assured and immature, Batman (voiced by the superb Will Arnett) was such a likable character even in such a small role that a spin off was pretty inevitable. Would it work though? The Lego Movie was unique, quirky and took beloved character Lego sets and turned them into wonderful onscreen characters. Could it be done again, or would The Lego Batman Movie simply turn into another Batman parody?
The tldr answer is yes. It could, and it has been. The Lego Batman Movie lives up to the hype of The Lego Movie, and in places surpasses it. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s so full of gags that you probably miss at least 30% of them on a first watch. Kermode, in his review of it, talks about wanting to just look at stills of each frame, just so you can really take in how much work has gone into the film and appreciate all the visual gags. It’s true that, especially in the first half, the jokes come thick and fast. Like tiny children after ingesting obscene amounts of sugar, Lego Batman is high paced, hyperactive and pretty much unstoppable to begin with. And, like all kids on a sugar high, it begins to wind down through the second half. It still has crazy amounts of gags, but the film takes on a more serious note and begins to hone in on its mantra – you can’t do everything by yourself. Also ‘no man is an island’, ‘friends are really important’ and ‘if you push everyone away from you constantly and act like you’re a super macho man with no weaknesses, you are going to be very, very lonely’.
This, in essence, is why Lego Batman is not only a hilariously funny film about tiny Lego characters. Lego Batman, in just under two hours, managed to sum up all of the reasons why the traditional Batman is a terrible hero and an even worse role model. It visually explained just how much Batman represents aggressive and toxic masculinity and how those things are really, really unhealthy. It did all of these things, whilst also taking the piss out of Robin’s ‘no pants’ era – which was bloody brilliant.
In the initial opening sequence, Batman’s weakness is pointed out to us by the Joker. It’s not even that Batman doesn’t have any friends or family, it’s that he is so isolated that he can’t even call the Joker his ‘greatest enemy’. He doesn’t have a greatest anything. He lives alone, he eats lobster thermidor alone, he laughs at Jerry McGuire alone and he saves Gotham over and over again, alone. He is so reluctant to let anyone into his life, that he refuses to admit that him and Joker have a special relationship – that would be too much like letting someone in.
Batman also believes that he is the only person who can save Gotham. This angle is played countless times throughout every incarnation of Batman, especially the Chris Nolan films and Batman v Superman (still very annoyed I actually sat through that steaming pile of garbage)… Batman believes himself to be the only person worthy of saving the city, and as such he never works within the law and cooperates with law enforcement in a very minimal way (occasionally talking with Commissioner Gordon). Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) drives this point home when she pulls Batman up on his lack of accountability when crime fighting, and his inability to work with law enforcement or even just inside of the law. Gordon lays out some ideas about Batman assisting the Gotham PD to catch vigilantes, which Batman meets with utter disdain. He doesn’t need anyone’s help! In fact, he doesn’t need anyone at all…
Cue Richard (“my friends call me Dick”) Grayson (Michael Cera). A poor orphan boy who idolises Batman and, through Batman’s inability to listen to anyone for more than a minute, ends up accidentally being adopted by him. Batman’s fear of commitment is realised through Dick Grayson (okay, but let’s just call him Robin) because he suddenly has a responsibility to someone else. Batman realises, through a series of events, that he may actually need a bit of help to save the city. He also realises that he is desperately lonely and is very much still grieving the loss of his family.
Batman starts their relationship by exploiting Robin’s small stature and gymnastic talents by using him to steal the Phantom Zone Projector. After Robin succeeds, and shows a pretty natural talent for superhero things, Batman actually feels a sense of pride in him – a feeling he clearly hasn’t felt in a long time (if ever). So begins Batman’s internal struggle to accept another human being into his life, whilst also retain his stoic, unemotional and traditionally masculine facade.
Lego Batman manages to hit notes of loneliness and isolation in Batman’s character that the Chris Nolan films never seemed to ever come close to. It shows Batman as a scared little boy, someone who is struggling with genuine human connections in favour of ‘being a hero’ every time. Batman performs a masculinity so destructive, that he cannot let anyone into his life. He refuses to give in to his emotions (store those away whilst you’re fighting crime), and instructs Robin to do the same. When Batman accepts teamwork, love and respect into his life, he comes happy and fulfilled. Even more importantly, perhaps, this ‘family’ is instigated by the arrival of a surrogate son. Batman is learning how to be a single father. Instead of a love interest forcing a change in him (as per 99% of superhero narratives), here Batman is held accountable by another time of love.
It also retained all the joy and ‘wackiness’ of the older Tim Burton franchise, the comics and even the 1960s series. It’s beautifully animated, brightly coloured and every other line of dialogue is a zany reference. It’s the Batman parody to end all Batman parodies, but it also works as its own funny and sweet story. The narrative is simple enough, but Lego Batman feels full because of the charm of its characters and the commitment by the filmmakers to properly go in for criticism of Batman as a dark vigilante superhero.
The Lego Batman Movie manages to throw a huge curve ball at the Batman franchise, and is one of the most effective criticisms of toxic masculinity that I’ve seen recently – especially in a ‘family’ film. It’s funny, it’s cute and it hammers home a much needed message that teamwork, respect and communication are so so important. Not to mention, it asks the all important question – if you’re going to call Barbara Gordon Batgirl, does that make Batman, Batboy? Just a thought…