Movie Review: The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
It begins meta. We’re immersed in a dark screen—silent until we hear the guttural growl of Lego Batman (Will Arnett) commenting upon the thing we’re watching:
Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous. And logos. Really long and dramatic logos. Warner Bros. Why not Warner Brothers? I dunno. DC: The house that Batman built. Yeah, what Superman? Come at me, bro. I’m your kryptonite.
I wanted a little more here—particularly with all the logos of all the production companies necessary to make movies now—but it’s doing a good job of satirizing the genre: superhero movies generally, Batman movies specifically. I’m laughing. The fact that they’re Legos helps. Batman acts as superimportant as he always does but he’s a Lego.
The Joker (Zach Galifanakas) has concocted a needlessly elaborate plan to blow up Gotham City but nobody is particularly scared. The pilot whose plane full of explosives is hijacked kind of shrugs and says Batman will save the day, as he has in the past. He references “the two boats” (“The Dark Knight,” 2008) and “the parade with the Prince music” (“Batman,” 1989) as examples. The Joker’s incensed, or maybe petulant—the way a first grader might be—but with his team of criminals he takes over an event in Gotham headed by Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), and this brings out the Batman, who is unstoppable and full of himself. And a Lego. He’s about to capture the escaping Joker (rope ladder, helicopter) when the Joker reminds him of the bomb ready to blow up his city. He crows: “It’s got to be one or the other, Batman! Save the city or catch your greatest enemy. You can’t do both!”
It’s that classic hero dilemma—but with a twist. Batman looks confused for a moment, and we get the following dialogue:
Batman: You think you’re my greatest enemy?
Joker: Yes, you’re obsessed with me.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, your are.
Batman: No, I’m not.
Joker: Yes, you are! Who else drives you crazy the way I do?
Joker: No he doesn’t.
Joker: Superman’s not a bad guy!
Again, I’m laughing. The absurdity of it all, the first-grader dialogue, the idiocy of a Batman who considers Superman his enemy. We get a close-up of Lego Joker’s face turning sad, his painted mouth beginning to quiver, as he realizes he means so little to the enemy who means so much to him.
“This is good,” I thought.
About a half hour later I realized I wasn’t laughing anymore. What happened? The plot kicked in, of course. The movie stopped being a satire and became the thing it was satirizing. It tried to give us meaning.
The meaning is in the above dialogue. Batman has never gotten over his parent’s murder—the incident that made him Batman—so he keeps everybody, including the Joker, at a distance, while he watches sappy romances such as “Jerry Maguire” and “Serendipity” on his big-screen HDTV in his voluminous mansion. (I liked him on the couch, searching for the right HDMI input. Us, finally.)
But keeping yourself at a remove isn’t healthy personally. Here, it’s also not healthy professionally. Batman winds up needing others. Not the Justice League of America, who make a cameo appearance partying in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Instead, it’s the usual Batman crew: Robin (Michael Cera), Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). Initially he pushes them away, because Batman doesn’t do “ships,” as in “relationships,” but finally he realizes he can’t save the day without them. So he has to change from a solo Batman to one surrounded by bat-friends. Basically, he’s changing from Christopher Nolan’s growling, solo Dark Knight to the Adam West version. By the end, everything is bats: Batgirl, Night-wing, Alfred dressed as 1960s-era Batman. We get shark repellent and Pow! and Sock!
Normally I would’ve liked all of this, since I’m a fan of the 1966 “Batman”: I think it’s the best superhero satire ever made. This is probably second now, but a distant second, because it has to give us not just a happy ending but a cozy ending: Batman rejoining the family of men/women. The ’66 version gave us a happy ending (Batman saves the day) but Batman himself never changes: he remains as pompous in the end as he was at the beginning. U.N. leaders are reduced to dust by the Penguin, and when Batman rehydrates them they continue arguing without skipping a beat—except now they’re arguing in someone else’s language. Robin is worried but Batman gets that far-off “Father Knows Best” look of wisdom in his eyes, and says, “Who knows, Robin: This strange mixing of the minds may be ... the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” It’s a perfect take on post-World War II American pomposity. We save the day and can’t stop patting ourselves on the back for it.
So what would be the perfect satire for post-Reagan American pomposity? I don’t know. Not this. If you have your hero change, you need to mock the change. It can’t be the right move, just another move fraught with inadequacies and human doubt. Batman could, for example, go from pompous and stoic to pompous and empathetic. He couldn’t stop hugging people and asking about their feelings: “Believe me, I’m the least stoic person out there. Just ask anyone.”
Worse, “The LEGO Batman Movie” goes beyond the bounds of the Batman/superhero universe to include other Warner Bros. properties: Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong. You can almost feel business executives (LEGO, Warner Bros., DC Comics) rubbing their hands together at the synergy.
Maybe that’s what you mock. You go meta on that. Those guys. Sadly, they’re the ones still in control. More than ever now.