We’ve been in the age of the superhero film for close to two decades (2000’s X-Men, 2002’s Spider-Man, 2005’s Batman Begins). And as the franchises have led to more expansive “universes,” the story structures have become repetitive, and more troubling, bombastic. Buildings falling as cities have become countries have become planets at risk of total destruction at the hands of underdeveloped super-villains. Despite the films being called visually spectacular and fun escapism by loyal fans, it’s hard to go back time after time without feeling a little anxiety at rewatch destruction as moody heroes try to keep it all together. Some films have made an effort to stick out and do something new…but few have truly been as transgressive as they claim to want to be.
We had the sardonic Guardians of the Galaxy, which took the fight for survival to another galaxy, and the lower key Ant-Man, but both will now be intertwined with the larger “Marvel Cinematic Universe” with new Avengers films. Last year, we had the baffling Suicide Squad, a film whose promise was so lost when it finally made it to the screen, the intention for such a film seemed to just “do something, anything different.” And we had Deadpool, the satire of comic book films…the film that hit big with much of the same audiences, but was also mean-spirited to the core as it relished (maybe a little too enthusiastically) its R rating for crude language, violence, and nudity.
After last year’s many disappointments in the popcorn film market, the promise of even more films isn’t leaving me with much hope of escapism. We had the over-crowded Captain America: Civil War (aka Avengers 2.5), disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse (a movie which unintentionally lived up to its onscreen promise that the third film’s always the worst), and a downer of a Batman v. Superman movie to launch the “Justice League” films. All this, not to mention how the superhero structure has permeated the action movie genre, the superhero sub-genre (or is it a format) is the age we seem to be living in; and for something we’re supposed to be going to see for “fun, nostalgic, escapism,” a lot of these movies seem far too serious.
Which is ultimately the reason a film like Lego Batman, the unofficial sequel to the Lego Movie, is such a breath of fresh air in the cold days of 2017…and hopefully, a film to signal some necessary changes. This isn’t the first of the animated superhero movies that studios have tried (we also had Big Hero 6 from Disney Marvel). But it is the first superhero film to offer a parody since this trend really started. Yes, we’ve had Kick-Ass, Super, and the previously mentioned Deadpool. But these are all films which would fall under satire rather than parody; darkly comic films ridiculing and making fun as they pointed out the repeated problems with these types of films.
Lego Batman is a parody of superhero films (Batman franchise specifically) because there is sincere love and affection for these familiar stories. Lego Batman is the first superhero film in a long time to find something humanistic and redeeming in the familiarities of these stories which started to become pedestrian. And it starts by pointing out WHY the character of Batman is, and has for so long, been appealing to children. Because his behavior is the extension of how children see the world…not only as a place of good and evil, but it captures the unapologetic narcissism of children, especially children dreaming of being heroes.
Batman is the ultimate man-child, and unlike the more recent image of man-children as some romantic, damaged souls to be nurtured (the too common “mommying” of the female characters), Lego Batman’s just kind of a jerk. Despite all his heroics, he does everything not to be of service (something children need to learn) but to retain the all-important title of HERO. To share the spotlight is a failure, and to be anything less than a superhero will lose him all his cool points. And he is cool in the eyes of children who share his narcissistic view of being seen as important by the world at large. Little boy Robin (voiced brilliantly by Michael Cera) has unending warmth and optimism, and shares Batman’s desire to be “known as a hero.” But as a child, this form of play is adorable-the film even plays with it by throwing in the classic shooting noise children make when playing pretend. It’s fun to see kids bouncing around, wanting to be seen as something special by the person they admire most in the world. That same behavior from an adult, however is pathetic, needy, and childish. The way Will Arnett describes himself as Batman with gravely running commentary is the way a child playing superhero would talk about themselves while walking around in a Halloween costume.
Which in a children’s film, is incredibly appealing to see an adult character acting so immaturely. Will Arnett is excellent at Batman, not just because he’s great with a vocal performance, but the animated character is so perfectly tied to his own comic personality. Arnett’s often at his very best when combining what feels like an inherent cockiness with a juvenile vulnerability. It softens what could be an unpleasant character, and makes his excitable silliness seem natural; almost all his characters’ have a desperate desire to be SEEN. His Lego Batman is easy for kids (and adults) to identify with because he represents such a pure character children pretend to be; the hero. Lego Batman, more than any other cinematic version of the character, captures the why Batman has been a beloved character for children…long before he came to represent the cynicism of teenagers and adults.
But Lord and Miller (the producing partners who have taken similar childish approaches to their TV work with Last Man on Earth and Son of Zorn) take it a step further to point out where Batman (and kids like him) need to grow. The second half of the film focuses on the fact that the biggest part of being that someone important can often mean a willingness to step away from the limelight and put your ego aside. A seemingly simple lesson for kids, spelled out by calling attention to how similar the desires to “be somebody” are to Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) desires. But despite what we might think, that morality lesson isn’t as simple in adulthood either. We all know the boss or coworker that refuses to delegate. Or the politicians called weak for asking for compromise or collaboration by those in power and ruled by their egos. We rarely note the power of the many in the media or news, choosing to put a spotlight on the few we consider special. It might be a simple lesson, it probably is worth pointing out again and again to everyone.
But that’s a tangent, because Lego Batman is so winning and could ultimately be important to Hollywood, because it does something different. It’s lighter, it’s sillier, and it reminds us why superhero stories charm younger audiences too. Kids aren’t full of cynicism or desperate for the dark and moody stories we’ve been getting. And despite what every critic and media commenter claims, dark and moody doesn’t automatically make a film deeper. Yes, Lego Batman is for kids as much as adults (and those who see a distinction between the two audiences probably should avoid it), but at its core, Lego Batman is a step forward, showing there is a place for play in superhero films…a very necessary one in fact.