Saturday, February 25, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE (2017)

Lots of comic book fans hate Batman. I'm not just talking about Marvel Comics partisans -- though Lego Batman apparently hates them in return -- but also many DC comics fans who resent the idea, articulated by Lego Batman, that DC is "the house Batman built." For some fans the cult of Batman is a betrayal of everything superhero comics should be about. The idea that Batman, without super powers, can take down the entire Justice League of America singlehandedly --I've seen it done in comics -- really rankles these fans. Batman is a big buzzkill for them; the fantasies that fuel his popularity are antithetical to theirs. For many people the superhero idea is a fantasy of transcendence; what appeals is the idea of overcoming human limitations, to be able to do things literally impossible for humans. Yet here comes Batman to burst all those bubbles. His most hardcore fans, for the most part, like the leveling idea of someone who isn't naturally gifted (unless you count inherited wealth) being able to take out anybody, no matter how gifted they are. The important thing isn't what you (or your fantasy figure) can do, but that anyone and everyone else can be beaten. This Batman is an implacable nemesis, a black hole of ressentiment that sucks in and crushes other people's fantasies. But not all Batman fans see Batman that way. Many, at least a vocal minority over-represented online, have opposed the darkening of the Batman myth since the 1980s milestones of Frank Miller's comics and Tim Burton's blockbuster movie. The Lego Batman Movie is a critique of the "dark knight" myth from the perspective of an older alternate fandom (which acknowledges the character's nearly 80 year history in its sometimes embarrassing entirety) for whom a big part of Batman's appeal was the evolution around him of a "Batman Family," to use the title of a pre-Miller comic. But it's not really a satire of the Dark Knight, which is all too parody-proof, because Lego Batman -- analogous but not really identical to the character from The Lego Movie -- doesn't behave like the largely humorless Batman of modern comics and movies. Instead, Chris McKay's cartoon, from a story by Seth Grahame-Smith, satrizes those Batman fans who, in the view of their critics, have reduced Batman to the stunted creature on display here.

Lego Batman (Will Arnett) isn't much different from the overgrown manchildren of so many live-action comedies, except that he's explicitly even more adolescent in his flailing tantrums defying father-figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), who desperately encourages his charge to connect with the world, make friends, and take steps toward an adulthood equated with emotional intimacy. Lego Batman, who'd wear his cowl everywhere he went like El Santo if Alfred didn't prompt him to take it off for Bruce Wayne's social engagements, is entirely absorbed in his hobby of crimefighting, but remains detached even from those who share the hobby, including he criminals he fights. This is a Batman who doesn't get invited to Justice League parties; who breaks the Joker's (Zach Galifianakis) heart by refusing to acknowledge the clown prince of crime as his greatest enemy, or even to work up enough emotion to hate him; who so takes for granted his ability to defeat Gotham's small army of costumed antagonists, even when they all team up against him, that he never bothers taking them into custody. The story of the film is a three-front war to break Lego Batman's shell. Joker escalates his merry war by contriving to be sent to the Lego Phantom Zone, where the big bads of many a mythos are confined (including some shrill "British robots" whose name apparently couldn't be mentioned), so he can lead a mass breakout and invasion of Gotham City. New police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes a more confrontational attitude toward the local vigilante than her retired father, but only in order to make him cooperate with rather than overshadow the police. Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), adopted absentmindedly by Bruce Wayne and encouraged by Alfred, simply wants to bond with his new father, or with his "second father," Batman. Enemies and would-be friends alike batter away at Lego Batman's emotional barriers, rooted in the founding trauma of his parents' murder (thankfully not reenacted yet again in this kiddie movie). Lego Batman's weakness, as many comics critics and fanfiction writers have long known, is his fear of forming ties that might abruptly be cut, but this only becomes a weakness once he faces a threat that he absolutely cannot defeat on his own, so long as he refuses to acknowledge that. Only when he lets his allies show their colors by wearing costumes as he does -- a "Reggaeman" costume shorn of its trousers becomes the traditional Robin uniform, for instance -- and only when he can own up to this true, deep hatred of Joker can the day possibly be saved....

The Lego Batman Movie adopts the visual style of The Lego Movie -- unlike various made-for-home-video Batman Lego movies, the characters move in the herky-jerky manner expected of Lego objects, and clouds, explosions etc. appear to be made of Legos -- but only intermittently exploits its Lego-ness, as when Batman acts as a Builder to make weapons and devices out of the landscape, or when characters exploit their inherent interconnectivity to make themselves into "human" bridges. Almost inevitably it's more Batman than Lego movie, though it's unique among Batman movies in its critical-though-loving take on the character. Anti-Batman comics fans and anti-"grimdark" Batman fans will enjoy the send-up of the stuck-up mainstream Batman and his pretentious antisocial fans, but both groups may leave theaters feeling that the film shot its wad in a way that makes a sequel difficult to imagine. To be fair, the filmmakers may not have planned on a sequel, but I'm sure Warner Bros. will want one. Only now they've used up Batman's entire rogues' gallery with the exception (I think) of Ra's al-Ghul, who isn't exactly the stuff of a Lego movie, and left it impossible for us to take any of them seriously, even in the context of a cartoon comedy. It always feels like a waste when someone makes an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink movie like this using all the characters in a "universe" at the same time, and I'm sure the particular fans of many classic villains will feel this more acutely. The right thing to do actually might be to spin this off into a TV show of half-hour adventures with individual villains, but the more likely thing is a Lego Justice League movie to make up for the underutilization of Batman's peers here. As an open-minded Batman fan who's enjoyed comics and movies with many different approaches to the character, I enjoyed Lego Batman, even though it probably was impossible for this new film to be the revelation or statement its predecessor was. I doubt it will change many people's attitudes toward Batman. Fans who'd like to see an expanding Bat-Family in comics and movies probably will be disappointed by DC and WB's continued pandering to the isolatos who buy most of the comics, and those buyers probably will dismiss this movie as stupid kid stuff. Given that the very idea of Batman can all too easily be dismissed as stupid kid stuff, that's not really much of a critique, but the fact that Batman's nature and what he means to readers or movie audiences can be so hotly debated suggests that neither the character nor his Lego incarnation should be dismissed quite so stupidly.

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