February 5th, 2017
Na na na na na na na na na na na!
When The Lego Movie came out, I had no intention of going to see it at all — it seemed like the worst kind of children’s film, a literal toy commercial. But Lawrence Burton told me I’d like it and said specifically that it was like a film version of my book of annotations of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers.
While it’s not quite like that (seriously, if you want a film version of my Seven Soldiers book, what you want is 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee), it is, as Illogical Volume put it on Twitter earlier, “the single most Grant Morrison movie ever made”. And while it has some enormous problems (not least of which is its treatment of the one significant female character, Wildstyle), The Lego Movie is far, far cleverer and *better* than it had any need to be.
And as Batman was one of the best things about The Lego Movie, I was very excited to see The Lego Batman Movie.
Before reviewing the film properly, I have to point out that The Lego Batman Movie has several problems which may be dealbreakers for some people. The first is that one of the executive producers is Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury Secretary pick. Those boycotting Trump-related businesses may consider that enough to boycott this (I didn’t actually know that until his name came up on the end credits).
Secondly, there’s a short before the film itself, set in the Lego-owned “land of Ninjago”. I actually didn’t get to see more than a few seconds of this (we thought the audio description wasn’t working in my wife’s headphones and I had to go and see the staff of the cinema — it turns out that this short isn’t audio described, which may be useful information for some) but the few seconds I saw gave the impression that it was rather offensively orientalist. I can’t judge properly, but be warned.
And finally, the film shares some of The Lego Movie‘s problems with female characters, although it’s clearly making an attempt to address the issue. The Batman characters are mostly very masculine, and so a story about Batman meeting Robin and fighting the Joker necessarily centres on those characters (along with Alfred). They do make an effort to beef up Batgirl’s part — Barbara Gordon is here promoted to Commissioner before she ever becomes Batgirl, and is a central character in the whole storyline — and Harley Quinn is the only one of the dozens of minor villains (and this does feature pretty much every Batman villain you can think of — Egghead, the Gentleman Ghost, Killer Croc, Clayface, King Tut, the Condiment King…) to get any characterisation at all, and to play a real part in the plot.
But essentially this is a film about four characters — Batman, Robin, Alfred, and Batgirl — and their relationships with each other. And as Batman is the star, that does rather mean that Batgirl falls into the clichéd role of “female character who helps the arsehole male character become a better person”.
There are things that could have been done to fix that — the film could have featured the Carrie Kelly Robin instead of Dick Grayson, perhaps, or Aunt Harriet from the TV series — but fundamentally, when you’re making a Batman film, your narrative is going to centre a spoiled white man, because that’s what Batman stories do. Given that limitation, the film manages not to be as egregiously poor with its female characters as its predecessor, and that’s something. (Interestingly, Chief O’Hara is made a woman, though she has little to do. Someone’s at least been trying to up the female representation).
(It’s also a film that has ridiculous levels of product placement, especially for Apple, but anyone who didn’t expect that going in mustn’t have looked at the title of the film).
But what the film does right is… well, rather a lot, actually. If The Lego Movie was Seven Soldiers, this is Morrison’s Batman run, bringing together all eras of Batman into one confused man’s confused history — this Batman is ninety years old (though he looks very good for his age and has a nine-pack) and explicitly lived through all the earlier Batman films, from 1966 through 2016.
It’s a surprisingly layered film, as well — possibly the result of the many credited writers, who seem to have been trying to do different things, but things that complement rather than clash with each other.
The most obvious level is the metatextual jokiness, which will undoubtedly be compared to Deadpool and was probably inspired by it in many ways (Batman narrating the opening credits, in particular, seems to be a direct steal). That also accounts for all the references to things from the comics (Soder Cola, Ferris Aviation, Blüdhaven), a lot of which are played as jokes about how ridiculous the concepts are. (The people I was with had not heard of Blüdhaven and laughed, thinking it was a parody of grimdark comics ideas, rather than just Chuck Dixon being Chuck Dixon — several laughed at the name of Crime Alley, for similar reasons). It’s a genuinely funny film, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that only comics fans will find funny — but there’s also a lot that anyone with even the most basic knowledge of what Batman is will find hilarious.
On another level, this is the kind of Batman story that a five-year-old would make up. In the climax (which makes up a good third or so of the film’s running time) Batman confronts not only the Joker and all his usual enemies, but also King Kong, Dracula, Voldemort, an army of Daleks, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkey army, a velociraptor, Godzilla, the gremlins from Gremlins, and more. For much of the film, it is as if a five-year-old just says “and now the Joker has some Daleks, and Batman has to use the Batplane on King Kong, but…”
This is the kind of AWESOME! that sends a certain type of geek-media website into paroxysms of delight, and which can often pall, but in this case it goes *so* over the top that the sheer absurdity of the ever-greater threats just piling on becomes the point. And this is, after all, a film aimed at children.
And finally, between the action setpieces, there’s actually quite a sweet little story about the importance of family-of-choice in there. The film has Batman as a Charles Foster Kane-esque character at the start (and the film explicitly nods to Welles in a couple of places, notably in a funhouse mirror sequence clearly “inspired” by The Lady from Shanghai), rejecting everyone, whether it be Alfred (who he very explicitly says is a servant and *not* a surrogate father at that point), Dick Grayson (who he adopts accidentally and doesn’t even realise he’s adopted for a week), or the Joker — who thinks of himself as Batman’s worst enemy, but who Batman dismisses, saying he’s “fighting other people” and “doesn’t do ships”.
The Joker’s efforts to persuade Batman that the two of them have something special between them, and Commissioner Barbara Gordon’s efforts to persuade Batman to work as part of a team (after she decides that unlike her father, she intends to actually fight crime rather than just push the button on the Bat-signal) dovetail with Alfred’s attempts to bring Batman out of himself, and by the end of the film Batman has created a new family for himself, and learned to be able to say “I hate you” to the Joker. I think those for whom the most important thing about Batman is the generational aspect and the family-of-choice stuff will come out of this very happy.
The Lego Batman Movie is not as intellectually stimulating as The Lego Movie, but its makers understand Batman better than any previous film does. They understand what makes the character ridiculous, what makes the character great despite (and because of) that ridiculousness, and how to balance those things in a way that is somewhere between the Brave & The Bold cartoon and the 60s TV series. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s cleverer than it needs to be, given what it is, which is basically a 104-minute funfair ride.
My thoughts may change after seeing it again — I only watched it a few hours ago — but I *will* be seeing it again, and there’s not many films based on DC characters I could say that about.
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