Among superhero film adaptations, the Batman franchise arguably offers the most variation. Audiences expect the caped crusader to leap genres, between silly and serious, in a single bound—and this history and versatility can only benefit The LEGO Batman Movie, spinoff of The LEGO Movie (2014) but now starring that film’s sidekick, LEGO Batman.
There’s a time to be silly and a time to be serious; a time to parody the admittedly over-the-top fantasy of superhero tales, but also a time for comedy to catch us sidelong and show our human failures and needs.Although the non-LEGO, near-superhuman hero based in fictional Gotham City was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman has traveled through a wide array of live-action versions that swerve between utterly silly and grown-up serious. For fifty years we can count at least three main Bat-trends: the silly 1960s trend (Adam West), the mostly-serious-leads-back-to-silly 1980s–90s trend (Michael Keaton to George Clooney), and director Christopher Nolan’s most recent only-serious 2005–12 trend (Christian Bale).
But other heroes—especially Marvel characters such as Iron Man—have just begun their first film adaptations. And DC’s other famed hero who debuted a year before Batman in 1938, Superman, is mostly locked down in the public’s perception. Stray from this expectation, as the recent DC films have done, and people object that the “real” Superman isn’t like that.
Batman is exceptional. He can be either silly or serious. Even as a fourth live-action film adaptation begins—starring Ben Affleck, who debuted in the role in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—Warner Bros. doesn’t mind showing Batman as all things to all people.
Into this setting comes The LEGO Batman Movie, which is perhaps a better example of ultra-brand synergy than its predecessor. It embraces all adaptations of the character, both serious and silly, appealing to grown-ups and children, mashing them all into a story that both does and does not take itself seriously. LEGO Batman at once pleases and challenges audiences who want to relegate Batman or other superheroes to mere children’s characters who ought not have grown-up problems (e.g., “Superman never needs to kill!”), or else take the superhero genres so seriously that we can’t also laugh at the fantasy with our children.
A Time to Be Silly
In fact, the LEGO Batman adaptation first debuted in 2006 LEGO brick toys as well as a 2008 video game that led to two game sequels by LEGO partner Traveller’s Tales. The LEGO Movie in 2014 debuted an even sillier and comically narcissistic Batman voiced by Will Arnett, who channeled Bale’s famously gravel-tongued Bat-snarl but stayed a sidekick.
Now for The LEGO Batman Movie, Batman anchors his own spinoff, set entirely in a plastic-brick Gotham City built and animated much like the same faux-LEGO-stop-motion rules as The LEGO Movie. (One exception this time: water and smoke looks more photo-real, as opposed to the CG-brick-animated effects of the first movie.) Arnett’s Batman is joined by longsuffering butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes), future Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and gleeful Bat-fan orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who becomes the sidekick Robin as well as the adopted son of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. (Robin’s “I have not just one but two dads!” exclamation is solely for dual-identity-based laughs.)
LEGO Batman throws all the Bat-parts—from Nolan’s brooding, West’s self-aware hilarity, and Schumacher’s over-the-top gadgets—into a box and shakes them up. The results go nuts with the super-silliness. Arnett pumps it up with not-unlikable heroic conceit: Batman is either annoyed with other heroes, such as Superman, or outright mocks them, such as a certain other billionaire hero from the cinematic universe next door.
A Time to Be Serious
Yet the story will not mock but instead respects the usual backstory: a lonely rich boy became a nocturnal hero to mask his pain. We get to laugh at this as Bruce Wayne returns from a dark night of hero-ing and keeps his mask on while eating alone, swimming alone, and watching TV alone. But this isn’t internet-meme “my parents are DEAD” flippancy about this sad backstory; instead, it’s shown as tragicomic. As Alfred says, Bruce’s greatest fear is having a family again. Suddenly the jokes aren’t about flippancy but genuine pathos. And all the Bat-story themes that constantly re-ask the question “really, who is the secret identity of whom?” get summed up by this one exchange between Batman and Robin:
Robin: Whoa! Batman lives in Bruce Wayne’s basement?!
Batman: No! Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic!
Batman also covers his worst fear of family by fighting crime. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself if all crime disappeared. Naturally, when Batman offends his famed frenemy The Joker by claiming The Joker isn’t his “greatest enemy,” the clown price sets out to prove him wrong. When The Joker surrenders with all other Gotham criminals, making the city crime-free, the hero who lives for nothing after the fight doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Bruce is forced to relate to the orphan child the story contrives to have him accidentally adopt. Naturally, he dresses up the boy wonder in a pants-deprived outfit and begins building a sidekick.
Barbara Gordon: Is that your son?
Batman: No, that’s just—weird.
Barbara: It’s weirder if it’s not your son.
Thus the story happily and naturally extols the wonder of adoption, which helps even the world’s greatest self-absorbed superhero fanboy, Batman himself, grow up, discover the joys of parenting, and learn to share a family again. These are serious themes the comedy refuses to skewer. Adoption isn’t laughed at. Orphans aren’t parodied. And you don’t mock the very serious topic of hurting people who face their worst fears to find real community.
Meanwhile, all this is shown by a cornucopia of plastic candy: villain cameos, stop-motion-esque battles, morphing Bat-vehicles rebuilt in-transit by “master builder” Batman. Style is just as over-the-top as the substance: Batman even undergoes an overt “die and go to heaven to be judged for his deeds” moment, and friends and enemies alike literally link up to defeat the real enemies (borrowing from other franchises) and literally rebuild their city.
However, over the bouncy end-credits song summing up the moral, “Friends are Family,” I could not help but consider some pushback. In a sense, this idea is true: friends really can be family. You can feel or actually be closer to members of your same fandom, church, or particular organization than you are to your biological family members—especially if you, like LEGO Batman, have suffered some trauma related to them. Moreover, adoption is one of the Bible’s most beautiful metaphors for being reconciled to God. Men and women alike are adopted as children of God who can call him “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15).
Yet how does this “friends are family” ideal work in real life? God also gives us biological family members, parents and siblings and extended relatives, many of whom have different and irritating beliefs, religions, or just nasty personalities. Sometimes they aren’t even our “frenemies,” but actual enemies. What’s a true hero to do then? LEGO Batman does not face this challenge, other than “blast your enemies with colorful weapons,” and that’s fine. But it’s something to consider if we more seriously ponder the claim that “friends are family.”
One friend asked me if I found the film suitable to see with his family, including young children. I would say yes, and double yes if you saw and enjoyed The LEGO Movie. This film is a bit less subversive than that one on the meta level. For example, LEGO Batman doesn’t step outside his own universe for a surprise deeper exploration of creativity. But the story does explore the concept of parents and children acting as teammates. Batman even finds himself not just maturing, but overjoyed at Robin happily obeys and imitates him. It’s a challenge not only to children (imagine being happy at obeying your parents!) but to geeky fans. There’s a time to be silly and a time to be serious; a time to parody the admittedly over-the-top fantasy of superhero tales, but also a time for comedy to catch us sidelong and show our human failures and needs. The two heroic genres need not be opposite. And in some cases, even one black-and-very-very-dark-gray plastic hero can reflect both natures.