Every other Wednesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
My husband took an afternoon break to join me and our girls for a matinee of The LEGO Batman Movie. It was a special splurge, a popcorn-for-lunch kind of day, particularly given how rare it is for all four of us to see a movie together. I remember watching reruns of the 1960s Batman television show with my family while I was growing up, and I appreciated the silly elements of this newest version as nods to that campy rendition. I don’t go in much for the darker superhero films, so I’ve been out of the franchise for a while, and my husband and I selected this movie based on the strength of The LEGO Movie.
Batman’s moment of decision is cultivated and captured onscreen as part of a constructed narrative; we’re making our own day by day.Though some of the self-referential qualities of this Batman movie went over my girls’ heads, there were enough fun elements for them to take this as an early introduction to the characters. Robin’s goofiness stood out for us, and the final song, “Friends Are Family” successfully concluded on a happy note. My elder daughter found it hilarious that Voldemort was included in the cast and used her favorite spell, “Wingardium Leviosa!” I don’t think it’s necessary to be familiar with the major players to enjoy the film, but in hindsight, I do think it would have improved the experience for my children.
Much of the conflict centers on Batman’s refusal to acknowledge the Joker as his arch-nemesis; the Dark Knight’s resistance to all forms of attachment drives the storyline, leading to some funny scenes of Alfred reading parenting books to figure out how to discipline his unruly adopted son. The emphasis on adoption and creating one’s own family is highlighted throughout the film as well as in the last song, and there are clear parallels between Alfred’s adoption of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Batman’s adoption of Robin. These relationships are literally written on-screen at one point, though the doubling is present more subtly too, notably in scenes of Batman and later Robin gazing upon the wall of family photos.
So there my family sat, watching a film of LEGO characters looking at family photos. It felt for me like a kind of reflection, like a similar meta-moment when my younger daughter laughed about watching a movie where Batman watches a movie. That meta-moment—my family looking at images of a family looking at images—changed the central question of the film for me. I agree with my husband’s assessment that the Batman/Joker struggle (and its attendant haziness about defining “good guys” and “bad guys”) asks viewers to think about why we need something, or someone, to struggle against.
I think it also asks audiences to consider why we need something—or someone—worth struggling for. Ultimately, Batman doesn’t return to fight the Joker but to protect Alfred, Robin, and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. His fears for their safety prompt him to change, to acknowledge his need for friends and family. He begins to recognize that the same community that makes him vulnerable also makes him fulfilled. And, yes, by the movie’s conclusion, Batman expresses that level of connection and vulnerability with the Joker, too. The scene in which they express their hatred intentionally sounds an awful lot like love.
There is a sense, in the Batman-and-Joker scene of big feelings, that iron sharpens iron. As much as the boundaries between superhero and supervillain blur in this and similar storylines, the two characters need counterparts of equal (if opposite) power to truly develop their gifts. It reminded me, too, of a conversation my husband and I have a lot, the conversation I’ll call “Is this the hill you want to die upon?” It’s that moment, that truth, so fundamental to our lives that we’re willing to step outside of our comfort zones to defend it. For Batman, losing the Joker almost pushes him to that point, but it’s the potential loss of his family that serves as the catalyst for real character change.
As parents, my husband and I try to be careful about those moments. There’s really only one hill. It’s a more extreme statement about what all parents do in choosing our battles. We know our hill, though, and it’s the same one Christ already died upon. The harder part is traveling that hill in the everyday moments of family life. Batman’s moment of decision is cultivated and captured onscreen as part of a constructed narrative; we’re making our own day by day. Batman’s vulnerability is a reflection of Christ’s sacrifice, and thankfully for us, we walk our daily hill with our Savior in sight.