Question Club: The Lego Batman Movie’s original content, smart humor, and endless recycling – The Verge

Back in 2014, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s The Lego Movie became a critical hit and an immense financial success, turning a $60 million budget into nearly $470 million in box office take worldwide. That’s the kind of conversation rate that gets studio attention: Warner Animation was already developing The Lego Ninjago Movie, based on the existing Lego toy line, and it immediately signed deals for a Lego Movie sequel and a spinoff, The Lego Batman Movie, as well. Batman seemed like an ideal breakout character: The Lego Movie is packed with cameos from the DC universe, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other major media franchises, but Batman had the biggest and most memorable role alongside the protagonists, and his out-of-control ego and overall brotastic confidence made him a high point of the film.

That attitude carries over to his solo film, which is also packed with cameos, this time primarily from the DC Universe. Chris McKay’s movie dives deep into Batman’s immense stable of villains, and also brings in other heroes, plus a few baddies from other franchises, including Harry Potter and Doctor Who. It’s a fast-paced fun time of a film that endlessly mocks the basic Batman tropes, portraying Bruce Wayne as a smug loner in love with his dark, broody self-image and the endless praise and validation that comes with being the world’s most competent hero. But we still walked out with some collective questions about The Lego Batman Movie and how we engaged with it.

Adi: I really enjoy the real-but-not-real Lego aesthetic, somewhere between full animation and an imitation of kids playing with toys, down to the “Pew! Pew!” gunshot noises. I like the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, but still find them almost parodically self-serious, so I’m in favor of anything that affectionately pokes fun at them and other Batman stories. On the other hand, I suspect that nearly every Batman joke conceivable by humankind had already been made well before this movie. Finding a new one is like adding an element to the periodic table: possible, but not a casual endeavor.

Chaim: The focus on making fun of contemporary superhero films is going to date the jokes in The Lego Batman Movie pretty heavily, but it’s still funny to me to have the Lego version of Batman casually mocking the entire history of the genre. Yes, almost none of the jokes are new, but it’s nice to have them compiled as a sort of greatest-hits of Bat-jokes. And the Lego animation is just stunningly, almost photorealistically good when it comes to bringing the toys to life.

Tasha: Culturally, it feels like we’re in an age of Batman worship, and it was time for the pendulum to swing back in the other direction. We’ve seen stories before that admitted it’s a little hinky for a grown man to put on long underwear and spend a lifetime kicking criminals in the face. But this one dives further into the idea that modern movie Batman has fetishized fury and angst, elevating them into aspirational emotions. (One of my favorite parts of the movie has Batman nervously insisting that the only emotion he feels is unending rage.) After so much Bat-seriousness over the past few decades, I really enjoyed a mainstream movie that makes fun of Batman — in a friendly way, but an insightful and accurate one, too. And I’ve got as much Batman nostalgia as the next fan, so I dug the endless callbacks, including the necessary resurgence of Bat-Shark-Repellant, and the less-necessary return of King Tut and Magpie.

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Tasha: It’s clear that this is a Lego film largely because it spun off a Lego film, but I don’t think there was any inherent need for it to be set in Lego World. In The Lego Movie, the Lego-ness of everything is a fundamental part of the plot, an explanation of how and why the story takes place. It explains the protagonist’s central problem (he’s a generic toy with nothing special about him), the antagonist’s methods (which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen the film), and the larger meta-story which makes it all more meaningful. Lego Batman doesn’t have anything so aspirational or weird going on, and the fact that it’s set in a Lego World just raises some questions — where is this all happening? Is the DCU Lego World next door to Western World, or what? Do all these characters have their own little fiefdoms? This isn’t a huge problem for the film or anything, it just seems regrettable that apart from a couple of “let’s build a vehicle” scenes, nothing fundamental about the story requires or even really uses Lego.

Chaim: I love the Lego visual style, though. It’s clear that Warner Animation Group has put a ton of time and effort into lovingly re-creating each brick, down to imperfections and scratches in the plastic, and the miniature Lego logo on each stud. I know the entire thing is CGI, but part of my brain can still believe it’s some obsessive stop-motion masterpiece, and that’s no small thing. But aside from Lego Batman being an established Lego character and Master Builder, I’m not sure how this film exists in that universe. For instance, Batman eschews all relationships here, but in The Lego Movie, he was dating Wyldstyle. Do the voices making pew-pew laser sounds imply that this is all an elaborate reproduction of someone’s imagination, like the Toy Story movie introductions? Am I overthinking this?

Adi: I agree that the Lego style is strong and unique in a way traditional computer animation wouldn’t be. And there are hints this is another playset at the beginning of the film, where someone implies that Gotham is built over a giant pit of underwear. But here’s an argument for making it Lego: the toy tie-ins might have made it easier to get the intellectual property rights all the non-Batman-franchise characters who appear here. Is it easier to pull in Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings villains if you’re already building toy sets featuring them?

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Adi: Without looking things up on the internet, the major deconstructive theme I didn’t see much of was “Batman is an irredeemably violent sociopath.” Sure, in this movie he’s a self-absorbed jerk who fights crime to avoid confronting his emotional issues, but the movie mostly stayed away from the darkest takes on him, where he’s an outright sadist who enjoys physically hurting people, and would make Gotham a fascist state if he had his way. None of these would be great themes for a kids’ movie, but I think they’re also underplayed because the film is more distinctly a riff on Batman movies and television than the run of comics (especially the satirical series Marshal Law, or anything by Frank Miller) that pushed that particular interpretation the most. Sure, there’s the “not so different” speech, but that ends up making the Joker seem less terrible, not Batman more terrible. Which is honestly sort of refreshing, after a billion gritty Dark Knights.

Tasha: For me, the major thing missing was any sense of Robin developing as a character. We get a little Nightwing costume action as an in-joke, but for me, the most interesting thing about Robin has always been how he matured and aged out of the role. Here, we get Robin as a one-note joke, the eternal chipper kid sycophant. By the end of the film, I was ready for him to move on.

But that said, it’s pretty amazing to me just how many Batman tropes are sandwiched into this film, including a tacit acknowledgement of all the Batman movies as part of the continuity. This felt to me like a movie for devoted, long-term fans of the character and the various properties he’s appeared in, much more than it seemed like a movie for kids. I really admire the sheer crazy level of synthesis that went into it. There are a few more Batman tropes missing that wouldn’t work in a kid film, like Batman’s struggle over whether to kill Joker to permanently stop him from upping his body count, but nothing about Batman himself that I actually missed while I was enjoying the movie.

Chaim: I’ve been wracking my brain, and outside of the “I’m the goddamn Batman!” meme from Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin: The Boy Wonder, the film really seemed to cover them all. (It seems like it’s smugly bragging about that at times: “Look how well we did our homework! Even the Condiment King is here!”) I guess a few of the newer Robins don’t make the cut (Jason Todd, Damian Wayne) and I’m sure someone can offer a more detailed list of members of Batman’s rogue gallery that are missing. But I’m sure the presumably forthcoming The Lego Batman Movie 2 will solve that problem.

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Chaim: Amid the onslaught of Batman jokes, I’m struggling to come up with anything that stands out as distinctly original in the movie. So much of the film comes down to referential humor about Batman, other DC Comics characters, Marvel, 2016’s disastrous Suicide Squad… and it’s hard to even give The Lego Batman Movie credit for deconstructing the superhero genre, given that Deadpool came along a year earlier. But the Batman jokes aren’t bad! As noted earlier, it’s certainly the biggest compilation of them ever, with almost no incarnation of the character left untouched. But take away Batman and the Lego, and you’re left with an extremely familiar, paper-thin story about a workaholic who cares more for his job than his loved ones, and who eventually learns the value of having friends (or enemies) and family. Fortunately for The Lego Batman Movie, while its gags may make it a one-trick pony, it’s still a pretty funny trick.

Adi: Even beyond all the Batman-specific stuff, the movie reminded me strangely of the machinima and toy-based webcomics and videos that seemed to hit their peak in the ‘00s — I got home after the movie and pulled up Red vs. Blue. There’s the same sense of remixing objects in an existing toybox to deconstruct and subvert a popular franchise, and a lot of the humor is the same mix of very specific lore references and the general juxtaposition of serious scenarios with inherently silly-looking characters and non-realistic world design. I actually enjoy that formula quite a lot, but with something as broad as Batman, it bolsters my feeling that the movie works best as someone’s introduction to this style.

I do think there’s an inherent worth in executing an existing concept well, though. This film neatly distills the idea of Batman being a brooding narcissist not in spite of his good tendencies, but because of them. Will Arnett is good at conveying someone who’s comically arrogant but ultimately vulnerable — his Batman feels like a much more sympathetic, kid-friendly version of Sterling Archer. The rest of the voice cast, including Michael Cera as Robin and Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, was strong. And the various references and deconstructions notwithstanding, there were jokes that worked purely because of the pacing and writing. I definitely laughed at the incredibly detailed pro-wrestling-style introduction of villains concluding with “…and British robots!” for the Daleks.

Tasha: I don’t think the movie’s strength is in its originality, so much as it’s in the way it heightens every Batman trope to a giggle-worthy degree. We’ve seen plenty of stories, sometimes satirical and sometimes chilling, about how the Joker feels tied to Batman and wants to impress him or monopolize him. But this movie overtly couches all that in the language of romantic relationships, and it’s hilarious. (Especially Joker’s deep, insecure longing to hear those three little words that define a relationship: “I hate you.”)

There have also been stories about how Alfred considers himself Bruce’s foster father, but here, it goes so far that Alfred puts a child-lock on the Batcave’s computer to discipline his bratty bat-son. Everyone knows the deepest depths of Batman’s villains gallery (like any villains gallery that stretches back to the wacky Silver Age days) gets pretty lame, but here, Joker decides they’re all second-stringers, and teams up with Sauron instead. We know Batman is a broody loner who doesn’t entirely fit in with a lot of Justice League incarnations, but here, they throw wild parties without him. What I like most about The Lego Batman Movie is the way it grounds all these ideas in recognizable Batman mythology, so nothing here feels really unlikely or out of place. The filmmakers just take these ideas further than they’ve been taken before, and make them fresh and funny in the process.

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Chaim: We should be getting that answer far sooner than expected, since The Lego Ninjago Movie is already scheduled for later in 2017. That said, Ninjago is its own independent property and story that’s free of Lego Batman’s baggage, and its Lego Movie associations. So we’ll definitely be seeing more Lego World stories. But can Warner manage another film like The Lego Batman Movie? I’m fairly certain the answer is no. Few of Lego’s other properties (Star Wars, maybe?) lend themselves to this kind of self-parody while still being substantial enough to support a film. And there aren’t really any other characters from the original Lego Movie who would warrant a full spinoff, outside of The Lego Movie’s upcoming sequel.

To me, it just feels like Lego Batman’s meta-commentary can only really work once in this format. (To say nothing of the fact that a Firefly reboot in Lego form seems more likely than Disney letting Warner make a full Marvel or Star Wars movie.)

Adi: Yeah, spoof series can easily fall into the trap of thinking they have to say something about every genre, which is difficult to do without falling into the same jokes over and over. Ninjago is a weird enough franchise that I think there might be room to do something new. If Lego follows the Marvel formula, though, eventually we’ll end up with a series of loosely related films of every possible style and prestige level. Ten years from now, somebody’s going to remake Anomalisa with minifigs.

Tasha: I don’t think you guys are thinking enough like franchisekateers. If I were a Warner exec and I was looking at Lego Movie money (and now Lego Batman money, after it topped the box office its opening weekend), I’d definitely be looking at The Lego Movie Sequel in terms of wondering what new spinoff-worthy characters could be introduced, and not just which Lego franchises would make solid satires, but which franchises could be picked up for Lego expansion, with the promise of movie spinoffs and endless built-in merchandising. Warner doesn’t own Star Wars, but it does own the Lord of the Rings movies, the Harry Potter movie rights, and the Matrix movies. (As suggested in Lego Batman, where we saw villains from all three stories.) And there are endless other DCU heroes to tap as well. Maybe in a few years we’ll get The Lego Superman Movie, and The Lego Justice League Movie is about to have a ton of new material to satirize, as the DCU gets off the ground.

But better yet, Lego Harry Potter would certainly have endless material ripe for satire. Industry wonks have been wondering for a few years now how long we’d have to wait for Warner to reboot the Harry Potter franchise in hopes of more billion-dollar payouts. A fully licensed parody that takes us back into that world without taking it entirely seriously seems much more likely — and much more fun.

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