It’s one of the great cinematic quirks of the last few years that The Lego Movie delivered a superior take on Batman than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With his kickass songs and almighty subwoofers (“listen to ’em bark!”), The Dark Knight did more than just steal every scene he appeared in; he represented something that few seem willing to admit: that Batman’s actually a fairly pathetic and laughable character. More than that, he’s perhaps even a slightly toxic one. Someone we should pity and help rather than aspire to be.
The Lego Batman Movie expands upon this idea, bringing in Batman’s wider cast of supporting characters (including a wonderfully wide-eyed Robin and an older, race-bent Barbara Gordon) to underline the inherent contradiction at the heart of the character: we all think of Batman as cool, but would anyone actually want to be him? Lonely, cut adrift from the rest of the world, haunted by a past he can never change and is forced to live through over and over again. Doesn’t sound cool to me. It sounds like a living hell.
Of course, maybe that’s the point. Popular thinking about the Dark Knight is that he’s as psychotic as his villains, a hero who needs to descend into the madness to beat it. It’s a nice concept, but it’s simply not true and The Lego Batman Movie brilliantly punctures it throughout (especially in the third act). Batman may dress like a bad guy and he may even sometimes act like one, but he’s not a psychopath. In every incarnation, and especially here, he’s a fundamentally decent guy who just can’t deal with his emotions and doesn’t know how to deal with people. So he does good things in a stupid way, like visiting an orphanage (a good thing) and shooting the kids with a merchandise gun (a stupid way).
We laugh at this, but we’re not laughing at Batman. We empathise with him because the film allows us to understand his pain. In the first act, we see him foiling a dastardly plot and going home to Wayne Manor (which is literally on an island because this Batman puts the b in subtle). Here, he lives in isolation, trekking through cavernous halls, eating microwave-heated Lobster Thermidor in his empty pool, and watching Jerry Maguire alone. Cameron Crowe’s film is, we’re told later, one of a number of soppy romantic comedies The Caped Crusader owns, because of course it is. He can’t build the relationships he needs, so he lives vicariously through film and when he meets someone he might actually like (Barbara), he experiences it like something from a film – in slow motion and set to the sounds of Cutting Crew’s power ballad ‘(I Just) Died in Your Arms’.
It doesn’t stop with love. Cut off from the world, Batman’s learned all he knows about every part of life through TV and film. Everything he considers cool looks like something from MTV circa 1998, or some terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger film from the same period. He does everything alone because, well, that’s what all tough guy heroes do, and Lego Batman is most certainly a tough guy. He’s doesn’t need any relationships because, pfft, relationships are for wimps. He can’t help it: he’s been forced into a bubble where subwoofers and rock-hard abs are the height of living, and dressing as a bat is the only way to engage with people and win their affection.
This doesn’t sound like a hero does it? Yet, we accept this ‘darkness, no parents’ vision of Batman as not only the defining take on Batman, but the greatest superhero of all time. And it’s kinda unsettling.
As a teenager I, like many teenage boys, much preferred Batman to Superman. Batman was cool and edgy; Superman was just an overgrown boy scout. But as I grew older, I got tired of Batman. Sure he’s still a great character and in the right writer’s hands can be a fascinating one, but the edginess that became synonymous with the character after Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: Year One’/’The Dark Knight Returns’ double-header seemed less interesting to me. Superman, meanwhile, became much more interesting. While Batman got stuck in brooding loneliness, Superman seemed a much more compelling, and crucially much healthier, exploration of heroism and how to be good in a bad world. That’s not boring – it’s one of the most important lessons we can learn.
Now, I’m not going to claim that Miller’s take on Batman is the wrong take, and nor am I going to say that darker versions of superheroes are bad things. Neither of those things are true. However, fandom’s obsession with Dark Batman seems genuinely damaging. If Batman’s cool because he’s brooding, dresses in black, and stalks the streets at night beating up bad guys isn’t that… well… kinda sad. Isn’t that a distinctly counter-productive thing to say. Especially for a character who’s, first and foremost, aimed at children. “Hey kids, ever had something bad happen? Well, here’s an idea: don’t try to positively move on from it. Let it fester inside you until you can only express it through punches.”
Folks: this isn’t cool. Living in a massive mansion alone isn’t cool. Not dealing with your problems isn’t cool. Being a perpetually angry night-stalking vigilante isn’t cool. I appreciate I sound like a crappy guidance counsellor here, but honestly, Batman isn’t cool. He’s tragic and you really shouldn’t want to be him. That suit is Bruce Wayne’s therapy. But successful therapy comes to an end, or if it continues indefinitely, it does so with clear improvement and actionable help. It doesn’t keep the patient locked in an endless state of counselling with no hint of escape. That’s where Batman is, and where nobody else, nobody real, should ever want to be.
So teens who love Batman, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Parents with children who love Batman, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Laugh at the funny bits, get excited about the exciting bits, and cry at the sad bits (I have absolutely no shame in admitting that I cried during this film). And then genuinely think about which vision of Batman you want to be. The one microwaving lobster thermidor alone because he can’t deal with his endless grief. Or the one doing good with his mates because he’s finally accepted his emotions and let people in. You can be the second one and still be cool. Because no matter how in touch with his emotions he is, Batman’s always gonna have those subwoofers and they’re always gonna really bark.