Lego Batman and the De-Toxification of the Dark Knight

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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.

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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.

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Preview: Audrey and the Trash Can

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m writing a short story. I’ve been working at it for a number of weeks, chipping away in a storm of red pen, vanilla lattes, and anguished howls. It’s still not finished, but I’m slowly getting there and I figured I may as well put out a short preview of what I’ve done so far. If for no other reason than to force me to keep going with it.

So, without further ado, here’s the rough opening few paragraphs of my short children’s story, Audrey and the Trash Can, and a little illustration I’ve done to go with it.

1. A Very Sunny Day

The trash can wore a smile. It was crooked and misshapen, and formed when Mr Laurent from Number 36 forgot to put the handbrake on, causing his ghastly lime green Ford Fiesta to roll down his driveway and crash into Audrey’s front yard, where the trashcan resided. But it was there; a definite smile. And behind that smile, Audrey knew, there was more. A whole personality: John, a living, breathing being with hopes and dreams. Just like Audrey. Just like everybody else.

Audrey knew that people would find her conversations with John strange, but she didn’t mind. She knew that being kind to John simply made sense. If a trash can could smile, she reasoned with laser-precise accuracy, he could feel joy. And if he could feel joy, it was common sense that he could feel sadness, and fear, and despair. All the terrible things, in fact, that no decent person would ever want anybody else to feel – and which Audrey, whose father had passed away when she was six, knew all too well.

Who would stop John feeling those things? Who would help him when the dark clouds filled the sky and the rain began to fall? No one on Primrose Drive was likely to step forward. So she did it herself, stopping next to John one sunny Thursday morning on her way to school to exchange a greeting.

“Hello John,” she said, anxiously twiddling her bright pink sunglasses (which she wore as often as she could) and pulling at the threads of her already-tatty yellow dinosaur jumper (a similar fixture of her wardrobe). Of course she needn’t have been so nervous. Audrey was a Very Nice Person with Very Good Ideas and a Very Excellent Fashion Sense. John liked her immediately.

“Hello Audrey,” he replied, grateful for the new friend he’d unexpectedly made.

Sometimes that’s as far as the conversation would go, especially in the early days. A simple greeting, an acknowledgement from human to trashcan of each other’s mutual existence and right to respect. Sometimes, there’d be a fuller enquiry: a ‘how are you’ here, an ‘oh fine. Yourself?’ there. And on other occasions, the exchanges would become full conversations, so long and involved, so joyous in their content, that Audrey’s mum needed to bring out her tea (always a plate of chips, because Audrey, like all Very Smart Girls, knew that chips were a Very Good Idea) while she chatted with her new friend.

These were Audrey’s favourites. Here, when she and John had more time, she would ask about his day, relishing every detail: who had walked by, how many red cars had he seen, had that pesky dog from Number 43 tried to urinate on him again!? She also liked to ask about his interest in the arts. John was a very learned trash can, as many trash cans are, and she enjoyed hearing his literary recommendations, which blended the latest airport potboilers with the most respected of classics.

“Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment?” he said, barely suppressing a mischievous grin. “Well, it was quite the life sentence reading that one!”

He’d often repeat that joke, or jokes like it, laughing heartily as he did. Audrey liked it very much and didn’t mind at all that she’d heard it many times before. She laughed every time. For his part, John liked that she liked it, and they both liked that they could make each other smile as much as they did. The weather was warm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky on those very sunny days.

Love and Paper Aeroplanes

paperman-disneyscreencaps-com-83Last week, I wrote about Valentine’s Day and how, now more than ever, we shouldn’t judge it as a simple romantic holiday but an occasion to highlight the importance of love in all its many and varied forms. In this blog, however, I’m going to focus squarely on romantic love, because that’s important too and at this time of year, it seems to come under attack from people who aren’t in a relationship. Understandable, but still a little silly in my opinion.

How am I going to explore romantic love, I hear you ask? Through the medium of Disney’s short masterpiece, Paperman. Because I haven’t mentioned it before. Like ever. No seriously.

Paperman is about a lonely nobody called George who lives and works in a vaguely 1930s-esque metropolis. One day he encounters the girl of his dreams (Meg) and resorts to using paper aeroplanes to capture her attention when they’re parted. Our hero has no luck via this route, but eventually the fates take over and literally sweep the two young lovers up for a reunion on the train platform at which they first met. Awwwwww.

It’s absolutely goddamn lovely and were it possible, I’m pretty sure I’d propose to it. You want to do the same no doubt, but I’ve already bought the ring, so BACK OFF, ok.

I honestly believe that at the centre of Paperman is the essence of romance itself. I appreciate that’s a slightly grandiose statement and if you’re feeling cynical about love at the moment, you’re probably scoffing (or vomiting) at having read it. But I don’t care. It’s true, and if I (a pathetically lonely creature who at the age of 32 has never so much as held hands with a woman, never mind kissed or been in a relationship with one) can write it, you can sure as heck read it.

What makes Paperman so glorious is the way it juxtaposes the banal and the magical. George and Meg are pretty normal people making their way through a normal day, loaded with tedious paperwork and stuffed briefcases. They get the train, they make their way to a job they’d probably rather not be at, and they likely go home at night ready to do the exact same thing the next day. Had they never met, their lives would have continued as such, just as it did the day before. And the day before that. And the day before that. These are not the Princesses and Princes we’re used to seeing in Disney romances.

Director John Kahrs’ decision to make the film black-and-white adds to this sense of everyday banality. George and Meg live their lives in monotone and with its giant skyscrapers, speeding trains and uniform office environments (all beautifully captured by Kahrs’ camerawork), their world becomes a cage they stand little chance of escaping from. Until, of course, the fates take over and the wind blows a little piece of paper (of magic, of colour, of love) into their world.

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Meg stifles a laugh, George joins in after working out the joke, and with one tiny quirk of the weather, their lives are changed. But that’s not the end of it. Had George and Meg been separated and gone through a series of similarly serendipitous events before meeting again and forming a relationship, Paperman would be an enjoyable but rather unremarkable piece of film-making no different from the multitude of other romances out there. Love is lovely, it’d say, and that’s fine, because yes, of course, it is. But it’s also difficult and painful and all about the delicate decisions we have to take to make love happen. Paperman reflects that.

George’s delicate decision revolves around his job. He’s an office drone surrounded by men who look like they’ve forgotten how to spell love, never mind feel it. George is no doubt going the same way, but now, in Meg, he’s found a spark he wants to turn into a fire. Can he though? Can he really risk his livelihood for a girl he’s never spoken to just because he’s meet-cuted with her? It’s the kind of choice we all face: the choice between the practical and the romantic, the reality and the dream, the life we need to live in order to survive and the life we want to live in order to be happy.

Of course, George chooses love (Paperman would be pretty depressing if he ignored Meg), but he has to work for it. Every aeroplane he throws to win Meg’s attention fails: falling just short, straying just wide, or hitting a pigeon just as it’s about to sail through the window to its intended target. It’s almost like he’s being tested. The world wants to see his breaking point, to see just how much he wants to turn that spark into a fire. Every plane thrown, every despairing grunt, every frustrated moan is George’s fight against the fates – and eventually the fates reward his endeavour.

In a film about the meeting of, rather than the relationship between, George and Meg, the final act is the closest we get to seeing the rush of their love. This fantastical flurry of paper is the stuff that cinematic dreams are made of and it produces some of Paperman‘s most iconic imagery: the bounce of the failed planes as they slowly creep into life, the blur of the windows as Meg follows her aeroplane through the train, the thrill of George being dragged across the road by the aeroplanes, his pursuit literally putting his life in danger. It’s intoxicating and it allows the audience to feel the excitement and fear of the love the characters are chasing, and which we hope we’ll feel ourselves.

It all leads, of course, back to the train station. The film calms, the music slows, and George and Meg are finally reunited. And yes, I know it’s predictable. And yes, I know it’s all very mushy. And yes, I know that real life doesn’t happen in such perfect little romantic and fantastical episodes.

But I don’t care.

Last year, I fell in love with someone, and she seemed to like me back. Paperman was my go-to film for the warm fuzzies during that time. After years of nothing, it maintained my hope that this might finally be the time, that she might finally be the one. It wasn’t. And she wasn’t. And now, we haven’t spoken for months. But I still think of her, and I still care about her because I adored her as a friend before anything else. She was, and I expect still is, an incredible woman and she struggled with love as much as I did. She’s happy with someone else now, and I’m delighted for her. How could I not be? Nobody deserves a flurry of paper aeroplanes like she does.

As for me, I’m still alone, but Paperman remains my go-to film for the warm fuzzies. Because after years of nothing, it maintains my hope that eventually, there might finally be the time, and there might finally be the one. That’s what makes it so special. It reflects both the love you have, if you have it, and the love you hope you have, if you don’t have it. It keeps you going in all those giant grey offices where life seems to eek out its existence in the thin spaces between pieces of piled up paper. It keeps your head up even as you kick the street in frustration, feeling like the chance is gone forever. It keeps you believing that your very own train station is out there and some day, some way, some how you’ll meet that special someone.

It gives you hope and reminds you to keep hoping.

Because sometimes your paper aeroplane flies straight and true, and sometimes it strays just wide. The latter doesn’t mean you should give up hope that the former will ever happen. It just means that you need to make more paper aeroplanes.

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It’s worth caring about Valentine’s Day

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back into a greeting card shop…

Yep, Christmas is gone, but now it’s February and that means one thing and one thing only: Valentine’s Day. (And, I suppose, Leap Year, but honestly, who can remember if it’s a Leap Year or not?). Valentine’s Day is the very definition of a Hallmark Holiday, an event dedicated almost entirely to filling the coffers of card companies who need something to occupy the gap between that awkward period between Christmas and Easter.

As such, it’s very easy to be cynical about this time of year. If you’ve got a partner, it’s another day you’ve got to celebrate in a fitting way and find the perfect present for. If you’ve not, it’s a bitter reminder of your loneliness and how you’re never going to find anyone ever and end up alone, endlessly surrounded by nothing but cartons of takeaway long since emptied by your ravenous need to fill your soul with something – anything – even if it is that third successive Gong Bao Chicken with extra Wontons….

The author, pictured today
The author, pictured today

Ahem. As someone who’ll be spending yet another Valentine’s Day alone, I share that pain (and predilection for delicious Chinese food and taste for horrible desperation… hey, are you doing anything tonight, fancy watching a film!? PLEASE!)

Well, it was worth a shot.

My point is that while it’s easy to be frustrated by Valentine’s Day, it’s worth resisting the urge. The holiday itself may have gotten bogged down in crass commercialism, but the message is important, perhaps more now than ever before.

Love is pretty significant at the moment. And I don’t just mean romantic, flowers and candy, beds squeaking in the middle of the night kind of love. I mean proper love – caring for someone and putting their needs ahead of your own. That love can be between siblings, parents and children, friends, colleagues, or strangers. And it doesn’t need a card or gift to validate it. Though if anyone fancies buying me this gigantic Disney book, I’d be fine with that.

Currently we have in power people who wouldn’t know what love is if it somehow developed a tangible form and shouted ‘I love you’ at them for the rest of time. These are people dedicated to pushing forward the exact opposite of love: hatred, division, discord. They’re dedicated to telling us that this person is different to that person and so is less deserving of your love than someone who’s ‘similar’ to you. No doubt these people will make a speech or write a tweet about how important love is and how we should all show it toward our fellow humans. One of these people will no doubt claim to have the biggest love, the most amazing love, the yugest love of anyone on the planet. Honestly, you haven’t seen how big and beautiful his love is.

But he’s a joke human being. A big joke, a yuge joke. Seriously, you’ve never seen…

Anyways, I digress. The point is, at times like this, showing a loving attitude to people is pretty much revolution. So do it. And do it your way. If you’ve got a significant other, show your love for them. If you’ve not, do something special for a friend or family member. Or maybe donate to an LGBTQ charity, or a cause set up to help immigrants and minorities. Anything. It doesn’t matter what exactly it is, just as long as it pushes out a little more kindness, love and compassion, because fuck knows we’ve got enough of the smog of hatred circling round our heads at the moment.

Me, I’ve bought a little gift for a friend at work as she did me the kindness of reading my short story. It’s a kindness I want to repay with thought and care.

Then, on Valentine’s Day itself, I’ll probably watch Disney’s short Paperman and maybe fling on Billy Wilder’s classic The Apartment, which asks its main character, and the audience, to be a mensch. “You know what the means,” we’re told. “A human being.” This Valentine’s Day, let’s all be human beings, love other human beings, and in doing so, maybe, just maybe, pierce a little hole in the smog of hatred.