The new Batman installment sees potential for a more emotionally available caped crusader
Since his inception, Batman’s loner status has been integral to his identity. (This is disregarding his relationship with Robin—who no one, not even Batman himself, has ever taken seriously.) Batman is Bruce Wayne’s attempt to rectify his parents’ double murder as a child — a traumatic experience that left him incapable of meaningful relationships with anyone, and which fuels his obsession with protecting Gotham City. Aside from his butler Alfred, he trusts no one, not even other superheroes, instead insisting on fighting crime alone.
This lone-wolf aspect to Batman is also central to his appeal for most guys, as it satisfies their twin desires to believe that their achievements are entirely of their own volition and that it’s fine to neglect personal relationships in pursuit of those goals. Like them, Batman needs no one.
But in The LEGO Batman Movie, the most recent film portrayal of Batman — currently number-one at the box office after raking in $53 million — Batman becomes whole. He acknowledges the attachment disorder underlying his solo crime-fighting crusade, and (spoiler alert) ditches it to become a family man.
Which is great. I mean, yeah, it’s fine. MEL literally stands for Men Embracing Love (at least to me, it does—I just made that up) so we’re proud of dudes becoming more emotionally available. Yet while Batman’s emotional growth is an undeniably great, refreshing turn, it poses an existential problem for the character and his fans: What good is a superhero once he vanquishes his greatest adversaries — in Batman’s case, himself and his own neuroses?
LEGO Batman is hardly the first movie to plumb the psychological depths of the caped crusader. Tim Burton first played around with Bruce Wayne’s pathos in his 1989 Batman film, portraying Wayne as a rakish but aloof playboy.
“I just gotta know, are we gonna try to love each other?” gossip reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) asks Batman (Michael Keaton) after they share a night together.
“I’d like to. But he’s out there right now. And I’ve gotta go to work,” Batman says, referencing the iconic supervillain the Joker (Jack Nicholson). His responsibilities as Batman always take precedent over his happiness as Bruce Wayne.
While Burton’s Batman films were cheeky, the first to really peel back the cowl and feel Batman’s feels was 2005’s Batman Begins, the first in director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Nolan’s Batman, played by Christian Bale, is driven less by a commitment to justice than by guilt over his parents’ murder. “Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues,” Wayne says of his secret persona at a dinner party.
His depiction of Batman as a broken man is masterful, if a little on the nose at times. But it’s nowhere near as over-the-top as that in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman, which takes Nolan’s gritty outlook on Batman and dials it up to an insufferable degree.
LEGO Batman pokes fun at all that self-seriousness, pointing out that despite his civil service, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is really just a self-obsessed loser who buries himself in his work to distract from how lonely he is. All of this comes to a head after the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) turns himself over to the Gotham Police Department to show Batman that their adversarial bromance is the only thing animating Batman’s otherwise boring existence. Without anyone to fight, Batman’s life quickly devolves. “I live a very full life,” Batman barks, as he spies on the Joker doing yoga in the prison yard.
The Joker eventually breaks free, bringing with him an all-star team of cinematic bad guys from outside the Batman universe, including King Kong and Sauron from Lord of the Rings. (This is where the film kind of goes off the rails, becoming a jumbled mishmash of pop-culture references, instead of the first half’s lean, clever sendup of Batman.)
Still, the overall message redeems the film. Batman realizes he can’t defeat the Joker and his cohort alone, so he must learn to collaborate with others — even the Joker himself, with whom Batman connects to save the city. The film ends with Batman embracing Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), Robin (Michael Cera) and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) as family and pledging to defend Gotham, together.
LEGO Batman doesn’t exactly break new narrative ground. The idea that Batman and the Joker are connected—two sides of the same psychological coin—was put forth in Burton’s Batman and perfected in Nolan’s second Batman film, The Dark Knight. And the sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, explores Batman in a Gotham without crime, depicting Wayne as a doddering old hermit, holed up in Wayne Manor, with no purpose now that his enemies are all locked away. Wayne later brings Batman out of retirement to fight Bane, much to Alfred’s chagrin.
But LEGO Batman has a more optimistic definition of “success” than previous Batman films.
When The Dark Knight Rises ends with Bruce Wayne fleeing to Italy with Catwoman, leaving Gotham and Batman behind for good, it posits that emotional health and a romantic partnership necessitate the end of Batman himself. Batman and happiness are diametrically opposed. (Nolan’s Batman is kind of like Mad Men’s Don Draper in this way — a man who’s equal parts narcissistic and self-loathing, and who views personal relationships as distractions from the all-important work of writing ad copy.)
What makes LEGO Batman so refreshing is that it argues Wayne can have a fulfilling emotional life without having to hang up his cape. In fact, being happy at home makes him a more formidable superhero. It might make for a less interesting character, and it’s sure to rankle Batman fanboys, especially those who identify with the more somber representations of the character. But it can also serve as a reminder that sacrificing all personal relationships to pursue a goal doesn’t necessarily make a person noble. Often, it means they’re a coward.