All the Batmans

There is no such thing as a stand-alone Batman film, and, if The LEGO Batman Movie is to be believed, so such thing as a stand-alone Batman. The character takes up too much space in the toy box of our collective consciousness, too much room on our pop-cultural shelf. The pieces of his personality and mythology have been reassembled so many times, we lose track of when certain pieces were added to the pile. For example, did you know that there has never been a fixed time period for Batman’s narrative world? The character lives in a kind of pan-era that can include any period, past or future, of American life. Every Batman comic, cartoon, live-action TV show, movie, or video game is now part of the larger Batman myth, a story connected, primarily, to itself.

Please forgive the LEGO puns. I’ll stop now. But it struck me as I watched The LEGO Batman Movie that the chaotic build-break-rebuild-break-etc. conceit of these LEGO movies is ideally suited to deal with a character like Batman who has appeared in so many different forms in our pop-culture stew while still maintaining his essential nature. He is always a wealthy socialite/anti-social vigilante. His wealth enables both aspects of his personality. He works at night. He’s a good guy at heart whom many people misunderstand.

Different storytellers have used those basic attributes to explore his character in different ways. Tim Burton zeroed in on the split in his personality and cast a Batman in search of his true identity. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini adopted the “rogue of the week” format, and drew a Batman unable to reconcile with the inescapability of loss. Joel Schumacher carried Burton’s identity idea into Batman Forever, but transitioned to considering Batman’s loneliness and need for a family. Christopher Nolan has always been fascinated with characters teetering on the edge of reality, so his Batman struggles against chaotic forces bent on upending everything. Zach Snyder’s Batman is concerned with the power Superman possesses, so he reacts by punching first and asking questions later. He yields when he encounters vulnerable innocence – his mother’s name.

LEGO Batman doesn’t want to involve anyone else in his life because he might lose them like he lost his parents when he was a child. So he keeps everyone, even faithful Alfred, at a distance. Batman says he needs no one, but really he is afraid to need anyone. For all his bravado and daring-do, he can’t bring himself to risk again experiencing the grief associated with loving someone and losing them. LEGO Batman isn’t split within himself, facing an existential crisis, selfish, or power-hungry. LEGO Batman is scared.

LEGO Batman may be made of plasticine CGI, but his internal conflict, and the way it manifests itself, is common most of us. He may ninja-flip, grapple-swing, and bomb-diffuse with abandon, but all that high adrenaline action is really a way of pushing down his fear, denying it even though it’s the thing that drives his life. Where other fearful characters in movies curl up into the fetal position to shield their heart with their body when they are afraid—and have to eventually uncurl and stand-up for themselves—LEGO Batman puffs up his chest to keep that ember of fear well-insulated in his heart. He has to deflate, to humble himself and let others come near him. The LEGO Batman Movie visualizes this elegantly and humorously both with the size of the Batwing’s cockpit and with a pair of selfie gags.

The last time we had a cinematic Batman that was motivated by this core desire to preserve peace, principally within himself but also externalized by preserving peace in Gotham, was when George Clooney donned the cape and cowl. Batman & Robin is universally derided. Even Nickleback makes fun of it. I’m not going to laud it now. (Schumacher’s inelegant style doesn’t help.) But it’s worth noting that Batman & Robin’s shares a thematic concern with this new LEGO Batman movie everyone loves – Batman needs a family.

Furthermore, Batman & Robin and The LEGO Batman Movie share a key referent too – 1966’s Batman: The Movie – a movie that works for us now, since we are able to watch it nostalgically, recognizing in it a giddy charm our Batmans haven’t had since the character went dark under Frank Miller’s tutelage in the1980s. While there is a quick montage LEGOing famous images from Burton, Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder-era Batman movies, the most consistent reference in The LEGO Batman Movie is to Batman: The Movie. It’s is the clearest model for the kind of fun and the kind of emotional arc we see in The LEGO Batman Movie. Both are light, anarchic comedies. Both sling absurd jokes and pop-culture references faster than Batman can fling a Batarang. Both are oriented around a desire to maintain peace.

The Cold War-era Batman: The Movie is most remembered for two scenes, one in which a desperate Batman runs around holding a bomb over his head and one in which the world’s leaders are turned into piles of dust, as if incinerated by a nuclear bomb. The post-9/11 LEGO Batman Movie is villained by a fundamentally evil force from the sky that descends to pervert the established order, both civic (Gotham’s infrastructure) and culturally (dirtying the pop-cultural waters by bringing in characters from other narrative universes).

If The LEGO Batman Movie’s repeated, explicit insistence on Batman’s need for a family begins to ring a little hollow for you after the eighth or ninth time the movie hits that note, it might be because the implicit story about a fearful man unwilling to let others into his life, a man who fears losing not just the ones he loves, but the entire foundation of his society, is a more resonant narrative. It’s a story both sides of the political spectrum are telling. We are Batman, and if we all don’t learn to build a cockpit big enough for everyone to sit in, even those we disagree with, like Batman disagrees with Barbara Gordon about how to fight crime, we’re not getting anywhere. Family is a metaphor, an opportunity for Batman to practice perfect love which casts out fear. The fear is the thing. Batman: The Movie wasn’t a product of the Leave It To Beaver 1950s. It’s a product of the tumultuous 1960s. The LEGO Batman Movie is a movie for now. Batman, as always, is the hero we need now.