Warner Brothers should just stop making DC Universe movies right now and put all their eggs in the Lego basket. I liked Man of Steel, but then last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad seemed like a desperate attempt to establish a cinematic comic-book universe in one fell swoop. They’ve been watching Marvel draw huge audiences and dollars with their elaborate, interconnected stories, and they tried to shortcut to the same depth. But the shortcut led them astray. Batman v. Superman took itself too seriously, and Suicide Squad squandered its potential in the evil of its characters.
Now, like the Caped Crusader swooping into the fray, The Lego Batman Movie saves the day. This is much more fun and much more creative than the live action movies have been. In the terms of the original Lego Movie, Lord Business rules the official DC film universe, while the child’s imagination runs wild in this offshoot.
Yet, The Lego Batman Movie is not without meaning. Batman demands to work alone, resisting every possibility of friendship and family. He even refuses to say that he hates the Joker, because that would mean that he was emotionally committed to something. He is an island, like Wayne Manor in this version. The Joker refuses to believe that he means so little to his nemesis, which launches him on the nefarious quest which drives the plot. Joker pulls in a wonderful hodge-podge of allies – I won’t spoil the joy of these pop-culture references – and Batman has to learn to trust his team to save Gotham. He has to admit his fear to defeat it.
So far, I have not even mentioned that this is a Lego movie. The sets and visual elements are made of the bumpy bricks, and all the characters are stocky little yellow people. But the film itself hardly even acknowledges this. Three years ago, The Lego Movie pointed out its construction frequently as a way to foreground its constructed-ness, but this Batman movie just tells its story in Legos.
Does that choice cost the film anything? Could this have been just a conventionally-animated, satirical Batman movie? That film would have been just as hilarious, with all the same sly references. The director, Chris McKay, comes from the Robot Chicken show, and I can easily imagine a great version of this movie using action figures and stop-motion. But, the Lego visuals do make an interesting connection with the comic books these characters come from. Comics artists evoke three-dimensional reality, but they don’t try for photorealism. More real-looking art feels less dynamic because the details overwhelm the eye. (Read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art to see how this works.)
For this comic book world, the classic animation look would feel like the norm. Setting the story in the blocky Lego-world introduces an evocative break with expectation, just as line-heavy drawing breaks with the real world. And it offers visual continuity to a film that references images from across eighty years.
Warner Brothers probably won’t scrap its live-action DC universe plans, even though The Lego Batman Movie is so much more fun than those. In fact, some have called this Lego movie too fun, or too dedicated to fun rather than resonance. There’s probably some happy medium they could find. Of course, as has often been said, these are comic book movies, after all.
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