Sorry this didn’t go up yesterday. I just plain forgot to queue it.
Seeing as we are in the midst of Superman: The Animated Series, which at least in its first season positions itself as a lighter alternative to the (relative) darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, let’s talk about another work that functions as a lighter alternative to a dark take on Batman: The LEGO Batman Movie.Much like BTAS (the existence of which it largely ignores), LEGO Batman positions itself as a hybridization of and successor to multiple past interpretations of Batman, declaring this most openly in an early scene where Alfred calls Batman out on numerous past phases of brooding and loneliness, with direct visual references accompanying the release dates of Batman v Superman, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Batman and Robin, Batman Forever, Batman Returns, the Tim Burton Batman, and the 1966 Batman. However, it is not only a distillation of live-action versions of Batman: obviously, the film itself is a spinoff of The LEGO Movie, in which Batman appeared as a secondary character, and there are references to several goofy Golden Age villains, so comics and animation are included as well.
As a comedy, however, it is the ’66 Batman which is the most obvious predecessor, and both take essentially the same route to achieving their humor, focusing on Batman as a fundamentally ridiculous concept treated as such by the story, but regarded with unwavering seriousness by the characters. In much the same way that the ’66 Batman film uses this approach to mock institutional authority, especially the police, LEGO Batman uses it to mock toxic, fragile masculinity, and particularly the “angsty, badass loner” character type.
The groundwork for this was already laid in The LEGO Movie, where gags like Batman’s declaration “I only work in black, and very dark grays” (referring to building things out of LEGO) or his songs (“Darkness! No parents!”) laughed at the degree of self-conscious cool (a contradiction in terms) implicit in “darker” depictions of Batman. LEGO Batman, however, takes this beyond a joke, and actually applies a degree of psychological realism to it. Batman is, as we have observed many times, a child’s protector fantasy; what LEGO Batman does is show, again and again, what it is that it’s protecting him from: human connection.
This is where the fragility and toxicity of masculinity meet. Batman says it himself: he has no emotions other than anger (that he is willing to admit to). All other expression is denied, because masculinity is so easily lost: to cry, to express empathy, to do anything associated with stereotypes of women (especially anything which might imply sexual or romantic interest in men), is to lose one’s man card. Masculinity is hegemony; to be anything less than supremely powerful, the untouchable lord of the city who is better than everyone than everything, is to cease to be a man, and therefore to cease to be Batman. Vulnerability, by contrast, is weakness, and therefore any need or desire for help or support, anything other than the grim exercise of power, is emasculating. And so, in his constant desperate attempts to protect his masculinity, Batman hurts everyone around him: telling Alfred he’s not a father figure, telling the Joker he doesn’t need him, exploiting Robin, ignoring, minimizing, and actively disrupting the work of Barbara Gordon. Hegemony leads to fragility, which leads to toxicity.
But the film does not stop there; it digs deeper to get at the real source of these behaviors: fear. Batman positions his behavior as ultra-masculine, but in reality that’s an excuse to push people away, which (as Alfred observes early in the film) he does because he’s so afraid of losing someone he loves that he refuses to love anyone. This is a very common behavior in those who have experienced loss, especially people who lost a parent at a young age. One becomes hyperaware that all relationships have a deadline, frequently literally: every relationship, of every kind, is absolutely guaranteed to end. You will lose everyone you care about, whether to death, gradual drifting apart, or sudden schism. Probably not all at once, of course; but the fixation on that inevitable ending, and the awareness that it’s impossible to know when it will happen, makes it difficult not to treat it as having already happened. In that light, relationships become pointless exercises in unnecessary pain, and pushing people away is therefore instinctive.
Less obviously, that fixation on relationships’ endings makes it difficult to hold onto the awareness that others care; since the relationship is always ending, the positive feelings of being cared about evaporate almost immediately. Asserting–either in words as Batman does to Alfred early in the film, or through actions as when he sends the rest of the Bat Family away–that “I don’t care, and I don’t believe you do either” is a way of reconfirming that others do care, at least enough to be hurt or angry in response.
For all that he attempts to seem like the badass, angsty loner, Batman cannot ever be anything but a hurt and frightened child–and LEGO Batman portrays that fact more clearly and incisively than any other Batman film to date. In doing so, however, it becomes the first to move beyond that premise; in a precise inversion of his Mask of the Phantasm arc, this Batman grows to be part of a family, explicitly learns to let others in and keep them there. He learns to accept the possibility of loss and let go the need for control.
And yet somehow he continues to be Batman. There appears to be a contradiction here. If superheroes are defined by trauma, shouldn’t he cease to be one once he finds healing? If Batman is a child’s fears turned outwards, shouldn’t he stop being Batman once he confronts that fear?
But that’s just it: LEGO Batman was never Batman. In The LEGO Movie, the entire world, Batman included, is revealed to be the creation of a child playing with his father’s LEGO collection. In LEGO Batman, meanwhile, guns don’t have sound effects; instead, every time they’re fired, the voice actor for the character using the gun makes “pew pew” noises. Like its predecessor, LEGO Batman is a child’s game, and therefore even if Batman grows up, he remains a figure of play, a toy.
The more we try to treat Batman–who, as far as the DCAU and therefore The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is concerned, is the ur-superhero from which all others derive–as something darkly serious, the more like a frightened child he becomes. The more we treat him like a silly toy, the more genuinely mature he can be.
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