Batman Rewatch: The LEGO Batman Movie and The Batman bury the Dark Knight to heap on praise

We've been watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order all the way from Adam West to Robert Pattinson. This week: Brickheads and dropheads, with all spoilers for The Batman. Last week: Something was definitely bleeding. Thanks for reading. See you in June 2023, when the Flash enters the Batverse.

Even the Batman movies know something's wrong with Batman. "We don't need an unsupervised adult man karate-chopping poor people in a Halloween costume," says Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) when she takes over as Police Commissioner in 2017's The LEGO Batman Movie. Her Gotham remains "the most crime-ridden city in the world" despite 78 years of caped crusading. "My dream is for the police force to team up with Batman," she announces. That line shocks Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett), though it's nonsensical in an allegedly self-referential movie. Didn't Batman just lead a blue army in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises? Surely every Bat-signal symbolizes collaboration? Still, you get her point. "Actual laws and proper ethics and accountability" are tenets of a healthy society. But movie franchises only deploy oversight committees to prove the good guys don't need oversight.

Then there's The Batman, which asks a provocative question: What if everyone was an orphan? No Bruce Wayne was ever sadder than Robert Pattinson. He's a hermit who lives in Wayne Tower, which means he lives at the office. Black bangs hang low beneath his eye shadow. Reader, he journals. And still, every local rogue declares him as an out-of-touch aristocrat. The Riddler (Paul Dano) grew up in a bleak orphanage on Wayne Manor property, and now enviously wishes death upon Bruce. Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) reveals Thomas Wayne (Luke Roberts) was no Boy Scout, which ankle-slices Bruce's whole self-image. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) can smell Batman's money, which contrasts with her own childhood of motherless woe. That's two villains and an antihero class-splaining our protagonist, so just imagine what the noble civil servant thinks. Political candidate Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson) chastises the Wayne heir: "You really could be doing more for this city." She turns into the most openly virtuous Gotham mayor in movie history — after Batman saves her, of course. The story in a nutshell: You're no hero, hero, now please be a hero!

THE BATMAN, The LEGO Batman Movie

Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures The Batman, The LEGO Batman Movie

The LEGO Batman Movie and The Batman are different phenomena, occupying extreme ends (merry comedy, moody drama) of the Bat-spectrum. But they rhyme more than they should. A strong female character complains about Batman before triumphantly joining forces with him. Meticulous world-building dead-ends into elemental calamity. Thomas and Martha were murdered, have you heard? Bruce Wayne must change, must learn to punch bad guys more holistically. These Batmen respond to their critics, which should interest a critic like me.

But the deck comes stacked against the skeptics. "I hate to say this, but the city needs you," LEGO Barbara admits. (Of course it does!) And one scene in The Batman captures everything so off about this franchise moment: all the profound stated ambitions masking watch-the-bottom-line paranoia, all the attempts at social realism defeated by fallbacks into retro fantasy. Selina accuses Batman of not understanding the entire plot situation; she is the first Gotham citizen to ever say the phrase "white privilege" in a movie. (As in: "white privileged a—holes.") And then she kisses Batman, one of the most famously privileged white men ever.

The Batman is fine. I like the first ten hours, the last five hours drag a bit. Director Matt Reeves epitomizes blockbuster restraint. Nobody calls Catwoman "Catwoman," and her ski mask barely has ear ripples. Non-costumed gangsters — usually henchmen for colorful psychos — are main villains for half a runtime. Penguin (Colin Farrell) sorta walks Penguin-y for a few seconds, and otherwise could be any club-owning mob guy. You only glimpse familiar iconography through the wrong side of the binoculars: Say, who is that laughing smile in the cell next door?

There's something tiresome about this mentality. It can feel like craven marketing: Tee-hee, who is that joking guy, see you next sequel! At worst, that whole approach to comic book adaptations demands something like self-lobotomization from creators and viewers. When Reeves spoke to EW in February, he wouldn't even confirm Barry Keoghan's inmate was Joker. (He has since come clean.)

One logical response is exhaustion: Just show us the damn thing, already! LEGO Batman is the damn thing, and then some. The cartoon features every Batman villain plus Sauron plus Voldemort. The Batcave has every Bat-costume and Bat-vehicle imaginable. It's technically a follow-up to 2014's The LEGO Movie, but it cheekily references every part of Batman's filmography, and rolls up lore from across multimedia history, and absorbs outright parody (Doug Benson as Bane!) alongside mega-franchise restorative justice (Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face!). LEGO Batman can do all this because it is a LEGO movie. And until recently I thought all the LEGO movies had fallen into a history hole, vanquished by diminishing box office returns, free-floating Chris Pratt aversion, and post-Space Jam suspicion of the whole reaping-day-at-the-IP-farm mode of storytelling.

I was so wrong. Anecdotally, I have heard more LEGO Batman love in the last couple weeks than in the last five years. Wrong to speculate about why people like things; even hazier to wonder why people vocally like things. Fair to say, though, that The Batman's arrival has done wonders for LEGO Batman's reputation. The new film provides a handy counterbalance on every level. The Riddler has David Fincher affectations: an apartment full of Se7en notebooks, shadow Zodiac-ish TV-news appearances. We hear a woman strangled on a voicemail. Every Batman movie has a gala, and The Batman's gala is a funeral. Pattinson generally whispers and walks more than he swings. There have been a couple Bat-movies now where antagonists take credit for offing Batman's parents — but Carmine Falcone is the first (alleged) Wayne murderer who also killed Catwoman's mom.

I don't want to underrate the lighthearted moments. Pattinson is flat-out great when he's in costume. His looming turns legitimately comedic as a deadpan response to frustrated cops, desperate criminals, and Kravitz's exasperated toughness. This is still an action movie, and it can be frivolous. A truck collision gives the Batmobile a perfect Grand Theft Auto jump-ramp. But The Batman moves the goalposts for downbeat superhero thrills. It makes the Christopher Nolan movies look like the Joel Schumacher movies. Cillian Murphy's clinically restrained Scarecrow would be over the top next to Dano's murmuring live-streamer. Michael Giacchino's score could be church bells ringing in Hell. Alfred (Andy Serkis) gets exploded into intensive care. Some scenes are so dark you cannot see what is happening. "Something in the Way," the slowest song on Nirvana's Nevermind, plays twice.


Warner Bros. Pictures

So loving The LEGO Batman Movie means something now. It's a vote in favor of comedy, canon, and basic visibility. Arnett's macho-gruff self-satire was one of the best things about LEGO Movie. The solo spinoff pairs him with his Arrested Development nephew Michael Cera, who is the best movie Robin ever. LEGO Dick Grayson has wide eyes and a kid-in-a-candy-store assurance, and Cera imports his unique knack for combining innocent naivete with sardonic wit. By rights, the boy wonder should sound betrayed when Bat-dad's antics land them both in super-prison. Instead, he's effusive: "As long as I'm doing a dime in the big house with my old man, I'm okay!"

The film is sort of about Batman's relationship with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), and sort of about the formation of a genuine Bat-family, and sort of an ultimate team-up between every Bat-villain ever. It's sort of about everything a Batman movie can possibly be about, with an all-star cameo cast that includes Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman.

That's one sneaky prophecy among many. LEGO Batman producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller would deliver Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which welded the grab-it-all adaptation method onto a more palpably dramatic story of generational reconciliation. (Another lonely-famous superhero gets emotionally rebooted by mentoring another successor.) Spider-Verse was a dam-opening moment for multiverse chatter. This means that LEGO Batman feels oddly conventional today, and its manic charms only go so far. The third act turns pure onslaught, with Joker teaming up with Warner-branded content for a nonstop invasion. The ending requires every character to stand on each other's heads to hold their world together. I'm not sure it looks any sillier (or more over-animated) than the all-together-now climax to Avengers: Endgame.

The story wants to be about Batman's journey out of selfishness. The funniest scene comes early: Bruce alone in his mansion island, failing to figure out the HDMI inputs on his home mega-theater. By film's end, he finally has pals to watch Jerry Maguire with. This goofily mirrors Pattinson's non-goofy arc in The Batman from single-minded vengeance to expansive social conscience. There are essentially identical scenes where Bruces tell Alfreds something like You're not my dad, and essentially identical scenes where Batmen admit they are afraid of losing anyone. All of which is certainly more emotionally delicate than, like, realizing many people are named Martha. But it's also oddly navel-gazing. For all the tough talk other characters offer their Batmen, a shocking amount of narrative real estate is given over to the loneliness of Batmanhood. You feel a point has been missed. You can't just put "karate-chopping poor people" back in the bottle.

Oddly, these movies about explicitly problematic Batmen prioritize Batman's role in the plot more than ever. He is the villains' whole motivation. LEGO Joker wrecks the world as a lovelorn statement to his jilted nemesis. The Batman's Riddler hates Bruce Wayne but adores the Caped Crusader. Bat-fandom has become a character trait. "When I was a kid," says LEGO Barbara, "I wanted to be you, Batman. I wanted to be as strong and as fast and as smart as Batman." A line like that is supposed to be disapproving, but look how much praise it embeds. Worth pointing out that LEGO Batman does not become a movie about the glory of ethics and accountability. And in The Batman, the give-and-take between Kravitz's Selina and Pattinson's Bruce feels too one-sided. She turns a little less amoral; he becomes none more fun.

The Batman

Jonathan Olley/DC Comics/Warner Bros. Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz in 'The Batman'

The fantasy of Batman is supposed to be achievability. He is the superhero without superpowers. Maintain a daily push-up regimen while you study the forensic sciences, and you can, too! Of course, that's a lie. He's fortunate twice over: born both handsome and loaded. Arriving on Earth via spaceward Kryptonian birth matrix is only marginally less likely than being born a billionaire. I think the real Batman fantasy is more unnerving. Here's a dream of eternal self-justification. My parents died and now I'm throwing Eric Roberts off a building: Isn't that just so me?

That's why I haven't really written about, like, Good and Evil in these columns. I don't think any Batman movie has a particularly interesting moral perspective — and, to be clear, they don't need one. An urge to be about something can self-defeat quickly when studio politics require a redemptive third-act showdown. The Batman takes a couple hours to reveal — horrors! — that Gotham City's most powerful people are corrupt. Isn't that Gotham City's motto? This particular corruption extends to Thomas Wayne, but only barely. Falcone reveals that Batman's dad was an acquaintance who demanded the silencing of a journalist. This major sin gets mitigated into a minor slip by Wayne propagandist Alfred: Thomas didn't want the man dead, he was going to the cops before his shooting! Meanwhile, the Riddler cedes any moral high ground. His plan suddenly leapfrogs from "execution of dishonorable power brokers" to "erupting a biblical flood to trap bystanders in a mass shooting."

Thirty years ago, Nirvana was not an officially licensed logo on newborn onesies at your local Target, and the greatest Batman movie ever dared to be about someone besides Batman. Batman Returns checks Bruce Wayne's narrative privilege and reveals more about him by confronting him with honest equals. "You're just jealous," Danny DeVito's Penguin screams, "Because I'm a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask!" I think it's the sharpest thing anyone says about the character in any of these movies: Batman as poser, his chauffeured limo always idling outside the sewers. By comparison, Heather Ledger asserting "You're just a freak like me" sounds like an ego-stroking brand deposit. Meanwhile, in The Dark Knight Rises and The Batman, various Selina Kyles learn that not every rich person is bad. Best not to mention the perilous drop from Michelle Pfeiffer's unleashed intensity in Batman Returns, but worth pointing out this bourgeois tripe makes Halle Berry's Catwoman look like The Jungle.

I wonder if the explicit and exorbitant moral focus of the last couple decades of Bat-cinema — the preachy quality that seems to be forever life-coaching Batman towards his best self — misses the best point of its own cultural canon. Gotham City is a horrible place full of dark wonder. That makes it a safe space for nasty perversion, and an ideal venue for examining madness beyond the usual accepted norms of behavior. So what a shame that The Batman bungles its most fascinating biographical detail. Bruce finds out that Martha Wayne (Stella Stocker) was often institutionalized. He barely seems to react to this information, more shocked by the revelations about his dad. Mental illness is a complex malady, not something to fan-theorize over. Still, if I were a depressed obsessive loner mostly living an invented identity, and I found out my dead mom suffered from severe psychological issues… well, I might look at myself in the mirror and wonder. Is Batman the hero we deserve? Or just the inmate running our asylum?

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