Don’t be fooled by last week’s Oscar analysis; my movie-going tastes are as low-brow as anybody’s, and as a patriotic American I do make sure to see the comic-book movies as soon as they come out (except for the DCEU, because seriously guys, c’mon). If you think these films aren’t intellectually stimulating, or that they can’t provide the material for my customary sociopolitical analysis, then I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Gentle Reader. In fact, this year has already seen the release of a “comic movie” which contains the most pointed and relevant political commentary we’re likely to see this year.
No, I’m not talking about this weekend’s Logan, though it seems everybody else is. I speak, of course, of The LEGO Batman Movie.
I’m surprised that more reviewers haven’t pointed out LEGO Batman’s political content. The original LEGO movie wound up being hailed as a brilliant allegory by pundits across the political spectrum, seeing in that sweet little fable whatever they wanted to see. The villain is Lord Business – surely this is a brilliant anti-capitalist tract ironically disguised as product placement! No, wait – Lord Business is disguised as President Business, so this must be a libertarian tract about the dangers of an intrusive State! It’s feminist! No it’s not! I’m surprised there’s not a think piece out there explaining in laborious detail how Vesuvius is really a stand-in for a return to the gold standard.
But so far, the reviews of LEGO Batman I’ve seen have all focused exclusively on its comic book plot, viewing it as a send-up and critique of years of Batman lore and pop cultural representation. And that’s true, obviously – when your supporting cast includes the Eraser and Condiment King you’re obviously taking a deep dive into bat-lore. But it’s worth looking at how Batman’s portrayed in this movie – egocentric, oblivious, an embodiment of alpha-male certitude in plastic form. A man with the absolute certainty that his outlook on the world is the only correct one. A man who can’t bring himself to engage with the more diverse, pluralistic society around him. It’s not an accident that the film’s two major authority figures – the mayor, and the new Commissioner – are women, or that the movie’s narrative arc involves Batman learning to work together with, and accept, this new society. Heck, Barbara Gordon explicitly uses the phrase “it takes a village” when describing this new paradigm.
It seems clear to me that the makers of LEGO Batman thought they were making one of the first films of the new Clinton era, and that the movie exists on some level to reach out to men of a certain mindset and say, “there’s nothing to fear. It’s okay.”
Well, clearly that didn’t happen.
So instead, here we are in the Logan era. And sure, it’s clear why it’s being embraced as a film for this moment – there’s plenty of parallels to where we are right now. Logan’s world is one where the U.S. – Mexico border is fraught with tension and suspicion, where big Pharma and big agribusiness are running roughshod over civil rights, where our citizens have little hope but escaping to Canada. But it’s not an allegory – these parallels wind up being rather superficial, in my opinion. At heart, Logan’s just an old-fashioned western, with the angry loner seeking redemption in one last battle. It’s a story we’ve heard many times before, frankly. And in its defeatism, in its extolling of the man who can’t engage with the world around him, it actually reinforces much of the mindset that gets us into messes like this in the first place.
I’d rather play with LEGOs, to be honest.
That movie’s lessons may have been intended for a world that didn’t come to pass, but that doesn’t mean the lessons aren’t valuable. We do need to figure out how to move beyond our past baggage, how to embrace and work with those with whom we don’t always agree. Better to dream of a future where we can all lock together to create beautiful new things, than one where we can do nothing but claw it all to shreds.
And if that’s all a bit much to take in, fear not: in a few months, the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel comes out. Baby Groot’s in that one!