Tuesday, February 21, 2017


Director: Chris McKay
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Cast: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Siri, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Jason Mantzoukas, Conan O'Brien, Doug Benson, Billy Dee Williams, Zoё Kravitz, Kate Micucci, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, Seth Green, Jemaine Clement, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Adam Devine, Hector Elizondo, Mariah Carey, Chris McKay
Runtime: 104 mins.

The Lego Batman Movie, as well as its forefather The Lego Movie, are fundamentally postmodern in their construction. There are hundreds of definitions of modernism, and postmodernism, and the difference between them, but this washed up English major is going to try to lay out his understanding. Modernism flourished as a response to realism. The modernists realized that it was impossible to write things as they were, or as they could be, because art must always be a false construction. Artifice. So rather than pursue the unachievable ideal of accurate representation, the modernists embraced the quirks of their artistic medium. They sought to tell stories using somewhat traditional narrative structure, but with a hearty helping of formal playfulness. William Faulkner could write a chapter from the perspective of a corpse. Henry James could tell stories about ambiguity using ambiguous characters and ambiguous language. And in the great modernist tome of Ulysses, James Joyce could swap out protagonists, engage in varying levels of stream of consciousness, drown you in referentiality, and break your brain in a myriad of other ways.

Now we get to postmodernism, which is tricky because I've never gotten an entirely straight answer out of anyone regarding why Ulysses isn't read as a postmodern text. Postmodernism is almost, but not entirely, identical to the term deconstruction. Rather than engage with independent subject matter, postmodernism will generally turn its lens on the narrative tropes and structures themselves. The goal is to analyze, problematize, and just generally bust them up. This trend is tied up in a lot of feminist theory, colonialist theory, and even linguistic theory a la Derrida. The idea is that all the old forms are only facades of meaning, and that art is a false screen covering over a world that is chaotic and meaningless. Or, alternately, everything that we understand to be meaningful has been constructed by violent power structures, and therefore must be broken down. It's all very punk rock.

Which brings us back to these Lego movies. The 2014 film is a deconstruction of the Hero's Journey, a universalistic storytelling theory put forth by Joseph Campbell in his text The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and popularized by George Lucas in Star Wars. The Lego Movie takes the Hero's Journey, which has become a dominant screenwriting crutch for mainstream filmmakers, and eviscerates it. On top of that it adds a hefty critique of capitalism, as well as a dense pop culture referentiality. The boundaries of intellectual property seemingly break down as Batman or Han Solo pop in for some meta-jokes. The visual language takes on a similar referential bent, with the computer animation behaving like stop animation, and the production design being composed of all manner of familiar Lego bricks. Even the title is deeply postmodern, simply Brand + Medium.

Yet I don't believe that these two movies are postmodern in the final analysis, but rather belong to the next wave: post-postmodernism* (as it has yet to be otherwise named). I would also call it the New Earnestness movement. It is my assertion that in the wake of circular, ironic, and self-defeating postmodernism, we need a recommitment to earnestness and genuine feeling. The era that left no sacred cow standing must evolve into an era of positive and self-conscious rebuilding. For a few examples of art that exemplifies my definition of post-postmodernism, think Adventure Time, or Community, or Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog, or Calvin and Hobbes. These properties all do the important work of deconstruction, but rather than stop there they work towards the end of functional character development, narrative progression, and the reinstatement of meaning. The rallying cry is that even when the old forms are broken, we must still find ways to care or else we are lost.

*My favorite film critic argues that postmodernism is not a departure from modernism, and therefore doesn't really exist beyond a genre or facet within modernism. The argument is that functionally they do the same thing, but postmodernism just does it in a different style. I am sympathetic towards this argument, which of course would mean that post-postmodernism is simply doubling down on a fresh form of modernism.

The Lego Movie cemented its status as a piece of neo-earnestness with its (spoilery) climactic twist. The revelation of Will Ferrell as an overprotective Lego collector and father to the young boy who authored the story we were seeing recontextualized the entire film; the boy had been using the Hero's Journey structure in order to work through his contentious relationship with his own father. Thus the action of the film becomes more than deconstructive--it transforms into an earnest act of play and self-exploration.

700 words in and we are now finally equipped to talk about The Lego Batman Movie - but there is too much to talk about! Let's start with the deconstructive elements.

Like The Lego Movie before it, The Lego Batman Movie is the consummate skewering of a particular type of story: in this case, the Batman story. This is the Batman movie to end all Batman movies; it's embarrassing to imagine Warner Bros. churning out another self-serious Batman film with this movie in the zeitgeist. The plot follows Will Arnett's toddleresque version of the billionaire playboy superhero as introduced in The Lego Movie. After foiling a massive villain team-up all by himself, Batman is dismayed to learn that the incumbent police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is discontented to leave the perpetually crime-ridden Gotham City in Batman's hands, instead proposing a bevy of socioeconomic and collectivist remedies for the ailing city. Batman, you see, doesn't need any help. He does everything alone, an attribute that is put to the test when he accidentally adopts young orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is tired of being ringleader to a bunch of loser villains, and he's even more tired of Batman not acknowledging their long-standing and meaningful relationship. In order to enact the revenge of a lover fighter scorned, he hatches a plan to bust out the greatest villains in film history from an interdimensional prison called the Phantom Zone.

The opening sequence of the film immediately sets about demolishing any fears that this spin-off would be derivative in any way (though, of course, being a Lego movie it is also derivative in all ways). Chris McKay's Gotham City is an elaborate urban sprawl drenched in sickly neons reminiscent of the Schumaker Batman era. We are immediately tossed into the fray as the camera caroms from the villains to the reporters to the police to the citizens in a heist-turned-terrorist scheme that is fueled by all manner of visual jokes, gags, wordplay, character beats, worldbuilding moments, and sheer adrenaline. It's sumptuous and rich the likes of which I have never quite seen before. It's also blazing fast. In the Internet age of split focus and increased human processing capacity, the hypersaturation of The Lego Batman Movie makes it one of the more cutting edge movies being put out. The frenetic action and incredible number of jokes per minute are almost too much for me to process, but I have no doubt that the average twelve year old would have no trouble at all.

So anyway, the sequence is funny, and thrilling, and an absolute delight, but it's followed up with a sequence that is even more important. After saving the day, all by himself, yet again, Batman goes home to the batcave to stew in his loneliness. When you save the world by yourself, you eat dinner by yourself. This is communicated by a series of sublime gags that use staging and quiet to emphasize how boring and sad Batman is when he's not fighting crime, a tactic made exponentially more effective in the wake of the sound and fury that kicked off the film. This kind of complete tonal control is employed throughout The Lego Batman Movie, an impressive feat for longtime Robot Chicken standby but first time feature director Chris McKay. The film is a gorgeous treat for animation fans, and film fans in general, but it will have particular wiles for Batman aficionados. I doubt any other piece of Batman media so elegantly combines elements of every Batman incarnation into a single seamless reality.

Not only is it a seamless synthesis, but it also adds up to a meta-commentary about Batman's role in our culture. In the comics Batman has been a defender of the oppressed, and over the years he's surrounded himself with others who share the same beliefs: the Bat family. Our current understanding of the character is very different thanks to a series of incarnations that have become increasingly brooding, solitary, and individualistic. This is a trend that began with Frank Miller's deconstruction of the character, a grimdark fascist fever dream that has since seeped its way into how Batman's heroism is represented on the big screen. The Lego Batman Movie is the post-postmodern answer to Miller's postmodernism, in which Batman learns that his trauma and privilege are not an excuse to impose his will on the world unchecked. He must instead face the most difficult challenge of all: opening up to people who care about him.

The way these seeds are sown throughout the narrative might strike some as sappy, or as a distraction from the laughs, but I believe the sentimental moments are the heart and soul of the film. They are what make The Lego Batman Movie a bold and incredibly important story, one that needed to be told. Otherwise it would just be a fun silly romp with an overstuffed third act. With the big screen Batman in the hands of the fascist-fetishistic Zack Snyder, and the country in the hands of out-of-control narcissistic billionaire white men, I cannot think of a better panacea than a Batman movie that earnestly pursues the goodness at the character's core.

I give it 9.5/10 Scorned Jokers.

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