Film: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

#1 movie, weekends of 2/10-2/12/17 and 2/17-2/19/17

Gross: $53,003,468 and $32,655,114

What it is: A tongue-in-cheek animated comedy based on a video game based on the LEGO toy based on the comic book/movie superhero Batman. Also sort of a sequel to 2014’s The LEGO Movie, which brought together LEGO versions of characters from a whole bunch of different pop cultural franchises. Featuring Will Arnett as Batman and stacked to the brim with the voices of a whole bunch of other famous comedians.

So obviously The LEGO Batman Movie is a bizarre freak of pop cultural nature. (I’m sure it’s similar to The LEGO Movie in that way, but I haven’t seen that so this was all new to me.) It’s two hours of  branded content, but the Russian-doll nature of its source material makes it even weirder than an otherwise comparable project like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. It’s basically a Batman parody brought to you by the same corporate entities that manage regular Batman, with infrequent reminders that all the characters and objects involved are made of plastic and stick to each other. Things get even more distractingly strange when LEGO Joker goes to the Phantom Zone and brings back a whole bunch of non-Batman villains, revealing which characters are apparently part of LEGO Batman‘s extended corporate family (Voldemort, Sauron, etc.), which ones aren’t but can be generically approximated (Godzilla, who’s given some extra arms and referred to as a “giant sea monster” or something) and which ones are just too hot to touch (anyone from Star Wars, which is conspicuously absent).

I went in expecting the whole thing to be too restricted by the many brand loyalties involved to be irreverent enough to work as a comedy. Early on it became clear that the film’s creators were nimble enough to keep genuinely amusing jokes flowing at a brisk pace, but I still thought they wouldn’t dare to mock the underlying message of the Batman franchise as it’s currently understood–that is, as an argument for authoritarianism generally and Bush/Cheney’s War on Terror human rights abuses specifically. But even in that sense I underestimated the film. Batman is portrayed as an egomaniacal manchild (like every other Will Arnett character, with a lot of Archer mixed in), which undercuts the self-seriousness and moral certainty of Christopher Nolan’s version of the character. The ultimate message of the movie is that Batman has to learn to share power with the people around him rather than trying to do everything himself (an arc which is admittedly cribbed from Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises), and at one point another character even points out that his vendetta against the Joker may have led him to behave exactly the way that villain wanted him to, just as al Qaeda successfully provoked the U.S. into military adventures and civil liberties curtailments that only stoked the resentment Islamic terrorism relies on to survive.

To be clear, I’m not so far down the rabbit hole that I actually think that last interpretation was what the writers of The LEGO Batman Movie consciously intended. Even the more general critique the film makes of Nolan’s Batman is implicit, but not much more so than the message of the Nolan films was to begin with.

I make a point of trying to figure out the ideological import of the stuff I review on this blog, but finding a mutedly subversive undertone in The LEGO Batman Movie is a useful reminder that the ideological messages in most pop culture are ultimately the result of branding and demographic targeting more than any kind of actual conviction. Movie studios and the institutions that own them have access to ungodly amounts of money and a huge amount of influence on how their audiences view the world, and in the big picture that money and influence gets thrown around pretty haphazardly no matter what ideology the individuals involved subscribe to. That’s how media is. CNN and Saturday Night Live will give Trump a platform during the campaign and then make a show of defying him once he’s in office. Rachel Maddow will feed Trump’s “fake news” persecution complex to goose her own ratings. DC (the comics company, not the seat of governmental power) will revel in the aesthetics of fascism in one Batman franchise and poke fun at those aesthetics in another, while using the same breathtakingly advanced and grandiose visual effects in both. The commercialist self-contradiction is so thick that it’s almost too on the nose when this relatively liberal version of Batman ends and Trump’s Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin shows up as an executive producer.

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