Going Batty

You knew I was going to have a few things to say about The Lego Batman Movie, right?

Three years ago, I called The Lego Movie “a high-speed roller coaster ride through a story we’ve seen a million times.” Lego Batman turns that idea up to eleven–and if you had to click the link to identify the source of that line, you’re not the sort of person who will enjoy Lego Batman.

Forget about a plot. Lego Batman doesn’t have one. It’s got a couple of tropes loosely stuck together with bubble gum*. To be fair, though, they’re tropes central to the BatmanMythos™

* Speaking of bubble gum, if I never see another trailer for Despicable Me 3, it’ll be too soon. The first two were mildly amusing in an “I don’t want to have to think tonight” way. Judging by the current trailer, however, the franchise has jumped the shark, and it’s going to require actual mental effort to find humor in the third installment. That said–still based on the previews–I’d go see Despicable Me 3 at least a century before I’d risk The Emoji Movie.

What Lego Batman has is a nearly non-stop string of sight- and sound-gags. From Batman’s opening monologue–“All important movies start with a black screen,”–and shameless appropriation of Michael Jackson’s lyrics, all the way through to the closing narration and end credit songs, the film is loaded with pop- and geek-cultural references that only work because they’re superimposed on the image of Batman as the brooding Dark Knight. Because that picture is both the viewers’ mental image and Batman’s self-image, the jokes that should fall flat still elicit laughs.

One case in point: jokes about needing a geek to explain something haven’t worked in at least a quarter-century, if they ever did. But when it’s The Lego Joker telling the audience to ask their geek friends about British robots, it’s honestly snicker-worthy.

Lego Batman also avoids several of the original’s most annoying pitfalls. There’s no reference to the deus ex machina that knocked me right of the The Lego Movie. Barbara Gordon never attains the heights of awesome that early Wyldestyle reached, but she remained her own woman throughout, instead of turning into “Batman’s Girlfriend”. And Robin, the obnoxious sidekick everyone loves to hate, despite his moments of Awesome, is just as delightfully loathsome at the end of the film as at the beginning.

There are a few things I could quibble about–Batman being arbitrarily imprisoned without a trial for having the temerity to arbitrarily lock up The Joker without a trial, for example, or the truth that someone can be a jerk without being a villain.

But even the movie’s greatest misstep–for much of the run time, it’s easy to forget that this is a Lego movie; filming it in live action would have worked almost as well–doesn’t detract from its overall success.

If you have any shred of geek credentials, go see The Lego Batman Movie. Watch for the visual jokes. Listen to the song lyrics–the ones written for the film, not the licensed pop tunes. You’ll enjoy yourself.

Putting It Together

Consider this a follow-up to my earlier comments on The LEGO Movie. As you may recall, I had some unkind things to say regarding the movie’s portrayal of gender roles, particularly with regard to Wyldstyle. Would you be surprised to hear that similar complaints have been directed at LEGO in general? I didn’t think so.

People have been complaining for years about the gender imbalance in LEGO’s minifigures and the sexism expressed in the girl-centric “Friends” and the boy-centric “City” product lines. To their credit, Lego has taken note of the complaints and taken some steps to improve matters. In particular, they’ve begun introducing more female minifigs in the City sets. I did an informal survey at a well-known national toy store yesterday and found that roughly 10% of the City minifigs were female*. Not great, but certainly better than the 0% when City was launched.

* Your Mileage May Vary. I was just looking at the sets that this particular store happened to have in stock; the numbers may well differ across the entire product line.

That’s not to say that LEGO can be let off the hook. They clearly have some work to do, as a quick glance at the Fire Chief Car set shows. The mini-movie on the LEGO website is bad enough, showing the male fire chief arriving to rescue the anonymous woman’s cat from a tree. The box for the set pushes the clich√© even further: I half-expected a drawing on the back showing the chief claiming the hero’s traditional reward from the hapless maiden.

So kudos to LEGO for making the effort, and I hope they’ll continue to do so, but in the meantime, there is something that every LEGO purchaser can do to improve the situation. Many people seem to treat the concept of a “set” as sacrosanct; let us not forget that the core of the LEGO concept is interchangeable parts.

If you feel that your LEGO world needs more female characters, then make them. In most cases, the only real difference between a male and a female character is the hairstyle; in some cases there may also be facial differences. That makes it easy to swap gender in your minifigs. Observe:
c1 c2
From male construction worker to female with a swap of head and hair.

Heck, you don’t even need the hair in this case. Just changing the face is enough to signal “female”, and her proper use of safety equipment isn’t compromised:
c3

Another example, just to prove the point. Anyone out there have a problem seeing Wyldstyle as a cop?
p1
I didn’t think so.

So what do you do with those male heads you’ve removed? Personally, I think our former construction worker makes a perfectly fine biker now that Wyldstyle isn’t using that body.
b1

Pushing the envelope a little further, our former Emmet head looks pretty good in Wyldstyle’s western outfit.
w1
And consider how great this technique would be for introducing your child to the concepts of gender identity and body image:
w2

Taking the concept just a little further, a quick swap of heads gives you an outstanding Emmet centaur for your Greek mythology scenario.
k1

I’d suggest not pushing it too far, however. Wild West Princess Unikitty is… well… just a little scary.
k2

The Lego Movie

Movie review time. That’s right, I’m really doing another one. And this time it’s even something released recently: “The Lego Movie”.

Spoilers ahead. You Have Been Warned!

The Lego Movie is a high-speed roller coaster ride through a story we’ve seen a million times. It’s the Hero’s Journey, straight out of the manual. But it’s done with style, charm, and wit. I laughed all the way through, and only later started to have qualms.

I’m not going to talk about the deus ex machina. I’ll just note in passing that I agree with Aristotle that the resolution needs to arise from the story. The writers made an effort to do that, but didn’t succeed. When we found out what was on the other side of the wormhole, I fell out of the roller coaster car and never quite got back in.

TLM is loaded with mixed messages. The biggest is in the ongoing veneration of the Master Builders and their ability to throw away the guide and build what they want. But countering that, note that our hero only makes progress in his quest when he forces those Master Builders to follow the rules and build things exactly in accordance with the guide. I detect a hint of corporate meddling here. Lego makes their money selling sets. There had to be something to counter the primary message, discourage rampant reuse of parts, and encourage purchase of sets. Parenthetically, I count at least a dozen sets based on TLM in the stores.

Then there’s Princess Unikitty (the best character in the movie, IMNSHO). She learns an important lesson: sometimes it’s not just OK but absolutely necessary to show your angry side. Unfortunately, the movie promptly undercuts the message by showing that her anger doesn’t do any good. Her city isn’t even slowed down, and she immediately goes from angry to seasick. It’s not just a one-off failure, though. When she goes all bizniz, she’s glorious again, but that transformation also fails to affect anything.

Poor Wyldestyle. She starts out as a kick-ass female character, a self-confident Master Builder who saves our hero’s life and gives him the necessary ass-kicking to ensure he plays his part in the story. And then what happens? Do we see her working to overcome her hatred of the hero and her desire to be the legendary hero herself? Nope. Instead her boyfriend shows up, and she becomes “The Character Whose Boyfriend Is Batman”. Everything she does from that point on is dominated and defined by her relationship with her boyfriend. Even at the end, when she realizes she loves Emmet, she doesn’t get to dump Batman. He stomps on her speech and graciously hands her over to the schlub. Apparently the message here is that it’s OK for women to be an awesome as long as they defer to their menfolk. Yeah, OK, it’s a young boy’s story, and Batman is going to out-awesome just about anybody. But the writers could have made so much more out of Wyldestyle without detracting from Batty’s dominance.

Bottom line: Leave the kids home to play with their Legos (but hide the instruction books), turn off your mind, and The Lego Movie will be awesome.