Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie (Chris McKay)

Iron Man sucks!

The first twenty minutes of the movie are best (What is it about recent pictures that the first twenty minutes are always best? Have they forgotten to teach the importance of the next eighty at scriptwriting class?): Batman leads a spectacular public life, soaking in wave after wave of adulation with a celebrity's limitless confidence. The joke about his private life--in his vast Batcave located deep within Wayne Island, surrounded by miles of tunnels and tons of memorabilia and armadas of military-style weaponry--is that he doesn't have one; he's basically kidding himself saying everything is awesome when he (and we watching him) know otherwise (In short: life as someone like Trump would have it vs. life as it really is)

It's a gag that deserves a bit more appreciation, considering all the worshipful ink spent analyzing the comic-book character. The official DC gospel is that Batman is driven by a sense of hurt anger vengeance (but is really a nice guy deep inside); that he went vigilante for the sake of justice (making no attempt to reconcile illegal act with lawful motive); that he fights tirelessly night after night for the weak (returning to his billion-dollar mansion by morning to rest). Maybe the only truly interesting subversive note anyone's ever added comes from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns: that the Caped Crusader knows he's a criminal, gleefully acknowledges the contradiction; it's an essential requirement to fighting his neverending war

But forget Miller's take on the character (megalomanic sociopath) or Christopher Nolan's (Mephistophelean manipulator behind Gotham's brief golden age), much less Zach Snyder's (Miller with a lobotomy). To director Chris McKay, Bats is a self-centered jerk ("Why did you build this thing with only one seat?" "Because last I checked I only had one butt.") who fights crime to win love and approval from his dead parents ("Hey mom hey dad I um I saved the city again today, I think you would have been really proud"), so when the real thing comes along (a love interest, an arch enemy) he keeps them at arm's length ("You're seriously saying  there's nothing special about us?" "There is no 'us;' never will be."). McKay working with his six writers through Will Arnett's monotone growl understands something no one--not Miller nor Nolan nor Snyder--seems to realize: that The Batman is a monstrous overgrown child playing with oversized toys in his oversized underground playpen; that the black armor and gruff voice and pointed cowl are really his way of overcompensating for insecurities; that all this is hideously funny, even if (or especially because) the character reverently depicted in comics and recent movies is so resolutely not.   

Wish McKay had pushed the joke further by (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the movie!) 1) forcing the Dark Knight to try operate in a post-supervillain world; 2) allowing him to become more annoying and self-centered, dangerous even; and 3) applying pressure till Batman's personality deforms into its ultimate configuration--a superhero turned supervillain, to fill a brutal vacuum. 

Instead we have this unfunny main plot where the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has himself projected into the Phantom Zone (ostensibly for safekeeping, in reality a recruitment ploy); we have an even less funny subplot where Michael Cena as the world's most annoying Robin (think the previous Lego movie's insufferable Emmet only in bright lime-green underwear). The Dark Knight must grapple with his responsibilities to other people, learn how to be father to Robin, and (ugh) become a better person overall. 

The movie doesn't have the balls to be what I hoped it would be--what it needed to be--but what there is ain't too bad. Michael Sragow in his Film Comment review points out how Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) plays Hillary to Batman's petulant Trump and in a more competently managed world that's how it should have turned out, with Hillary ultimately calling the shots (unfortunately this isn't that world). My own ideal scenario would be funnier in a Swiftian sense: have Batrump sit in his own mess, the surrounding filth getting more rancid and unbearable until something or someone snaps--but hey, who wants psychological realism pushed to Swiftian heights when you can escape into something more family friendly? I doubt if my version would enjoy the same boxoffice ($90 million worldwide on its opening weekend) but would enjoy that much more integrity.

Wish the Daleks had a bigger role (appreciated their presence nevertheless); wish the Klingons or Romulans played a part too. He Who Must Not Be Named (happy to oblige) I couldn't care less about--all Lego characters are noseless--but wasn't there  room for a few New Gods, the Swamp Thing, maybe an Endless or two?

Imy list of favorite Batman movies--an important historical document I'm sure--I figure this to rank somewhere in the middle: not quite as good as Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski's The Animated Series, but better than Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, or Snyder's Dawn of Justice (which to be fair are better than Schumacher's atrocities--I may be crazy but I'm not stupid). Can think of worse ways to pass a Sunday afternoon.

First published in Businessworld 2.16.17

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