In the two weeks or so since Lego Batman came out, one opinion has been thrown out over and over: this might be the best Batman movie ever made. I’m honestly not sure I agree with that, because I think that title still belongs to The Dark Knight. But LEGO Batman does do something that is only acceptable because they’re making an alternate reality semi-parody of Batman, and that one thing is what makes the movie great: They give Batman a character.
You ever notice how often filmmakers go back to the well of the superhero origin story? Spider-man’s been through it twice, Superman too, and poor Batman has watched his parents get murdered around eleventy bajillion times on screen. Hell, even James Bond got an origin reboot. Why do you think that is?
Characters like Bond, Batman, and Iron Man are franchise heroes. They’re meant to be comfort food to the average movie goer, where you know what to expect when you walk into the theater. Combine that with the fact that these characters have to last for years, and it means that they can’t really change. Look at Iron Man 3. The film followed an arc that took Tony to a brand new place, one where he was ready to stop being Iron Man and actually blew up all of his suits and walked away. It was a really interesting story, except that there was an Avengers movie that year so it all had to be immediately undone. (Marvel, to their credit, always at least tries to make things like this make sense.)
Batman’s main story arc, the one time where the character gets to change, is watching the murder of his parents and vowing to end crime. Batman Begins is a great movie because it follows this path, but The Dark Knight is a great movie because of the character arcs for The Joker and Harvey Dent. Batman, at that point, is solidified into the character everyone wants him to be. He doesn’t get an arc, or to change.
LEGO Batman, on the other hand, turns the whole thing on its head. The one story that every Batman writer has wanted to tell, and can’t, is the story of Batman finally healing from the death of his parents. The one where he learns to grow and accept the love of the people in his life. And while the comics have teased it many times, LEGO Batman just up and does it, and is a much more interesting film than, say, The Dark Knight Rises because of it.
In most superhero stories that aren’t origin stories, the main conflict the character must overcome is external. Loki wants to destroy the world, or Bane wants to blow up Gotham. In LEGO Batman, the villains almost don’t matter. The main conflict that Batman has to overcome is his own fear of losing the people he loves. And because this is a kid’s movie, he can. Batman can end the film surrounded by a family who has a dance party, instead of running into the night, brooding and alone again.
There’s a wonderful scene from Geoff John’s run on Green Lantern. Hal Jordon offers Batman a Lantern Ring. He gives him the power to end crime on a massive scale, to take the fight to free Gotham to levels he’s never dreamed. But he can’t master the ring unless he lets go of his parents’ death. It’s such a cool idea, but in order for comics to continue, Batman has to remain Batman. He says no, and turns it down.
It’s only in a LEGO world that Batman can ever be happy.