LEGO Batman Shows the Pitfalls of Toxic Masculinity

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The LEGO Batman Movie

Chris McKay (dir), Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington (wri)
Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes (cast)
Warner Bros. Pictures
February 10, 2017

There’s a lot to be said about LEGO Batman. Written by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith, it’s a colorful, irreverent, and campy film that’s chock full of Batman and DC Comics easter eggs. And while a lighthearted kid’s comedy, it’s also a surprisingly earnest film that allows Batman to be emotionally vulnerable.

Bruce Wayne is often said to be a perfect example of a character who embodies toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity refers to a set of unspoken rules that a patriarchal society uses to define what makes “a real man.” A real man is a male who is dominant, successful, self-sufficient, violent (or at least capable of violence), emotionally closed off, and attractive to and attracted to women. This archetype is so common in male protagonist led films, TV shows, and games that there’s even a bingo card for it.

All of Bruce’s incarnations past Adam West’s 1966 run fill out most of that bingo card. Bruce is often portrayed as a tough, angry, white vigilante. He broods, scowls, and is haunted by his past. Sure, he’s also rich, successful, and handsome—everything that society tells a man he should be—but Bruce is still deeply unhappy and lonely. LEGO Batman openly acknowledges this, as well as the ridiculousness that is, as the film says, “an unsupervised adult man in a Halloween costume who karate chops poor people.”

In order to lampoon the seriousness of Batman, the LEGO Batman writers take every one of those toxic male traits and dial them up to eleven. Batman is now an overblown alpha male who is so obsessed with his own brand that he makes his own theme music and merchandise. He wears his cowl even around the house. He’s so arrogant that he carries around a scoreboard that says he has thousands of good ideas and everyone else has zero. When Alfred catches him staring wistfully at pictures of his parents, he is so embarrassed by being caught having an emotionally vulnerable moment that he throws a temper tantrum. In this way we’re able to see this alpha male act for exactly what it is: hilarious, unsustainable, and entirely harmful, both to his loved ones and to himself.

And the movie doesn’t hold back to show how much Batman is actually hurting. After basking in the adoration of the city, Bruce returns to a home so empty and vast that his words echo off the walls. He quietly eats his lobster dinner alone while sitting in the middle of his giant moat. He watches rom-com movies alone, and glances around at his empty theater when he laughs. We know Alfred is in the house, but Bruce is literally unable to emotionally connect with him because he’s so deeply repressed. The scenes are all comical, but they’re also just ridiculously sad.

Bruce later finds out that the Justice League has been throwing parties for the last fifty years and never once invited him, and Bruce is unable to keep the awkwardness and embarrassment off of his face. This kiddie film sucker punches you with the realization that while Batman is the picture perfect definition of a True Man, literally nobody wants to be around him.

All of this works to make it clear what the problem is, which is Bruce himself. Sure, it’s a children’s film, but Grahame-Smith does an excellent job of deconstructing the dark knight in a way that feels both meaningful and timely.

We have somehow put Batman on a cultural pedestal where it’s difficult to even criticize him without making somebody mad. We’ve stripped him of his campiness, his extended family, and yes, his C-grade villains like Condiment Man and Egghead, and made him into another overly serious cookie cutter male protagonist, and to his fans he’s unimpeachable. And that’s really too bad, because LEGO Batman shows us that Bruce is at his best when he’s allowed to show emotion, not take himself too seriously, and be part of a team.

The best way Grahame-Smith opens up Batman is by including Robin. Robin is a character that many adaptations have been loathe to include, and when they do he’s often an equally serious adult man. Here Robin is a young and naive orphan who eagerly wants to get adopted. While Batman’s traits have all been exaggerated to make him look like a complete jerk, Robin is exaggerated to be literally the sweetest boy on the planet. He has no sarcastic or mean bone in his body, and he’s exactly what Bruce needs to finally come out of his shell. Some of LEGO Batman’s best moments come from Bruce learning to overcome his own ego and fear of connection to praise and comfort Robin. Bruce can actually be a decent dad, you guys, if only the movies would allow him to be.

The other way the film opens up Batman is through Joker. Yes, the Joker. Riffing off of years of back-and-forth and the Joker’s line of “you complete me,” here Joker and Batman essentially have a thing going on, which in and of itself is a repudiation of the toxic masculinity that Batman cloaks himself in. Batman and Joker get into arguments that parody the ones often found in romance drama films. Joker is desperate for Batman’s attention and the entire plot hinges on Joker needing to hear Batman say “I hate you” back to him. LEGO Batman doesn’t even remotely try to make this a subtext; instead it’s right there in your face. There’s even a point where the Joker plainly refers to “shipping,” a fandom term for a romantic relationship.

Now, it’s not totally clear whether the writers of the film meant to mock the idea of male-male codependent relationships or actually support them. I do know that the film itself is surprisingly earnest about this portrayal, and in the end Batman saves the day only after he opens up and acknowledges Joker as a major part of his life.

The movie makes it clear that Batman is stronger when he asks for help, humbles himself, and lets other people in. Batman is indeed happier when he drops the façade of being an alpha male: he actually likes watching romance dramas! And dressing himself up! And spending time with his family! None of these things make Bruce any less of a man, and acknowledging these parts of himself makes him more content. What we get is a more nuanced, three dimensional, self-aware Batman than we’ve seen in even some of the live-action films.  

If I had a complaint about the film, it’s the way women are treated. Following in The LEGO Movie‘s treatment of Wyldstyle, LEGO Batman introduces the genius Barbara Gordon and then doesn’t really know what to do with her. Just like Wyldstyle, she’s introduced in a slo-mo scene where Bruce is wowed by her beauty, and the film never recovers from that. Sure, Barbara fights alongside Batman, but having her be the source of Bruce’s crush felt like an unnecessary addition to her character as it literally goes nowhere.

In a film where Bruce rediscovers the importance of family—and he’s having some thing with Joker anyway—it’s a wonder why the creators just didn’t introduce Barbara as an older sibling figure to Robin, or more of an actual platonic friend to Bruce. It feels like a missed opportunity to explore the strengths of familial and platonic bonds, and makes me wonder why we still feel it’s necessary to include a romance in a dang kid’s film. Can we please get to the point where we don’t include a female character simply so she can be a love interest? Please?

Also, a small quibble: by aging up Barbara to have her be a potential love interest to Bruce, naming her Batgirl ends up coming off as insulting. The movie tries to make light of the name, but come on. Even the Supergirl TV show had a hard time explaining why a fully grown woman was a “girl,” and here Barbara appears to be older than even her!

All in all, LEGO Batman is a solid film. Sure, as a kid’s movie it can sometimes feel a bit too over-the-top (and I know for sure there was a point where I just felt tired of all the jokes) but nonetheless it’s a film that has a clear plot and believable character development, a thing I can’t even say for most of the DCEU films. LEGO Batman never takes itself too seriously, and if anything, that’s exactly what Batman needs.  

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Clara Mae lives and works in SF. If not at work, is probably off eating ramen, petting dogs, or attempting yoga. Tweets too much at @ubeempress.

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