(Slight spoilers, but not really!)
The story of Batman is now as much an American fable as that of Paul Bunyan, John Henry or Tom Sawyer. His origin story—rich heir to murdered parents trains to fight crime, uses gadgets and wears a costume, etc.—is so ingrained in popular culture that the last few Batman movies have cut it down to a flashback scene.
After seeing gritty Batman, detective Batman, real-world Batman and dozens of other Batman variations, from comics to cartoons to films, where do you go? Lego Batman has the answer. The sequel to the 2014 surprise hit The Lego Movie gives us the greatest Batman love story ever told. It just so happens to be a gay love affair. And it just so happens to be with the Joker.
The Lego Batman Movie is fast-paced, easy to follow, full of Easter eggs and stuffed to capacity with Warner Bros. studio in-jokes. When (Disney’s) Avengers: Age of Ultron featured the titular villain muttering, “There are no strings on me,” a thematic nod to Pinocchio, yet another Disney property, the format was set for films like Lego Batman. Why battle over rights to various properties to make a movie like Wreck-It Ralph when you have access to every single Warner Bros. property and every single movie, cartoon and TV franchise that Lego has the rights to?
There are so many guest appearances, movie references, sight gags and homages in this film that it feels forced at times. It’s saved by the great interplay between Batman and Robin (Will Arnett and Michael Cera reigniting their Gob and Michael act from Arrested Development), the neediness of Zach Galifianakis’ Joker and the plot-stabilizing, straight-woman hilarity of Rosario Dawson as Gotham Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon.
What really makes The Lego Batman Movie special, however, isn’t the plot; it’s the motivation behind the plot: the intense and unrequited love between Batman and the Joker.
When Batman—who doesn’t care about anybody—refuses to acknowledge that the Joker is his archenemy, that their relationship is significant, the Crown Prince of Crime goes off the deep end. First he demands, then he pleads, then he out and out begs Batman to admit that deep, deep down, he hates the Joker as much as the Joker hates him.
It’s funny, at first, using the bromance subtext common in movies like Superbad, The Wedding Ringer, Get Hard and on TV shows like The League, or just about anything from Lonely Island. The “humor” is supposed to come from the gay double entendre and witty banter between two presumptively “straight” men arguing with each other in a way that sounds suspiciously like a man and woman the audience knows deep, deep down, really just want to screw each other.
Despite years of intense back-and-forth, Batman refused to acknowledge the Joker, which sent the villain off the deep end to destroy Gotham City, and thus launch the movie plot.
This is not a gay subtext mined for laughs; this is essentially Brokeback Batman. Amid the jokes, action, obsession with tight abs, rainbow color scheme and dance routines, this movie isn’t a nod to gay love between Batman and the Joker—this movie is head-banging to it.
Film critic Wesley Morris pondered in 2015, in a review of Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell’s Get Hard (which is more than on the nose), that eventually Hollywood would acknowledge these “bromance” types of movies had as much romantic potential as straight films. Why can’t two ostensibly straight men fall for each other like any other unlikely odd couple in a rom-com? Lego Batman seems like the unlikely, but incredibly successful, evolution he was predicting. Even if it comes in the form of talking plastic blocks.
It’s not as if Batman and the Joker’s sexual or homoerotic relations haven’t been mined in the past. Batman’s relationship with Dick Grayson (the original Robin and a gay icon in his own right) spawned the “Ambiguously Gay Duo” parody on Saturday Night Live. Wildstorm-DC Comic’s Midnighter character is a gay Batman allegory (with a gay Superman allegory boyfriend). The Joker’s sexual obsession with Batman and Batman’s complex reactions to it have been touched upon in comics, too.
The gayness of The Lego Batman Movie is made more apparent by the fact that Batman and Joker’s relationships with women seem perfunctory at best.
Harley Quinn is truly Joker’s “girlfriend” inasmuch as she spends most of the film consoling a heartbroken Joker who can’t understand why Batman won’t acknowledge their “adversarial” (wink-wink) relationship. Batman’s crush on Barbara Gordon is worth a few funny montages, but it goes nowhere for seemingly no reason.
At one point in the movie, Batman and the Joker are just staring at each other, painted-on Lego eyes intensely locked. A kid in the front of the theater screamed out, “Just tell him!!!” to the muffled laughter of the entire audience. This is a reaction usually reserved for a Bridget Jones movie, or whatever Seth Rogan-Jennifer Aniston rom-com got churned out in the last month. The fact that it was so obvious to a child what was going on in this film was revolutionary. By the time Batman finally, painfully, admits, “I hate you” to the Joker near the movie’s climax, there were audible “Awwwws” in the audience. Ace and Gary would be thrilled.
If you like Batman the comic, the cartoon or the movies, you’ll love The Lego Batman Movie. If you want to see a version of Batman you’ve never seen, you’ll love The Lego Batman Movie. The only way you won’t like The Lego Batman Movie is if you’re against action, laughs, costumes and love. Whether he intended to or not, even the Dark Knight learns to embrace all of those by the end of this movie.