Friday, September 22, 2017

IN-FLIGHT MOVIES: "LEGO Batman" Is the Key to Fixing Film Adapations

Adaptations of beloved franchises are tough. Someone's always going to be unhappy -- whether it's the hardcore fan with specific expectations, the potential newcomer alienated by too much hard canon, or the childhood fan who can't handle their memories being sullied. Even casual viewers can be affected by uneven tone when a creator tries too hard to please everyone and doesn't quite nail it.

In modern fan culture, when "a bit all right but not a classic" isn't acceptable in many circles anymore, it's even more difficult. Anything below a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes becomes a disappointment (I am exaggerating but probably not by much), and it's a rare piece of cinema that really does manage to engross and win over all but the people who were going to pan it anyway because they enjoy coming up with clever insults.

Case in point is superhero movies -- many of which have pedigrees longer than the studios making them -- and case in that point is the Batman franchise. There's a finite number of Batmen, but it's more than I can calculate flawlessly in the time it takes for a thought to go from my brain to my fingers. His origin story is the most respected out of almost any superhero's, and yet its effect on him varies as often as his writers change. In recent years, the argument (and not a bad one) has been that modern films and comics take the "dark" part of the "Dark Knight" too literally, forgetting that he has been a father figure to many and that much of his work involves dealing with antagonists who aren't evil so much as mentally ill.

Of all the versions out there, only Adam West's and Kevin Conroy's seem to get 100% fan passes: the former because it's Adam West (which is reason enough for anything, frankly), and the latter because the 90s Kids' WB series really did manage to nail it. It also introduced Harley Quinn, a fantastic character who sadly opened up a whole other fandom jar of bees.

All that laid out, the canonicity and accuracy of Batman films is often hotly contested. Is Nolan's trilogy "acceptable" provided you view it as a deconstruction, or is he partially responsible for the grim and gritty 21st century turn? Would Batman vs. Superman have been all right if it had been shot as intended, or would it just be twice as long and equally disliked?

Somehow, in the midst of all this, LEGO doesn't care, and Will Arnett is here to play.


In all fairness, Arnett's Batman doesn't just blast onto the scene. We met him first in The LEGO Movie and spot him again briefly in LEGO Dimensions (with which the movie seems to share a universe, though the playable Batman of Dimensions is voiced by Troy Baker and not quite the same persona as in the films). So we know him a bit. And we get to know him a bit more.

The Batman of this film is, somehow, every Batman. And it really doesn't matter how. All his previous depictions are shown as "phases," like flipping through an awkwardly comprehensive family album. It wouldn't be right to say that he's an amalgam of all of them so much as that we're watching the character of Batman as he appears in the fandom zeitgeist. (Am I using the word "zeitgeist" in a discussion of a LEGO movie? I am, by God.)

Of course, LEGO did a good job setting this up to be easy to accept via The LEGO Movie. We accept now -- though we may have also done so before, to some degree -- that the characters as we see them in theses movies and games are how they exist in our imaginations. Continuity isn't a big issue, dropping a canon fact isn't damning, and any canon that's acknowledged is more an Easter egg than a box ticked.

At the same time, this means we can make every joke we've ever wanted to make about Bruce Wayne and co. and not feel like we're mocking the franchise out of cruelty.

The Bruce Wayne character in the film series wears his angst on his sleeve and is a great big arrogant baby. And this film is his learning process -- by the end of it, he's still a great big arrogant baby, but not to the point of it actually negatively affecting his life or anyone else's.

The other characters are much the same, to varying degrees. And again, it's safe jabbing. Because we're in LEGO Land. That's where we all play. That's where we can make the jokes because, well, we're all friends here. And it's not real. Not really. Not unless you particularly like something.

The Curse of Canon

My friend Keith DeCandido -- writer, black belt, and all-around dude I can jam with -- makes his living writing tie-in books. Recently he penned Children of the Revolution, a Sleepy Hollow tie-in, which is freaking awesome. One of the first responses he got when announcing it was up for preorder was someone asking if it was "canon." Why? Because if it wasn't, they didn't want to read it.

I may (and probably should) at some point do an exploration of why fans cling to the Holy Cult of Canon, even in such far-flung franchises as Doctor Who or the world of superheroes in general. There are reasons, and there are reasons why very specific personality types cling to them over others. But that's for another time.

The short version is, fans who cling to canon see the world of the fiction as a constant. Unlike the real world, they can know every corner of this world. They can understand how things work, bring them to mind in a split-second, and if anyone ever disagrees or misquotes? By God, they can set it right. It's a psychological security blanket for people who feel powerless in the real world.

Challenges to canon can be an issue for closed-ended stories where certain things need to happen, of course. Too, complete character and motivation subversions can be an issue unless the piece is deliberately presented as a subversion rather than a "standard" entry. (Note that societal progress isn't subversion, and gender/race/etc. aren't elements of canon unless the character's story is built primarily the experience of being that thing, so don't @ me on Ghostbusters or Dark Tower or whatev.) Discomfort with and confusion by change is one thing; active protest against it is another, unless you are the creator of the work.

Fortunately, LEGO doesn't have to toy with that at all in its films. Because by creating a between-world where we're sharing a collective imagination, canon becomes irrelevant. It can exist. But it doesn't have to. It's a treat, not an expectation.

One and the Same

Most importantly in all this, LEGO Batman does what no other version has yet managed (or, frankly, needed) to do: it helps us to remember that all versions of the character are still the character.

That can be difficult to come to terms with, especially for those who cling to canon. How often do we hear (or say) angry comments about new interpretations of characters, saying it's "not the real so-and-so"? In some cases, this can feel quite true -- I'm still not entirely over the Lupin III movie where Lupin shot a woman point-blank through the forehead. But at the end of the day, they're fictions... and even the worst interpretation of them is still them.

Remember the montage I mentioned earlier? It flips back from the recent Zack Snyder iteration all the way back to dear departed Adam West. Every version, regardless of conceived merit, is counted as Batman. Not a version of him -- him. And the mentality with which it's approached is probably the most healthy I've seen for an oft-changed character.

Rather than being different interpretations, they're -- as I mentioned -- phases. And Affleck's portrayal is no less real or valid than Keaton's, Conroy's, or West's. They're phases our friend went through. Some phases weren't great. Some were just embarrassing. But it's still our friend. Ire, betrayal, and desperation are better saved for when a character really does go horrendously rogue. Like, I don't know, a literal American hero becoming a Nazi analogue. But I digress.

The point of this horrendously overwrought post is actually a lot simpler than I've made it look. Simply put, LEGO has managed to do what many never could and never will: create an adaptation that can be irreverent, dubiously canonical, heartfelt, and fannish without actually "breaking" anything. And, at the same time, perhaps planting a tiny seed of logic in us with regards to how we digest franchises.

More importantly, the BBC needs to let LEGO do a Doctor Who movie.
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