“Batman doesn’t do ’ships… as in ‘relationships,’” Batman declares to the Joker in the beginning of The Lego Batman Movie. Batman (Will Arnett) and the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hold on to two ends of a taut zipline, unwilling to let each other go. The Joker wants Batman to declare him his greatest enemy, and for Batman to tell the Joker that he hates him; but hate, of course, is a feeling, and feelings equal vulnerability.
Batman holds tight to the loss of his parents, shutting out new experiences and relationships — as anyone dealing with trauma might do. In the book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Dr. Daniel G. Amen shows neural pathways that have been severed by emotional traumas, and then he shows brain pathways that actually reconnect and grow based on psychological growth. The Lego Batman Movie dramatizes that growth, from a loss of formative relationships to the ability to form new ones. Young viewers may or may not have lost a parent, but every child deals with some kind of loss, the loss of control, the desire for connection, and (often) that desire’s attendant fear of rejection.
The film may also hold special meaning for young adopted viewers. I saw 2007’s Meet the Robinsons, a movie that’s also about an orphan finding family, with a pair of adopted kids that I used to babysit. They watched in rapt attention, and their mother said how grateful she was to see a movie not based around a wicked stepmother antagonist.
At his core, Batman is a character based on the pain of the loss of control in one’s life. The message that the choices one makes can affect those around one may be very welcome to children, who are constantly seeking autonomy in their own lives. And Lego Batman is constantly making choices and messing up.
His childish unwillingness to be a father to the young Grayson is comical, but there’s a beating heart beneath the jokes. Grayson wants a family with a painfully earnest desire, and Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) pushes Bruce to be a dad to young Dick, who of course becomes Robin. “Your greatest fear,” Alfred says, “is being part of a family again” — divining that Bruce’s fears and desires are one and the same. Lego Batman, more than any other Batman story in cinema, makes Batman’s theme of found family explicit, with an ending song that says, “Friends are family.”
A Batman story doesn’t even have to be about Batman to smartly examine trauma and stuck behaviors — Batman’s supporting cast is full of characters with trauma. In the “Harley’s Holiday” episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Harleen Quinzel is released from Arkham, goes shopping and buys a dress but forgets to let the cashier take the security tag off. A single door alarm and an awkward confrontation with a security guard spirals out of control — Harleen believes she’s being set up, freaks out, and reverts to her Harley Quinn persona. Like in Lego Batman, the moment is played for comedy, but there’s a beating heart in Paul Dini’s script: fear has become Harley’s default state, and she’s stuck playing defensively in all situations. Like Batman, all she wants is a normal life, but the trauma of being in Arkham has caught up to her.
Back to Lego Batman, Jim Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) takes up the mantle of police commissioner, under the platform “It takes a village — not a Batman.” A version of the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” this provides a much healthier message for children than Batman as the go-it-alone hero he’s sometimes made out to be. The myth of the lone hero connects to a childish form of exceptionalism, which again connects to trauma and pain; if one is alone and without needs, they can’t get hurt. Barbara Gordon urges Batman to work with her rather than solo, and despite his obvious crush on her, he pushes her away, too. Eventually, Barbara (as Batgirl), Alfred, and Robin become the surrogate family for Bruce that we know and love, but old habits die very hard.
“You do the same thing over and over,” Barbara says, “What’s gonna change?” When his behavior is questioned by the guardian of the Phantom Zone, Bruce says, “I was trying to protect them.” “By pushing them away?” she replies. The movie empathizes with Batman, but holds him accountable for his actions and their consequences. Broken neural pathways keep trauma survivors stuck in repetitive, “safe” behaviors that protected them at one time, but soon become counterproductive.
For children looking for boundaries and a sense of autonomy, this sends a message: make your own decisions, and you will be loved even when you mess up — but you must be aware of your own behavior and how it affects others. The connection between Bruce’s trauma and his acting out forges an important link. Like any kid, Batman acts out when he’s lonely and scared. Metacognition — the process of becoming aware of one’s own thought processes — will save him.
The movie begins with a quote from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and ends with the song, a fittingly sweet theme for Bruce Wayne: “I’m looking at the man in the mirror / I’m hoping he can change his ways.” For myself and for all survivors of trauma stuck in repetitive behaviors, I hope so too. For the young people in the audience, I’m so glad they got to see a Batman that thinks, feels, and fosters relationships in the hopes of piecing together a new life for himself.
Annie Mok is an author-illustrator who lives in Philadelphia.