Returning home from a long day of fending off his enemies’ attacks, the gazillionaire slips into a bathrobe, microwaves his lobster thermidor, and eats it while sitting alone.
Still bathrobed, he wanders the halls of his gilded mansion late into the night, talking to himself. He stops before the family portrait and addresses the images of his departed parents, trying to make them proud of him.
He has a butler who cares for his needs. He has a tricked-out screening room where he sits alone at night, munching on popcorn, watching the figures onscreen, and laughing. He has a closet full of tuxes for public appearances. He has everything he wants. But he is utterly alone.
Also, he wears a bat mask.
The temptation to Trumpify all culture writing is strong in 2017
Yes, I am about to compare Donald Trump to Batman. I know, I know. Stick with me here.
The stickiest trap for cultural critics in this brave new world is seeing Donald Trump around every corner — every movie, every TV show, every song and sketch and meme. Politically tinged criticism isn’t new, of course; it’s always been with us, morphing to fit the times. But the Trump era is unique for critics.
In the past, even presidents who used media well were relatively separated from it, appearing on programs when it suited their policy agendas, with tightly controlled, on-brand messaging. But now the president has both actually had a career as a TV star and, as a political candidate, built a personal brand around being loose-lipped and sound bite ready, tailor-made for entertainment.
So the drive to Trumpify entertainment coverage and arts criticism is strong. (Not to mention that Trump-related writing — indeed, this very article — tends to appeal to readerships of all political stripes.)
Yet it seems wise to resist the urge whenever possible. Writing at the New Yorker this week, Alex Ross noted, “If artists everywhere were to give themselves over to agitprop, something essential would be lost. To create a space of refuge, to enjoy a period of respite, is not necessarily an act of acquiescence.” And I believe writing about art and entertainment needs to follow the same pattern: political when it needs to be, but also resolutely carving out space for everything else that makes us human and shores up our resolve.
Sometimes a movie comes along that’s so perfectly calibrated to tweak the powerful that it’s impossible to ignore — and The Lego Batman Movie, whatever its intentions, is one of them.
And yet the way it does this is instructive. As the Trump era wears on, we’ll see more and more on-the-nose skewerings of the president, to be sure. Some of them will be great. Others won’t be. That’s how satire works.
But The Lego Batman Movie is all the better for not being specifically Trump-focused satire, while still sustaining a few illustrative parallels, alongside a helpful life lesson.
The Lego Batman Movie’s Trump parallels are almost certainly coincidental. That doesn’t mean they’re not instructive.
Coming home from my screening of The Lego Batman Movie on February 6, I read a New York Times article about Trump’s new life in the White House, published a day earlier, which contained this remarkable paragraph:
Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.
The parallels between what I was reading and what I’d just seen in Lego Batman (as faithfully described at the beginning of this article) were certainly coincidental. The contours of Bruce Wayne’s lifestyle predate Trump by a long shot: Batman himself first appeared in a comic book in 1939, seven years before baby Donald arrived on the scene.
And of course, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer claimed the stories in the Times article were made up, and specifically stated that the president probably doesn’t even own a bathrobe.
But still: It was hard to ignore the echoes. They’re only good insofar as they go; I’m not suggesting our new POTUS actually dresses up in a cape and mask when we’re not looking and goes out to fight crime. (Though, who knows?)
However, as portrayed in The Lego Batman Movie, Batman/Bruce is not so much against the bad guys as he’s against everyone, from the Joker to his butler and de facto father, Alfred (whom we glimpse reading a book titled Setting Limits for Your Out of Control Child). It’s Batman against the world. He throws fits when he’s told to get some rest. He courts admiration, then pushes away his admirers. He keeps himself insulated from others, even while craving their praise.
And while President Trump has plenty of enemies, it’s no secret that his personal relationships are fraught, or predicated on tenuous business dealings. Last year, in the Washington Post, excerpts from Trump Revealed (a then-upcoming Trump biography by Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish) quoted him on this very point:
... When we asked Trump about his friendships, he took a considerable, unusual pause, and then said: “Well, it’s an interesting question. Most of my friendships are business-related because those are the only people I meet. The people I meet, really, I guess I could say socially, when you go out to a charity event or something. ... I have people that I haven’t spoken to in years, but I think they’re friends.” And he named — off the record — three men he had had business dealings with two or more decades before, men he had seen only rarely in recent years.
“I mean, I think I have a lot of friends,” Trump continued, “but they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time.” But was there anyone he would turn to if he had a personal problem, or some doubt about himself or something he’d done? “More of my family,” Trump said. “I have a lot of good relationships. I have good enemies, too, which is okay. But I think more of my family than others.”
Trump, whose close relationship to his children is well-documented, at least has his family connection to fall back on (even if his wife and youngest child are not living with him at the White House). Whereas in The Lego Batman Movie, Batman is spooked when Alfred, Barbara Gordon (soon to be Batgirl), and an adoring orphan named Dick (our future Robin) call themselves a “family.” He backs away fast. Batman, he reminds them, works alone.
But Batman’s business acquaintances don’t think of him as a friend, either. He turns up at Superman’s house for a favor, only to discover that the 51st Annual Justice League Party is happening — and he wasn’t invited.
Again: Not saying Trump is Batman. Not at all. But he seems to see himself as a sort of Batman-esque figure, fighting crime, going it alone against the forces of evil. And he seems to make choices about who will be around him based primarily on loyalty, which is different from relationships. Wealth, a lifetime spent thrusting himself into the public eye, a history of not prioritizing friendships beyond their utility to him — who knows all the reasons for this isolation? But such isolation can’t help but skew your worldview, as Batman has to learn.
It takes a village, not a Batman
Note: Spoilers for The Lego Batman Movie ahead
One plot point in The Lego Batman Movie has to be a conscious tweaking of Trump’s worldview — and if not, it’s a tremendous coincidence.
When Barbara Gordon takes over for her father, the retiring police commissioner Jim Gordon, she lays out a campaign for crime-fighting reformation before a huge crowd gathered to celebrate the transition. “We don’t need an unsupervised adult man karate-chopping poor people in a Halloween costume,” she says to the crowd. “We need actual laws! Proper ethics! Accountability!”
“No more crime! No more crime!” the crowd shouts.
The speech is a rousing success, especially Barbara’s pointed slogan about fighting crime and saving Gotham: “It takes a village, not a Batman!”
“It takes a village” is possibly an African proverb (though that’s hard to verify). But it’s also famously a Hillary Clinton slogan, used as the title of her 1996 book, which she published while first lady of the United States, as well as her 1996 speech at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton reiterated the claim in her acceptance speech at the 2016 DNC.
Barbara’s slogan is repeated again before the end of the movie, and ends up being the plot of the movie as well. By the end of the film, Batman has reluctantly come around to the idea that he might have to let his closest friends and family and neighbors into his heart in order to save Gotham — to join up with “the village” instead of working alone.
But the film isn’t content to leave it there. It’s not enough for Batman to just love his family.
When Gotham is literally splitting apart (it’s made of Legos, after all), Batman and the other good guys at first try to link up (they’re Legos, after all) and swing across the chasm, pulling the halves back together. But the gap is too wide, and they can’t reach the other side.
The solution? Holler at your enemy — who, it turns out, might be more of your frenemy, who lives in Gotham too and thus has a vested interest in keeping the city from splitting down the middle and hurling its residents into a bottomless vortex.
When Batman finally admits to the Joker that he hates him (which, in Joker’s terms, is something like an admission of love), Joker and his fellow rogues create their own chain and swing out to meet Batman and company. The two sides join forces and draw the splitting Gotham back together. Order is restored — and the real baddies, the ubervillains that Joker drew down to Gotham in a fit of pique with Batman, are banished back to the Phantom Zone, away from Gotham, where they can’t hurt anyone.
Is this a parable calling for bipartisan coalitions, for separating the reasonable opponents from the villains? I mean, maybe. Good governance can look a lot like just being a reasonable human being.
But while it’s not great criticism to read The Lego Batman Movie through only the political lens, it’s not great to ignore it either. The Lego Batman Movie may not be specifically leveling criticism at the Trump era, but it’s not like hyperpartisanship and a tendency to celebritize heroes were invented in 2016, either. Even if these trends have recently reached a nadir — a dangerous one, with the potential to crack open a chasm above a swirling abyss — the seeds were planted long ago.
And so, sometimes, a well-told story feels relevant just because a well-told story is always relevant. Spotting its relevance and advice to current events isn’t a political statement. It’s just wisdom.
(Final note that must be included, though it’s not making any particular point: One of The Lego Batman Movie’s executive producers, prominently noted in the credits, is Treasury secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin.)