The last thing I was expecting The Lego Batman Movie to do was to show my daughter how even the Caped Crusader needs people to care about and what it means to have the people you care for torn away from you.
Over the weekend, another parent invited my daughter and me to join him and his kids at an afternoon showing of The Lego Batman Movie. When I sidled up to my kid on the couch in the morning, she was mainlining cartoons. Her response to me when I asked her about seeing The Lego Batman Movie was an immediate “no.” No thinking it over, just “no,” which is atypical for her. A little prodding had her spilling her guts: “I don’t like bad guys.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot from her, one where she goes on to say that she doesn’t like the way that they “don’t follow the good laws, hurt people, and take things that don’t belong to them.”
To her, “bad guys” are an indistinct, fungible resource for superheroes to beat up on. Whenever we talk about superheroes, she never wants to know the specifics of the villains. (The only mainstay exceptions are Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, who she understands swing back and forth between being good guys and bad guys depending on the story.) My kid doesn’t like unpleasantness. It’s not a huge surprise for a six-year-old to feel that way, but I have anecdotally noted that she’s a touch more sensitive than most of her peers and it’s become one of my parenting challenges is to gently remind her that various kinds of unpleasantness exist and helping her develop some coping strategies. One of the things we do a lot is to talk things through to get a sense of proportion.
Proportion can be hard when concepts are really big, though. A few weeks ago, she piped up with no preamble to ask, “Is it true that Donald Trump is a bad guy?” I haven’t talked much with her about my feelings on the new president but she knows I didn’t vote for him. I answered her by saying that he’s said not nice things about people who are different from him, like women and people from Mexico. Last week, she heard Trump’s name in radio reports about U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement removing people from their homes and I explained to her he’s trying to send people out of the United States because they’re not from here, even if they have kids who were born here.
“Your mommy and daddy came to the United States from somewhere else, right? And so did halmeoni and harabeoji. Then they had you and Mommy. And you guys had me. Does he not want that to happen anymore?” I followed up by saying that some lawyers were fighting Trump in the courts (after a long-ish explanation of what lawyers and courts were) to try and stop him from doing that.
Hours after our initial talk about going to see The Lego Batman Movie, I showed her some trailers for it and she became convinced the film wouldn’t be too scary for her. In fact, she was bouncing with excitement. Like my colleague Germain says in his review, The Lego Batman Movie is frenetic when it comes to throwing jokes at the audience. But there’s a deft, meta-aware handling of the multivalent Batman mythos that warmed this ol’ nerd-dad’s heart. Oblique references to the various tonal shifts of Batman’s publishing history, TV shows, and Christopher Nolan Bat-movies made me cackle out loud.
But The Lego Batman Movie’s biggest triumph is how it gestures at the emotional dysfunction that’s long been a hallmark of Batman’s character, but does so without explicitly referencing the trauma that birthed that dysfunction. When we talked about the movie later, my daughter asked me, “Where are his parents?” I reminded her that I’d told her about the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne—”No, you didn’t!”, “Yes, I did…”—which jogged her memory about Robin’s origin story as well. I thought that she’d be talking about the jokes more than anything, so I was surprised how the emotional themes of the movie stayed with her. “Batman was sad about losing his family and afraid to have another one, but then he changed his mind,” she offered.
After breakfast, she continued by saying, “Because everyone should have a family if they want one. So why does President Trump want some people to not be with their families?”
“Well, some of them didn’t follow the rules when they came to the United States and he thinks that sending them away will help keep the country safe.”
“Are they doing bad things or hurting other people?”
I said that, as far as I know, some of these people haven’t done either. That was met with one round of “but why” questions before she went back to talking about The Lego Batman Movie. She’s made the film part of her canon already, claiming it’s the story of how Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy became good guys. I can tell the simple act of watching the movie has complicated the way she thinks about “good guys” and “bad guys.” She’s probably not going to ask for supervillain origins stories anytime soon but she’s beginning to understand that human beings don’t necessarily stay “good” or “bad” and that putatively well-intended actions can wind up hurting people and their families. Or as she said, “Sometimes, people can say that you’re bad when you’re really not. And that can really hurt you and your family.”