In the opening sequence of The Lego Batman Movie, an uncannily adorable, snaggletoothed Joker takes Gotham hostage in a desperate bid to get Batman to notice him. “When I take over the city, Batman, will grovel at the feet of his greatest enemy: me!” the villain cries, only to be rebuffed by the Dark Knight and told that the hero doesn’t currently have a greatest enemy (“I like to fight around”) or need anyone to define him.
This sets the tone for the relationship between Batman and the Joker in the film, as well as clearly signposting the arc of the character dynamic for the rest of the movie. The conflict between Batman and Joker, coded as rivalry, is framed as an imbalanced romantic relationship: Joker wants Batman to admit that they are archenemies, and Batman’s journey is from a denial of his affective connection to the Clown Prince of Crime to an embrace of Joker as his one true nemesis. This is, in fact, Batman’s journey across the film writ large: from self-reliant loner to someone willing to admit that he needs other people. The climax of the film comes when Batman finally admits that he needs the Joker, and the two work together to save Gotham—so that they can continue their cat-and-mouse game forever. “I hate you,” they both say to each other longingly, set against a romantic sunset.
This is a somewhat radical reframing of one common conception of the relationship between the two, in which the Joker is obsessed with Batman and motivated to murder, torture, and terrorize, just to toy with the Dark Knight. This particular characterization has its origins further back than we might think, but some of the recent memorable renditions of it come from The Dark Knight (“You complete me”), the “Death of the Family” story arc, and the Rocksteady Batman: Arkham game series. The crucial difference here is that in The Lego Batman Movie, Batman is the one who must evolve to meet the Joker’s needs, validating the villain’s obsession; the end titles roll over Joker joining the heroes in a dance sequence to a song with the refrain “You’re my best friend/and friends are family.”
But this isn’t about the dark implications of recasting inter-character dynamics in a new, potentially problematic light. It’s about the ability of transmedia to “smooth down” intellectual properties and themes for a wide range of audiences. One of the Lego Group’s primary transmedia strategies of the past 15 years has been to reduce licensed source materials to a flattened cuteness, allowing the company to skin any franchise IP over its core minifigure design (Sinervo 2018). This is best evidenced in the line of Lego videogames, across which characters with a variety of personalities and attributes have been boiled down to a suite of game mechanics and character abilities, calling on us to shift back and forth between identification and spectatorship (Aldred 2014, 106). Jeffrey Brown (2017) observes that violent scenes in movies rendered into game form allows for harmless play, harnessed to a world where bodies, buildings, and vehicles are designed to break apart and be reassembled endlessly (9). The process of smoothing down the rough edges must be applied to the nomenclature as well as the aesthetics (in Lego Batman 3, the Suicide Squad is renamed simply “The Squad,” evoking fun, friendship, and #SquadGoals). But the further turn, that takes the “harmless” play and reasserts it to narrative and thematic dynamics, may give us a bit more pause—if only to gawp in awe at transmedia’s ability to subsume anything for one audience or medium and recode it for another.
Aldred, Jessica. (2014) “(Un)blocking the Transmedial Character: digital abstraction as franchise strategy in Traveller's Tales Lego Games.” LEGO Studies: examining the building blocks of a transmedial phenomenon, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf, New York: Routledge.
Brown, Jeffrey A. (2017) “‘I’m the Goshdarn Batman!’ Affect and the aesthetic of cute superheroes.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, DOI: 10.1080/21504857.2017.1299023.
Sinervo, Kalervo A. (2018) “Lego Batman and the Licensing Network.” TAG Blog, https://tag.hexagram.ca/lego-batman-and-the-licensing-network/