The Batman (2021), starring Robert Pattinson, is supposed to show us a version of Bruce Wayne onscreen that we haven’t seen in a long time. Set in his second year of crime fighting, between his dramatic origin story and being a fully-established vigilante, the film is set to be more of a detective story than the straight-up superhero action flicks we’ve grown used to. Filming stopped temporarily due to Covid-19, but with Pattinson’s newest brooding, bat-themed movie back in production, I think it’s a good time to take a look back at the Batman movies of the last two decades and how they portray Bruce Wayne as a character in comparison to the comic book source material. Namely, the film that does that the best: The Lego Batman Movie.
There have been two major motion picture Batman series released since the 2000. The Dark Knight trilogy, which is universally acclaimed, and the DC Extended Universe movies that feature Batman, which are universally hated. All of these movies follow the same gritty, hyper-realistic superhero movie model set by M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in 2000. Instead of fighting a wacky, costumed rogue gallery trying to blow up the city (or freeze over the city, or overtake the city with plants), these versions of Batman beat up drug dealers and serial killers in parking garages at night. Notably, none of these films feature a Robin. In fact, DCEU seems so determined to ignore the existence of Bruce Wayne’s many surrogate/adoptive progeny that Barbara Gordon, the most well-known iteration of Batgirl, was cut from Birds of Prey (2020) altogether, although in the comic books she literally founds and leads the Birds of Prey. The only blockbuster Batman movie in the last 20 years to feature a sidekick has been The Lego Batman Movie, which is, of course, the greatest Batman movie of our time.
Sidekicks have been around in Batman comics for a long time. Depending on which comic book timeline we follow, Bruce Wayne has had between six and nine proteges, almost all of which go by Robin or Batgirl at some point. The first incarnation of Robin, Dick Grayson, first appeared in 1940, only a year after Batman’s original comic book debut, and since then there have been numerous comic storylines emphasizing the importance of Batman having a sidekick to keep him grounded. A Lonely Place of Dying, for example, follows Batman after the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, at the hands of the Joker. Batman becomes increasingly reckless and borderline suicidal until Grayson, under the name Nightwing, and a new Robin, Tim Drake, are forced to rescue him and remind him that he has other people to live for.
Outside of the cape and cowl, a large component of Bruce Wayne’s character for the last 80 years has been being a parent. Constantly adopting traumatized orphans with impressive gymnastic ability allows us to see a gentler, kinder side of Batman, while also acknowledging his own identity as a traumatized orphan with impressive gymnastic ability. It’s easy to claim that his light-hearted billionaire playboy persona is entirely made-up and at heart Batman is nothing but angry and brooding, but the fact is that if we never see Batman show kindness, he’s nothing but “an unsupervised adult man karate-chopping poor people in a Halloween costume,” to quote the best Batman movie of our time, the Lego Batman Movie. From both a character and narrative standpoint, Batman needs a Robin.
However, one of the problems with trying to make a “realistic” superhero movie is that it’s difficult to introduce sidekicks or young heroes without making them seem like child soldiers (not that Marvel cared when they introduced Peter Parker into the MCU). Having a kid dressed in a bright green and red thong doing cartwheels also makes it harder to cultivate the dark, edgy vibe Christopher Nolan is obsessed with. So despite Robin having been a key part of the Batman narrative for almost the entirety of its publication history, the character has been absent from live-action films since 1997. The last movie Robin was in was Batman & Robin, an objectively terrible, extremely campy movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney, and Uma Thurman. I doubt this movie— being widely considered one of the worst movies ever made— is the reason we haven’t seen Robin on screen in two decades, but I like to think that it contributed.
Following Batman & Robin was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005, where Bruce Wayne’s character arc consists of deciding that killing people is bad and being Batman means being completely alone. Sidekicks aside, this is a strange character choice, since in the comics Batman is a founding member of the Justice League and frequently teams up with other superheroes. Even if he is antisocial and a loner by nature, Batman still has to work with people, and saying that being alone is a core component of being Batman feels unnecessarily edgy. The next installment in the trilogy, The Dark Knight only doubles down on this theme by killing off Batman’s love interest and making the entire city hate him. After that, The Dark Knight Rises ends with Wayne faking his death and running off with Catwoman, and giving some random police officer named Blake directions to the Batcave.
Regardless of whether or not these are good movies, they are not good Batman movies. By rewriting Bruce Wayne’s life story to be about sacrificing yourself for the greater good, they lose vital themes of found family, trauma recovery, and morality. The trilogy also falls into a lot of “copaganda,” pro-police propaganda, tropes, which is strange since the whole point of Batman is that he has to investigate crimes because the police won’t. The Dark Knight Rises in particular is guilty of this, outright claiming that police corruption and crime go away if you simply give the police more money and power. They also write Batman as much less sympathetic and kind to his (often mentally ill) villains. For example, the Joker in The Dark Knight is largely based off of a darker version of the Joker’s character in the graphic novel, The Killing Joke. Batman spends almost the entirety of this novel trying to reach out to the Joker and help him recover, but in the film, he makes no such attempts.
After the Dark Knight Trilogy comes the DC Extended Universe. The DCEU movies that feature Bruce Wayne, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017), are both bad movies, and bad Batman movies. Justice League does manage to get Batman to work with other people for a bit because, well, it’s the Justice League, but it still manages to be the most boring iteration of Batman (and Superman) to date. Houseflies have had more compelling character arcs than those two characters.
Finally, this brings us to The Lego Batman Movie. Released in 2017, several months before Justice League, The Lego Batman Movie has something that no other Batman movie produced in this century has: genuine love for the source material. Instead of disregarding decades of comic book plots and minor characters, the film satirizes and references many pieces of iconic Batman media, including all the films listed above. Every minor character and background prop has roots in some Batman comic or movie or cartoon, from the villains Condiment King and Kite Man, to a random bottle of “Bat Shark Repellant” from a 1966 episode of a Batman TV show. It’s clear that all of this comes from a place of appreciation, not malice. The movie also gives Batman a character arc far more consistent with his comic book equivalent, rather than just leaving him sad and alone.
The Lego Batman Movie follows an emotionally isolated Bruce Wayne, so afraid of developing genuine human connection that he refuses even to acknowledge the Joker as his worst enemy, or his butler Alfred as his surrogate father. The Joker takes this very personally, and develops a scheme to break into the Phantom Zone and release all of pop culture’s greatest villains (or at least, the ones with Lego figurines). In order to stop them, Batman has to team up with Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner, Dick Grayson, a gymnastically talented orphan Wayne accidentally adopted, and Alfred Pennyworth, butler/dad extraordinaire. He has to relearn both how to put his trust in others and how to be emotionally vulnerable, neither of which he’s done since his parents died.
The movie depicts Grayson, specifically based on Burt Ward’s portrayal of the character in the 60s and 70s, as a peppy and overeager kid, in contrast to Batman’s broody, snappy demeanor. The scenes with Grayson as Robin are the first times we see Batman show genuine happiness about anything other than his own crime-fighting accomplishments, as well as the first time he seems to genuinely care about anyone in the movie. Robin helps to showcase Batman’s humanity, fulfilling the same narrative purpose the character has had since 1940.
Past Batman movies, like the ones mentioned above, are referenced throughout the film as times Batman either saved the city or was going through a dark emotional phase. The implication is that even after all of the events of all of these movies, Bruce Wayne’s character has never matured past what he is now; sad, alone, and using heroism as a coping mechanism and justification for not having any real relationships in his life. At one point, when Batman claims he is protecting people by pushing them away, a magic floating Lego brick confronts him directly, asking, “Are they really the ones you’re protecting?” and “You do the same thing over and over. What’s gonna change?”
Ultimately, the reason Batman is able to save everyone in the end is because he was able to overcome his traumatic experiences and trust other people to help him. He does attempt to sacrifice himself for the greater good at one point, but the magic Lego brick ends up preventing him from doing so. However, the end theme is not that heroes are made by sacrificing yourself and pushing people away, but instead that being afraid of losing people shouldn’t stop you from letting them in, a theme central to numerous Batman comics. If the 2021 Batman movie wants to succeed, it should take a page out of The Lego Batman Movie’s book by incorporating some of the source material and not taking itself too seriously.