The surprising lessons to be learned from ‘The Lego Movie’

(CBR) If you haven’t seen “The Lego Movie,” then you should probably steer clear of this article. More importantly, you should steer yourself toward a movie theater, because “The Lego Movie” is maybe the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in a very long time. It skillfully adds layers of metaphorical meaning on top of a base storyline that’s packed with rip-roaring adventure and tons of jokes. It’s been a while since I’ve left a movie theater not only pumped up to create my own stories, but also questioning the rigid social structures we’ve created as a society. The fact that a 90-minute toy commercial had me question anything at all still blows my mind.
So seriously, go see the movie.
Now that the spoiler warnings are out of the way, I’ll start building up the primary comic book focused lesson I learned while watching “The Lego Movie,” one brick at a time. One of the film’s many themes — and there are surprisingly a ton of them — is the idea that living strictly by the rules and adhering to order can lead to a sacrifice of creativity. The main conflict presented in the film happens between the evil Lord Business, a world conquering maniac obsessed with order, and Emmett and his band of Master Builders — a team of Lego Minifigures that let their imaginations take control, thus allowing them to build whatever they need whenever they need it. There are even more nuance bricks on top of that foundation, so again, go see the movie if you haven’t yet. Also, I told you there might be spoilers in this article!

It hit me while watching this central theme that this could apply to comic books. I mean, really I think it’s a metaphor for the current political climate, but that’s not what this column is about. Trust me, once I’ve found a home for my “Kid Movies With Subliminal Political Messages In Your Face” column, I’ll let you all know. But yeah, the battle between the instruction booklet and free play shown in “The Lego Movie” definitely relates to how readers should read comics.

In this metaphor, the instruction booklet, the one that Emmett clings so dearly to, is continuity and the expectation to adhere to what’s been established before. On the other end are the metaphorical Master Builders, who write the stories they want to tell, with nary a concern that Tony Stark stating he hates broccoli contradicts with a meal he ate in a comic from 1978. In my life as a comic book fan, I’ve gone from a Lord Business to a Master Builder.

At some point I’m going to dive in and dissect my kneejerk hatred for Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men” run for the world to see/get mad at, but until then, here’s a teaser. I hated “New X-Men.” Times a million. However much you Star Trek fans hated “Star Trek Into Darkness?” Mulitply that times a million. I hated it that much. I hated it because it took a Master Builder wrecking ball to the pristine, architecturally sound continuity that I had been building up in me ever since I picked up my first X-Men comic. Suddenly Emma Frost was faux British, Beast was a cat person, the Imperial Guard were called “Super Guardians,” and every single one of my favorite characters (Cannonball, Siryn, Multiple Man) were treated as cannon fodder. We had very different ideas of what the X-Men should be, and their new leather-bound personas were a far cry from the ’90s animated iteration I fell in love with.

At the time, Morrison’s drastic change drove me away from the characters. Yes, I still bought “New X-Men” every month — why wouldn’t I buy and half-read a comic that made me mad? I’m a comic book fan! I just didn’t connect to the stories or characters the way I had in the past. Things changed, and they didn’t change back into a recognizable shape until Joss Whedon started his run on “Astonishing X-Men.” He followed the instruction booklet a little more closely; the characters looked like super heroes again and they had interactions that felt naturally formed from the preceding decades. Whedon and artist John Cassaday’s first issue even straight up samples images from classic Kitty Pryde stories that would form the basis of their interpretation of the character. That choice makes “Astonishing X-Men” #1 even read a bit like an actual instruction booklet. But during the course of their run, the duo made choices that messed around with the order — specifically the Master Builder move of making the Danger Room a sentient being. Whedon’s run wasn’t all (Lord) Business, after all.

I like to think I’ve grown a bit since my continuity obsessed “New X-Men” days. I eventually realized that I had no control over what comic book creators did, and that no amount of screaming or citing could dissuade a writer from telling the story they want to tell with the characters they were hired to write. Being a comic book fan becomes a lot easier when you realize you can leave the instruction booklet in the box sometimes.

A recent example of this has to be Boomerang’s transformation from a bumbling comic relief baddie in “Thunderbolts” to a wisecracking, wannabe mastermind in “Superior Foes of Spider-Man.” Nick Spencer acknowledges the character’s past under writer Jeff Parker, but the character’s personality has definitely shifted as he’s moved from a bit player in an ensemble to a leading man. As someone who deeply loved “Thunderbolts,” and specifically Boomerang’s lovable idiocy, I could feel let down that that version of the character isn’t in “Superior Foes.” After all, I want more of that thing I loved! But instead I read “Superior Foes of Spider-Man” a bit divorced from what’s come before, and instead of getting hung up on my continuity quibbles, I’m constantly rewarded with the funniest book Marvel Comics is putting out right now. Sure, Boomerang’s a different type of funny now, but he’s still funny. And so what if Spencer and artist Steve Lieber have added a few wrinkles to Tombstone and Shocker’s backstories and/or personalities? Those wrinkles are devilishly clever and have resulted in me actually caring about Shocker and — to a lesser extent — Tombstone.

During “The Lego Movie’s” big climax, Emmett pleads with Lord Business to take a look around and really see the wondrous creations that the civilians of Bricksburg have built from his city. It really hits home one of the film’s many messages, which is that life works better when we’re a team that celebrates and adds to each other’s unique ideas. For comic book readers, maybe we can view every character, creator, location, group affiliation, etc., as a Lego brick. All those bricks together form a construct — or a comic book. That construct/comic book will eventually get dismantled and mixed in with other parts to form a new comic book, but that pure character brick is still there. It might be on top of a Grant Morrison brick, and together they might be forming a sun-smasher super-collider that’s really a metaphor for, like, life man, but when you remove the Grant Morrison brick, those character bricks go back to their starting point again, unchanged.
The reason that Grant Morrison’s “New X-Men” run startled me so was because it was the first time my X-Men bricks had been used to construct something unrecognizable to me, something outside of the rule book I knew by heart. I realize now that nostalgia places an unequal importance on the constructs the X-Men were in when I first met them. In my head, the Havok and Quicksilver bricks will always be in an “X-Factor” set, and an “X-Force” construct without a Shatterstar or Domino brick will never feel complete to me — but that does not automatically mean that the new constructs are bad.
As time has gone on and every member of every X-Team has now done time with every other X-Team, I have to accept the fact that all these bricks are interchangeable — but that those changes don’t inherently alter the bricks themselves. For example, the Cyclops brick is snapped in-between the Massive Guilt brick and the Pretty Much A Jerk brick right now in “Uncanny X-Men,” but at some point in the future those pieces will be broken apart and used in another way. Maybe the Pretty Much A Jerk brick will latch onto the Beast one, resulting in some truly literary put-downs.
The thing is, story comes first. If a story benefits from using the instruction booklet, then it just does. If a story calls for random bricks to be assembled into something we haven’t seen before, that’s great too. That’s what we all have to realize about these shared universes — they’re just giant bins filled with Lego bricks waiting to be assembled and disassembled in whatever forms best pass the time. I did not go into “The Lego Movie” expecting to have that lesson reaffirmed in my brain, but that happened. Now, if only I could find a home for my dissection of the film’s religious and political themes…
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).