2017 Film Essays

Pop Culture as Emotional Self-Defense in ‘Baby Driver’ and ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’

“Got to hand it to you, totem pole, you’re either hard as nails or scared as shit. Which one is it?”

Though this ominous question is barked in the direction of the young getaway driver in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, he (Baby) remains characteristically unresponsive and inscrutable as he slips on yet another pair of sunglasses and reinserts his earphones — two accessories he habitually wears so often that he must feel naked without either. While the shades may always be the universal symbol of unemotional coolness, it is Baby’s love of music that supplies the lifeblood of the film, as the character’s own eclectic listening choices provide an invigorating soundtrack for the film’s action scenes — all of which are, incidentally, hard as nails.

At every moment of his waking life, Baby needs the accompanying pop song to match, so it only seems logical that the world around him operates on similarly music-centric terms. Lyrics are casually dropped in conversation, friends bond over their favourite tracks and a renowned musical talent in a supporting role is always just around the corner, be it singer Sky Ferreira, composer Paul Williams, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers or even a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos from rappers Big Boi and Killer Mike.

A different kind of cultural noise saturates the colourful, self-consciously synthetic reality of The LEGO Batman Movie, a film that not only draws liberally and exuberantly from the annals of DC history but even finds the time to throw in a few more classic villains of geek culture, from Voldemort to Sauron, displaying a franchise fluidity that likely comes naturally to Robot Chicken director Chris McKay. It’s a joyously silly cinematic universe that could have emerged directly from the imagination of a hyperactive 10-year-old, and at the centre of it all is that most beloved of comic book heroes, Batman.

Like Baby, Batman has a pop culture interest of his own to immerse himself in: himself. Giddily aware of his own iconic status, the Lego interpretation of Batman seems to idolise the Caped Crusader as much as real-life people do, singing his own braggadocious theme song in the opening set piece before pulling by the local orphanage to dress his young fans in sponsored hats and t-shirts emblazoned with the famous bat logo. And just as Baby feels uncomfortable without a carefully chosen song blasting in his ears, Bruce Wayne chooses to keep his mask on even when alone at home because, as the poster tagline reads: “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman.”

But as gleefully as Wright and McKay indulge in their characters’ respective fixations, Baby Driver and The Lego Batman Movie also have a shared concern for the line between a healthy hobby and a destructive form of denial. Observing the dangerous consequences of retreating too far into escapist entertainment, these two films suggest that beneath all this cultural noise is the unacknowledged truth that the most fervent of music nerds and fanboys may indeed be “scared as shit.”

The relation between the messy problems of reality and the relatively nuance-free drama of pop fiction have long been a concern in Wright’s work. It was a common trick of his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy to repeat the trials and idiosyncrasies of everyday life in more fantastical terms, translating once mundane lines and visuals to new, life-or-death contexts. Shaun of the Dead demonstrates its blending of day-to-day drudgery with vibrant entertainment via two contrasting walks to the local corner shop: one is your average dreary London morning, and the other is the same but with zombies. Baby Driver establishes this relation in just one walk to the café.

With “Harlem Shuffle” by Bob & Earl playing in his ears, Baby turns his coffee run into his own dance number as he slides and swaggers between passers-by. It’s clear, however, that the rest of the world isn’t truly on his wavelength, as his playful path disrupts the mornings of drivers, pedestrians and a slightly impatient barista.

In music’s function as a means of blocking out Baby’s anxiety and trauma, rhythm is key because rhythm means order. As a young man who’s been visiting the same local diner for years and keeps a different iPod for every mood, Baby is a creature of routine and habit who goes as far as insisting that his fellow bank robbers don’t step out of his car until the appropriate sound cue plays in “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned.

By synchronising the violence and chaos of his job to a catchy soundtrack, Baby is able to reduce his life-threatening situation to exciting action spectacle. Meanwhile, his fondness for remixing sound-bites from conversations into beat-driven musical pieces to be stored as cassette tapes shrewdly posits the hobby of collecting as an introvert’s tool for mentally structuring and compartmentalising the world.

A nerdy collector also plays a key part in 2014’s surprisingly subversive The Lego Movie. Within its knowingly cookie-cutter “chosen one” story, the film delivers some sly satire on conformity, consumerism and the top-down entertainment of Big Franchise. All of these themes are further explored to some extent or another in The LEGO Batman Movie, but perhaps The Lego Movie’s most accurate sign of things to come is in its third-act live-action segment. The Man Upstairs, played by Will Ferrell, is a god in his own little world — a fastidious man-child who won’t even let his own son play with his Lego collection. In Lego Batman, we get a more boisterous variant on this same exclusionary personality, as though an even more emotionally stunted and self-indulgent Lego fan found a way to literally inhabit his own collection in the role of his favourite character.

Though naïve youngster Dick Grayson, aka Robin, places unending trust in his charismatic hero-cum-surrogate-father, Batman is little more than a selfish, narcissistic manipulator who fights crime only for the glory and recognition. He seems incapable of connecting with another human being on a level any deeper than the impersonal, one-sided affection between fan and celebrity.

The Lego Batman’s defensive manner calls to mind a quote from Christian Bale’s rendition of the character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” The Lego Batman hides behind the symbol for fear of acknowledging his vulnerability as a man. Moreover, the fact that he spends more of his day talking to his computer than any other person — at least until Alfred the butler puts on the parental lock — is both an amusing symptom of the character’s sad, antisocial existence and a sharp reminder of the internet’s role in escalating the immersive nature of fandom to unprecedented levels.

Of course, tragedy and gloom hold their own romantic appeal, a truth which both Wright and McKay seem to recognise and eventually subvert. Baby Driver is often at its most poetic when it imbues its cultural references with an air of eerie fatalism. The repeated daydream, shown in vintage black-and-white, of Baby and love interest Debora hopping into a 50s convertible and driving off into the sunset, evokes our popular, American fantasies of highway escapism — cinematic fantasies that so often conclude with dramatic deaths that serve to finalise the “iconic” statuses of its central characters, from Bonnie and Clyde to Thelma and Louise.

Batman, meanwhile, has been glamorised on film as a brooding lone wolf and tortured soul ever since Tim Burton took the reins, and the recent Nolan and Zack Snyder films have only taken this interpretation of the character further. Though many of us were quick to praise Nolan’s films for offering a relatively “mature” take on the character, Alfred offers a droll summary of the adolescent nature of this angsty persona: “You can’t spend the rest of your life alone, dressed in black, listening to angry music and staying up all night.”

Wright and McKay counter this trendy bleakness with the same grown-up alternative: actually facing up to the issues that you’re running away from, even if it makes you vulnerable. The deafening of Baby in the film’s third act ironically forces him to “face the music” by denying him his mental escape. This revelation arrives in conjunction with Baby giving up on physical escape, surrendering himself to the law in a subversion of the cinematic outlaw’s typical “blaze of glory” finale. Batman similarly sheds his tough loner exterior when he finally admits to the underlying reason for his obnoxious behaviour — “I was afraid” — before his character arc concludes with an overdue hug with Robin, sans mask, that solidifies his transformation into a compassionate family man capable of looking beyond the bubble of his lone existence.

Speaking of family, it is a curiously specific commonality that both Baby Driver and The LEGO Batman Movie trace the emotional issues of their protagonists back to the death of their parents. In either case, there is arguably something a little too “neat” and obvious about attributing the psychological hang-ups of these characters to a single, traumatic childhood event, but the shared root cause also comes with the poignant suggestion that all this obsessive pop culture geekery just might be a regressive attempt to claim back something that was once lost.

Perhaps this immersion into escapist entertainment is a means of rediscovering some childhood innocence before the anxiety and messiness of adulthood set in. And perhaps we even experienced a collective loss of innocence in the moment a hobby becomes big enough to occupy a person’s whole life. It’s tempting to look back wistfully on a simpler time when listening to music was strictly a communal experience rather than a solitary venture, as a lifetime’s worth of audio and visual stimuli wasn’t available at our fingertips wherever we went and a superhero franchise was an amusing pastime rather than a multimedia behemoth capable of monopolising the imaginations of a generation of children, young and old. But if two fanatical pop culture nerds like Edgar Wright and Chris McKay can take a step back from this era’s ever-expanding revelry of endless entertainment for a moment of self-reflection, surely the rest of us aren’t too far gone yet.

David Pountain (@David_Pountain) is a London-based writer who has previously contributed to Little White Lies, Asia Times and Eastern Kicks. He is also the editor of the FilmDoo blog.