Why the Lego Batman Movie might Save Civilization

The other day I saw The Lego Batman Movie, a great addition to both the Batman movie franchise, and the Lego movie franchise. It had action, adventure, drama, romance—and more cameos from familiar good guys, bad guys, and ambiguous guys than you can shake a stick at.

When the first Lego Movie came out, I wrote about its deep theology. Now, I want to tell you why the Lego Batman Movie may save civilization.

If you’ve paid attention to movies or TV shows in the last few decades, it’s hard to find one that has a positive view of technology. We all know the Terminator, where futuristic technology is out to kill us, and The Matrix, where technology has already made us its slaves. Then there’s more recent entries, like Ex Machina, where a crazed Facebook founder dreams up ways to make an AI hate us, or West World, where civilians torture robots for fun and pleasure, until the robots get other ideas. Even one of my favorite movies—Spike Jonze’s beautiful Her, is a bittersweet lamentation on the plight of machines passing us by.

In these movies and shows, technology functions as an opponent and a threat. It either threatens our physical existence and freedom, or threatens our sense of who we are.

This is of deep concern, because as far as I can tell, there are only two options: technology or tyranny.

That may sound surprising, but it emerges from the very nature of things themselves.

Tyranny is simply the triumph of zero-sum thinking, the idea that for one person to win, another has to lose. This is the premise of games like chess, checkers, Monopoly—and on a larger scale, is an outlook that leads naturally into wars, cutthroat competition, and battles to the death. Steven Levy calls it the win-lose scenario, James Carse calls it the finite game, and Peter Thiel invokes Girard, and calls it mimetic rivalry.

In this approach to the world, there can never be enough. There are always a limited number of jobs, a finite supply of resources, and a fixed amount of wealth. Thus, giving opportunities to others means we lose them ourselves. Helping someone means hurting someone else, making space means kicking someone out, feeding the hungry means someone else will starve, staying safe means making bigger threats.

In this view of the world, there are always winners and losers. And someone is always destined to be the biggest winner, to monopolize the greatest number of resources, to control the most power.

Thus, tyranny. 

What’s not always appreciated about tyranny is that a tyrant always presides over a shrinking pie. He may be temporarily increasing the wealth flowing to him and his cronies—and perhaps even his whole country—but ultimately, it comes at the expense of vast reduction in overall resources.

Power, after all, does not come for free. It imposes a steep cost in human resources, both inside and outside the domain of the tyrant.

The alternative is non-zero-sum thinking, the idea that multiple people can win together—and win bigger than they ever could have alone. This is the premise of games like dress-up and pretend, and pretty much everything children play when left to themselves. On a larger scale, it is an outlook that leads naturally into trust, cooperation, co-ops, trade, mutually-beneficial arrangements, research and development, science, the internet, families, diplomacy, peace-making, and charity.

Steven Levy calls it the win-win scenario, Carse calls it the infinite game, and Peter Thiel identifies this escape from Girard’s mimetic rivalry as the one and only source of zero-to-one innovation.

In this approach to the world, we’re only limited by our creativity. There is always enough, because our constraints are not defined by resources, but ingenuity. There are an infinite number of potential jobs, because we can always use another person contributing meaningfully to society. Wealth is not something fixed for all time, destined to be fought over by powerful people, but something that grows with the scale of society and the level of widespread cooperation.

This approach is defined by technology—the creation of genuinely new possibilities. Technology is the thing that unleashes others’ hidden potential, that manufactures new possibilities and new opportunities, that allows fewer and fewer resources to produce greater and greater output, that constantly expands the available “pie”, that allows new solutions to be discovered for ancient conflicts.

In this kind of world, we can give opportunities to others, knowing that this might end up creating new opportunities for ourselves. We can help someone out, knowing that doing so might make a more productive citizen, improve the local community, or unleash a chain of paying-it-forward. We can make space for someone new, knowing that this might create new space for someone old. We can feed the hungry, knowing that this might be the thing that saves our village. And we can offer a helping hand, knowing that staying safe might mean replacing threats with willingness to help.

In this view of the world, the biggest winners are those who create new things, and unleash the most potential in others. They are like Steve Jobs empowering a million burgeoning musicians, or Tim Berners-Lee, creating the world wide web, and bringing the world to our homes.

They are our winners, they are our heroes.

And they are idolized in almost no movies.

Except the Lego Movies. In the Lego Movies, the heroes are the master builders, the creative geniuses who can build anything—no instructions needed. When Emmet from the first Lego Movie reached enlightenment, everything around him became a potential tool, a potential resource, a canvas on which he could create. Road debris could become a vehicle, scrap material could become a super-suit. In a sense, his whole environment stopped being inert, and came alive with radical new potential.

The same is true for Lego Batman. It’s a subtle point, but his power does not come from being a billionaire, from having a big mansion, or from possessing a lot of cool toys. Instead, it comes from his ability to create new things as needed, and to respond to new threats with new kinds of equipment and vehicles.

And so his Bat-Cave is not primarily a repository of tools waiting to be used, but a trophy room commemorating past battles, and all the creative efforts needed to overcome them. Rather than one Bat-Mobile, he seems to have hundreds, rather than one Bat-Suit, he seems to have thousands.

He relishes all of his possessions, but when it comes down to it, he simply creates a new vehicle to address the new situation he finds himself in.

And this is why these movies are so significant.

They celebrate the world as place bursting with radical creative potential. They celebrate heroes as the ones who allow their imaginations to take them farther than anyone has ever gone before. 

It’s no accident that these movies are overflowing with friendship and humor and love. They occupy a world that is fundamentally non-zero-sum, where everyone is deeply aware that life is an open-ended game, defined by creative, generative acts of imagination.

Lego Batman is a deeply flawed character, reveling in his own darkness and isolation. But from beginning to end, we know where his power comes from—the raw, pulsing energy at the heart of all creation. He is a master builder. He is a creator of new technologies. He looks at a city, and sees a landscape of infinite possibility.

In a world of movies offering only a pessimistic future, with storylines full of cynicism about our creative ability, the Lego Movies are a light in the darkness, a shining beacon of hope in the night.

And that’s why Lego Batman is the hero we need.