The LEGO Movies and Wreck-It Ralph Dismantle Toxic Masculinity Brick by Brick
When I was 13 I was invited to a slumber party where the main topic of conversation was which new movies were the most “awesome” and “epic.” The pimple-faced, putrid-smelling crew mostly gabbed about Iron Man and The Dark Knight, specifically their desires to be Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. Mistakenly, I mentioned that I loved WALL-E because it made me cry. They responded with laughs, eye rolls, and shoves. One kid in particular, Brandon, dropped some immortal words: “Those movies are for kids and faggots. Which one are you?”
Well, ten years later I still watch most DreamWorks and Disney films, simply because they are good movies, Brandon. I watch these films in part because I know that their messages would have resonated with the 13-year-old me–an emotional and sensitive boy who struggled through social situations and with societal pressures. During the Disney Renaissance Era, animated filmmakers did a great job deconstructing gender roles through characters like Belle, Mulan, and Ariel. That effort has been revived in a more recent movement in animation, wrestling specifically with the topic of toxic masculinity. The trend began two years ago with The LEGO Batman Movie (2017), continued with Disney’s recent Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), and best crystalized in this year’s The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019). None of these filmmakers stumbled into narratives about masculinity; these ideas were built from the core premise of each film in order to facilitate positive change.
Batman is so omnipresent in our culture because his essence is tied to the adolescent boys in all of us. Look no further than Film Crit Hulk’s outstanding essay, all about how Batman caters to the indulgent fantasy that having personal demons and shutting the world out is “badass.” So when LEGO Batman Movie director Chris McKay cited Jerry Maguire as his central inspiration, I was expecting the movie to examine Batman’s emotional distance at least a little bit. Yet the film’s most inspired and layered joke pulls commentary out of Jerry Maguire itself. After saving the day in a rousing, action-packed musical number, newscasters comment about how Batman now gets to go home and spend time with his family. Cut to him in an empty screening room, watching Maguire’s “you complete me” scene, and laughing maniacally at each line. His affection for Jerry Maguire, his complete misreading of it, and his despair watching it by himself, create the funniest and most striking example of Batman’s fractured psychology; exactly what makes the caped crusader we know sad, unsustainable, and entirely harmful to others.
To say LEGO Batman is the most honest depiction of the character is an understatement–it’s an acutely lonely film. Batman’s trauma over his parents’ death prevents him from trusting anyone but himself. When he feels a kinship with Barbara Gordon, Alfred and Robin, he traps them in a Batwing and sends them away, unable to see more people he loves get hurt. Will Arnett’s vocal performance oozes machismo—as in The LEGO Movie, his Batman is quite aware of his awesome-tacular legacy—but there’s a subtle tremor in his voice that always lets you know how much he’s repressing.
The most revealing relationship in the film is Batman and the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), which parodies a romance (“I like to fight around”) but reveals Batman’s inability to hate as much as his inability to love. Batman’s attachment to the worst of masculine tropes has made him dispassionate altogether. LEGO Batman is about a man who becomes happier after dropping the façade of being an alpha male and letting the people who surround him matter. He may still not understand Jerry Maguire, but by the end he’s sharing the laugh with his family.
On the other hand, Wreck-It Ralph swings the attachment pendulum far in the opposite direction by investing a destructive amount of self-worth in another person. Ralph Breaks the Internet co-director Rich Moore has said they wanted to continue Ralph’s story because he “leaves the first film with hope, but is still riddled with anxiety and self-doubt.” Ralph Breaks the Internet sends Ralph (John C. Reilly) and his best friend Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) into the internet to buy a steering wheel that would keep Vanellope’s Sugar Rush game operational. On the journey, Vanellope realizes the violent racing game Slaughter Race feels more like home to her than Sugar Rush ever did. Without telling Ralph, she makes a decision to stay. Ralph takes her newfound love as a personal attack on their friendship. He becomes the villain of his own film, unleashing a virus that threatens to destroy the internet altogether.
You can’t look at Ralph’s online journey without considering pervasive digital outrage from angry men who believe the world is moving on without them. I don’t expect a 10-year-old to pick up this cultural context—let alone the darkness behind the film’s “don’t read the comments” joke—but I do believe they will recognize Ralph’s insecurity as a toxic force. The film openly advocates for addressing fears in healthy, collaborative ways. Its most emotional beat comes from Ralph talking down a Godzilla-sized, Ralph-shaped monster, amalgamated from a bunch of manically insecure Ralph clones. After realizing how much havoc his sadness has caused, he calmly says to himself about Vanellope: “We’ve just got to trust her. Because that’s what best friends do.”
The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part is the apex of these ideas, a film that by its end feels less like a comedy sequel than a gender studies dissertation. Executive producer Chris McKay flat out said screenwriters Phil Lord and Chris Miller set out to examine “unconscious biases” of how boys and girls look at the world. It definitely feels like every character and narrative choice is informed by this idea. The film’s human-creator narrative follows Bianca (Brooklynn Prince) stealing her brother Finn’s (Jadon Sand) toys so that he will play with her. The film’s LEGO narrative follows Emmet (Chris Pratt) on a mission to destroy Queen Watevera Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) and rescue his friends from the Systar System. On his journey, Emmet unites with Rex Dangervest (also Chris Pratt, in a surprising send-up of his later-era action hero roles), who convinces the naïve Emmet that in order to succeed he needs to get with the times and tap into angry, grown-up emotions. For Rex, the only way to regain manhood is to be a “Master Breaker,” to pack a punch so hard it sends the LEGO universe back to the way it was (aka when a boy was in charge of it all).
Rex and the brother’s perspectives are wrong, obviously, but LEGO 2 feels so surprising because it convinces you they might be. When the brother’s toys arrive in the Systar System, the sister’s toys introduce themselves with an alarmingly positive energy in the witty musical number “Not Evil.” On a bigger level, Finn is panicking over how eager Bianca is to play together, thus to his toys the Queen Wa’Nabi appears insanely duplicitous (voiced perfectly by Haddish, who brings energy and malevolence all at once). From here, the film takes on a weirder and more playful tone, keeping the audience’s eye off the idea that destroying the sister’s LEGO world would portend disaster. We eventually learn that Queen Wa’Nabi was a gift that Finn gave to his sister, but now, in the midst of his adolescence, the brother is lashing out at himself. He’s wondering what being “manly” really means, with Emmet and Rex representing the two sides of this internal war. It takes Finn destroying Bianca’s LEGO sculpture for him to see his failings. Through Emmet, we hear the lesson he learned: “I will grow up, but I won’t stop caring.”
I wish these films were around when I was struggling though my own adolescence. I absolutely could have used their conviction, their wisdom, and their unrelenting depictions of the type of people I do not want to be. Not to mention I would have been so gaga over their visual audacity and joke-per-second pace, I would have barely noticed the morals I absorbed. There’s a depressing amount of toxic masculinity in our culture—look no further than YouTube videos from viewers who recognize the gender politics of LEGO 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet and are angry about them (or don’t, if you want to keep your jaw hinged to your mouth). Yet I’m thrilled that young boys today get to have these stories told on a mainstream scale. It’s refreshing to see that a movie can both demonstrate what causes a kind, imaginative boy to detach himself, as well as what steps they can take to heal themselves.