Great Moments in Licensed Superhero Toy History: The Lego Batman Movie

This weekend marks the debut of The Lego Batman Movie. Even though it is a semi-sequel to The Lego Movie from 2014, it's also a spin-off from and satire of the live-action Batman movies (and all things Batman in general).

I probably won't see this film at the box office and will wait for home video. Then again, it's not like I owe anything to this particular version of the Batman brand--I already own copies of the three Lego Batman video games and reviewed two of them on this blog. Regardless, the release of The Lego Batman Movie marks a new milestone for licensed superhero merchandise. Before, the superhero movie drove the licensed superhero toy sales; now, the licensed superhero toys ARE the superhero movie. Holy meta-movie licensing, Batman!

Read on for my thoughts about the licensing accomplishments for Lego, something that hasn't been seen since Mego applied its 8-inch action figure design to just about every kid-friendly franchise in the '70s.

Looking back, Lego has been working up to something like The Lego Batman Movie for quite some time. First, Lego would secure the licenses to release kits that are based on popular franchises. Then, video games were released that were based both on stories from the franchises and the Lego-ized versions of the franchises' characters, vehicles and locations. This was followed by TV specials and home video releases of feature-length Lego movies that were based on the Lego-ized franchises. (Remember, before The Lego Batman Movie, there were the home video releases of Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite, Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League – Gotham City Breakout, and a few others.) As of now, licensed Lego media properties now include TV series such as Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures.

Even more dizzying to ponder is that in spite of all of the merchandising licenses that Lego holds, it also produces lines of merchandise that are exclusive to Lego and those lines have media titles as well. For example, Lego's Ninjago line includes toys, video games and a TV series, and a movie version of Ninjago will be arriving at the box office in November of this year.

If you want to take stock of how much licensing power Lego has right now, just look at its modular toys-to-life Lego Dimensions video game line. Dimensions is a playable version of Lego's merchandise license portfolio, and an even larger version of Dimensions called Lego Worlds is on its way. I realize that The Lego Batman Movie has mostly been getting good reviews and I've been reading many of them. Nevertheless, I'm amazed at how none of the reviewers have stopped to ponder how much money Lego has made just from Batman by now and how much more it will make in the years (decades?) to come.

Part of my amazement over Lego's growth into mass media stems from my own background. When I was growing up in the '80s, late afternoon TV consisted of cartoons that were deliberately made to sell toys. If the toy line hadn't already hit the toy store shelves by the time the cartoon arrived on syndicated TV, it would shortly soon afterwards. There were many cartoons from that era that were nothing more than 30-minute toy commercials: G.I. Joe, He-Man and Transformers were the most successful of these cartoon/toy combos. Syndicated cartoons became so commercialized that it even inspired a backlash from parental groups, but that eventually died down when these cartoons went off the air and children's programming became the domain of demographic-specific cable channels.

(Interestingly, many of the '80s cartoons-as-commercials live on in the toy collectors market and in some ways, they've become even more profitable than they were before thanks to the power of nostalgia. The characters that were once used to sell relatively cheap action figures, vehicles and playsets in the '80s are now used to sell very expensive statues and busts.)

As I said earlier, I haven't seen a single toy company have this much success with licensing since Mego, which cleverly used a one-size-fits-all approach to action figures that could fit just about any license the company acquired. Fun trivia fact: The Lego Batman Movie was directed by Chris McKay, whose background includes the Cartoon Network comedy series Robot Chicken. For most of its characters, this series uses Mego-like action figures for its stop-motion animation. Robot Chicken was originally based on "Twisted ToyFare Theater" (TTT), a parody photo comic-strip that appeared in ToyFare magazine which also frequently used Mego action figures. Another fun trivia fact: According to Wikipedia, "Many early TTT strips featured several DC Comics characters, though an early strip entitled "The Super-Friends" featured Spider-Man insulting the DC heroes for their ridiculousness. DC later filed a cease and desist order, preventing TTT from ever using DC characters." With the release of The Lego Batman Movie, DC has obviously come a very long way in terms of others pointing out how ridiculous its characters are.

In a sense, Lego is continuing what Mego started, but Lego has much more going for it because of the flexibility of its brick-based play and its savvy usage of video games as a means to expand its demographic appeal and to break into movies and TV. I've noticed that other Lego knock-off companies have been scrambling to pick up the licenses that Lego hasn't gotten yet (for example, KRE-O got the license for Star Trek and Transformers), but I doubt that these lesser-known competitors will have any impact on Lego's business plans.

For now, Lego rules the roost in using the merchandising licenses of popular franchises to expand the appeal of its own brand. As The Lego Batman Movie demonstrates, this movie don't just feature a toy version of Batman as the main character; it features a LEGO version of Batman that is surrounded by even more Lego toys, and both movie critics and audiences are willing to play along (pun fully intended). Heck, Kenner made a fortune with Star Wars merchandise back in the late '70s and early '80s but no Kenner executive would have ever suggested making a feature-length Star Wars movie with just licensed Kenner toys, or naming the movie in a way that would put the word "Kenner" ahead of the words "Star Wars".

It's Lego's toy box now. We're just playing in it.


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