*BEWARE SPOILERS AHEAD*

Adaptations are nothing if not a commonplace in our culture. Translating one work to another medium and then to yet another medium could be considered a cornerstone of modern culture, especially cinema. The basis for these film adaptations may range from prose novels, comic books, cartoons and video games. There are even adaptations of non-narrative intellectual properties (I.P.) and works such as toys and board games. While the quality varies from product to product, it is safe to assume that adaptations are not going anywhere anytime soon.

There is one film in recent history that truly stood out to me and that was THE LEGO MOVIE. Despite the fact that the film is based on the non-narrative toy line Lego, my experience with the film led me into a stranger direction. First, let us establish that this is an excellent film. An intellectual paragon of the capabilities of animation as a storytelling medium. On paper, however, the movie would seem quite the opposite. After all, how could a film based on a toy line (essentially a one hour and 40-minute long commercial) have anything remotely resembling intellectual value?

Run towards the viewer!

Given the current state of animation in the west, it’s all the more astonishing since THE LEGO MOVIE has multiple obstacles to overcome yet it triumphs over them quite effortlessly. We could owe this success to the films more than passing resemblance to the unlikeliest of sources: Flex Mentallo by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.

Having consumed both works voraciously over the years, I have noticed that the similarities between both works transcend mere coincidence. There are certain elements which tie the works together, making THE LEGO MOVIE seem heavily reverential and referential to Flex Mentallo. Foremost is their thematic concern, that of the exaltation of the power of imagination. The second is their use of layers/metaphor in the narrative. This latter point is obviously not expressed in as dense and sophisticated a manner in THE LEGO MOVIE. However, the methodology and ultimate aim are tied so fundamentally to the thematic concern of Flex Mentallo that it bears more in-depth analysis. To better explain the narrative approaches and techniques of these works, it would be best to provide a summary of the narratives.

THE LEGO MOVIE

THE LEGO MOVIE was released in 2014, written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The narrative opens with a small prologue sequence in which the wizard Vitruvius attempts to guard a weapon called the Kragle from the evil Lord Business and his robot henchmen. Vitruvius is blinded during the battle and defeated.

As Lord Business savors his conquest, Vitruvius delivers a prophecy regarding “The Special”, an individual so amazing and so unique, who will find an item called “The Piece of Resistance” and use it to stop the Kragle. The story then makes a flash-forward by exactly 8 and a half years, the significance of this precise number shrouded in mystery.

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The story now centers on the adventure of a construction worker and everyman named Emmett. Emmett lives in a city called Bricksburg. He is unremarkable and unoriginal but always well-meaning to the people around him, and his surface motivation is to fit in and be liked by those around him. However, his true desire is to be genuinely special. One day much like any other in his life, Emmett gets his wish. He stumbles upon an item called the Piece of Resistance and is promptly thrown into a world/reality hopping adventure alongside other characters.

The most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.

Key among these characters are Wyldstyle and Vitruvius. Both of them are Master Builders, capable of building anything from the world around them using only their imagination, requiring no previous instructions to do so. Emmett is joined by a mixture of original characters, such as Princess Unikitty, and previously established franchise icons, like Batman for instance.

Their mission is to stop the evil President/Lord Business from using an item called the Kragle to essentially freeze into place all the citizens of the vast worlds of Lego. Emmett is initially oblivious to the fact that there are many different Lego worlds. For example, one is based on the Old West. Another is a parody/homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

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Another world, appropriately named Cloud Cuckoo Land, is essentially a land of pure imagination and crossovers gone completely wild, where happiness and fun are the law of the land. Characters like Superman, Green Lantern, Gandalf, Dumbledore, Dracula, Abraham Lincoln and many others populate this zany world.

It is during his time here that Emmett begins to learn about how the disparate Lego worlds were once openly connected, with no real borders between them. When Lord Business came along and became obsessed with order, he carefully segmented each world and cut it off from contact with the other Lego lands.

Eventually, Cloud Cuckoo Land is attacked and completely destroyed by the forces of Lord Business, forcing the heroes underground while countless Master Builders are captured by the forces of Lord Business. They eventually create a plan to infiltrate Lord Business’ fortress and seal the Kragle with the Piece of Resistance once and for all. During this great heist and eventually battle for all of reality, Emmett is forced to sacrifice himself to save the Master Builders. His sacrifice leads him to the most unexpected of places: the real world.

The heroes of a story within a story.

Emmett wakes in the real world, a simple Lego toy being played with by an 8 and a half-year-old boy named Finn. This entire story has been the product of a little boy’s playtime. But we are immediately introduced to the Man Upstairs: Finn’s father. We begin to see that Finn’s wild imagination is completely at odds with his father’s rigid designs of strict order over these playsets.

FLEX MENTALLO

Released over the course of 1996, this first of many collaborations between Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely was technically a spin-off from Morrison’s surrealist masterpiece run on Doom Patrol some years before. The character of Flex Mentallo had initially appeared in that comic run and was part of Morrison’s overarching story at the time. However, this miniseries is mostly removed from the events that happened in that story, with only a passing reference to the events of it.

The overall plot could be described as the following: Flex Mentallo is a superhero who possesses the power of muscle mystery and is pursuing a former superhero colleague known as The Fact. Flex is also chasing a mysterious group of individuals named Faculty X. Meanwhile, a young rock star named Wally Sage is on the verge of suicide, having consumed numerous amounts of drugs in an effort to overdose. Wally is in the middle of a phone call to a suicide hotline, reminiscing about many things. Among them, his childhood, his love of comics and his emotional insecurities.

Stories within stories…

While the plot hardly sounds elaborate, Flex Mentallo is easily one of the densest comics by Grant Morrison and a shining jewel of 1990s superhero comics. Its four chapters read as a synthesis of one of the comic book ages: The Golden Age, the Silver Age, The Bronze/Dark Age and the New Age of Superhero comics.

This run through the ages is seen simultaneously by Flex Mentallo’s trek through his nameless metropolis searching for his friend and by Wally’s own recollections of his childhood. There is a certain innocence in the first chapter, mimicking the simplicity of comics from the Golden Age. The second chapter, emulating the idiosyncrasies of the Silver Age, constantly making reference to its zaniness and the fluid nature of identity.

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The third chapter is meant as an indictment of the Dark Age which is summarized with the chapter’s cover, a clear parody/homage of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic from 1986. The final chapter is meant as a projection, a wish for a new age of comics; a reconciliation of the previous 3. The kindheartedness of the Golden Age mixed with the zaniness of the Silver Age and refined with the adult focus of comics from the Dark Age. Neither element is meant to overpower the others, instead, they act as a perfectly balanced synthesis and projection of the capabilities of the superhero genre.

Up, Up and Away!

As the story develops, the juxtaposition between Flex and Wally’s realities blurs to the point where the independence of these realities becomes null. Eventually, Flex’s journey is revealed to be not just a search for his friend, the Fact, but also a search for superheroes to save his reality and also to save Wally’s life, enabling him to reach catharsis and become a better person than he once was.

But what exactly torments Wally in the real world? His lack of wonder and belief. This is made explicit when the evil mastermind in Flex’s world is revealed to be none other than a teenage Wally Sage dressed a lunar-themed supervillain. Thus we begin to see how one reality’s problems feed into another reality’s and then back again, creating a cycle of cynicism that only seems inescapable.

THE LAYERS

The narrative approach and technique of these works are rooted in the use of fictional layers. In THE LEGO MOVIE, there are essentially two layers of reality. The first is the anthropomorphic Lego world wherein Emmett, Lord Business, Wyldstyle and all the others interact. The second is the surprise twist wherein the adventures of this first layer are actually the imaginative playtimes of a boy named Finn.

This is especially jarring but effective since the sequences with Finn and his father, the fabled Man Upstairs, are entirely in live action. This really highlights the differences in the layers but is a very wise decision where the overall thematic of the film is concerned. The only thing separating these layers is a cardboard tube created by Finn which he uses to deposit Emmett back into the Lego world and story.

Unexpected doesn’t begin to cover it.

In Flex Mentallo, the use of layers is much more ambiguous, verging on the baroque. For one, we have Wally’s reality, what we could arguably call the real world, physically devoid of fantastical concepts like superheroes. Then, we have Flex’s reality, which functions in a twofold manner. For one, it acts as its independent reality. This is made apparent when Flex himself talks about how he, along with the Fact, came to life as the comic book drawings of one Wally Sage who tragically died at some point. Yet even in Flex’s world, the concept of superheroes seems foreign. They are closer to ghost stories or hearsay than the mythic power fantasies they are usually depicted as. Some of the people Flex encounters in his pursuit of the Fact tell him as much. After all, even a fictional world must have its own internal factions.

An interesting curiosity throughout the story is the presence of the Fact. This character is seen throughout the various layers of reality but also ties directly to the metaphoric goals of the narrative. Therefore, it is practically impossible to separate the Fact from the classification of layer and metaphor. There is a sequence in the final chapter where Flex finally arrives the headquarters of the Legion of Legions. As he recuperates, the members of Faculty X (revealed to simply be the Fact displaced from time) actively construct the scenery, layer by layer.

All the world’s a stage…

This makes the concept of metaphoric layers literal and plays into the overall blurriness between and within realities. A constant overlap of fiction, memory, dreams and expectations.

THE METAPHORS

The reality Flex inhabits is actually a visual metaphor for the mental state of Wally Sage in the real world. Abstract concepts like hope are embodied in characters like Flex Mentallo. The overriding goodness inherent to all people is made manifest by way of the superhero concept, with Flex at the forefront. Yet it is buried deeper still in his subconscious, embodied as the Legion of Legions, the greatest collection of superheroes the “Polyverse” has ever seen.

Even Morrison’s usage of the prefix “poly” in “Polyverse” bears some analysis. A play on the word “multiverse”, the prefix poly simply means many. But the limits of this “Polyverse” are never established as strictly tangible realities only. They could be dreams, planes of pure thought, fictional realms, and emotional perspectives given form. This is especially worthy of analysis since Flex’s reality could be said to be all these things simultaneously.

One particular scene stands out from the narrative as it acts as a perfect synthesis of the overarching theme of the story. A boy in Flex’s world, feeling abandoned and hopeless, decides to overdose on a drug that lets him see the world as it is, as an imaginary story. Knowing beforehand that he will not survive it, he injects the substance and sees the heroes of the Legion of Legions descend upon his world. Near death yet in complete awe, the boy simply states “they love us… they’ve always loved us… they’ve come to save us all.” An imaginary boy sees an imaginary salvation in superheroes.

Cue Devin Townsend’s song “Truth”…

These superheroes were the focus of comics Wally Sage used to read as a child but also they inhabited their own reality. Eventually, a great enemy called The Absolute devoured all universes and the superheroes could only survive by becoming fictional. The superhero concept was mailed into our collective thoughts, dormant and waiting to reawaken and save the world.

Crash-landing into reality!

This explains why Wally is able to read about them in the real world and carries them in his subconscious and are the focus of his suicidal reminiscences. Wally himself created Flex and the Fact in his own comics when he was a teenager. However, as the years passed, he neglected their message and was exposed to the bitter side of adulthood without the anchor of hope and wonder in his heart. Wally eventually reaches the conclusion that this disconnect is what has led him to this suicidal act.

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In THE LEGO MOVIE, the layers of reality are used as conduits for the metaphors a child is creating. Finn sees himself as Emmett. He projects his hope and his desire to be the best and most interesting person in a world full of the fantastic. Lord Business is meant to represent his father. He is completely at odds with Finn’s father, The Man Upstairs and Lord Business are seen as stifling to childhood wonder and imagination.

Their obsession with rigid perspectives over something that should be fun mirrors almost identically Wally’s Moon Man villain persona. Wally’s teenage self is represented in Flex’ world as the evil Moon Man.  Once deprived of his helmet, Wally goes on a tirade against superheroes and their childish roots.

Zack Snyder, is that you?

As a teenager, it’s extremely easy to give in to cynicism. Wally exemplifies this as he lost sight of what superheroes meant to him. There were many reasons for this and they are all pretty legitimate. His life as an adult is unsatisfactory and emotionally unfulfilling. His childhood is plagued by traumatic memories fueled by child neglect and fear-mongering parents. In many ways, he has every reason to be cynical.

This cements the connection between Moon Man and Lord Business. They are both fictional representations, of teenage Wally and Finn’s father respectively. While it is clearer in Flex Mentallo what drove Wally to this state, Finn’s father remains more mysterious.

Lord Business even states at one point

“No one ever told me I was special! I never got a trophy just for showing up! I’m not some special little snowflake! No! But as unspecial as I am, you are a thousand billion times more unspecial than me!”

Of course, this could just be a hyperbole created by Finn for the purposes of his story but it could also be interpreted in another manner. Maybe this speech represents how Finn’s father truly sees himself and how no one ever told him what Finn and Emmett have been seeking this entire time: to be special in some way.

CONCLUSION

Perhaps the word “adaptation” might be too strong when we consider the actual comparison and analysis. After all, for something to be an adaptation, the creators of said adaptation would have consciously taken the work in question and molded it to fit the aesthetic, narrative and technical limitations of its target medium.

That being said, the similarities between both works could just as easily be considered serendipitous connections. After all, there is no proof that the creators of THE LEGO MOVIE ever read Flex Mentallo, much less thought that such a work was worth referencing in their completely separate opus. However, the evidence is there. Their usage of metafictional layers and metaphors for the exact same purpose, the triumph of childlike wonder over adult rigidity, highlights a bridge between both works that clearly places it above coincidence.

All we *can* do is hope…

Ultimately, both stories conclude with the realization that imagination and wonder should be above stifling order and cynicism. Teenaged Wally would argue that superheroes are *just* pen and ink creations with no transcendent value. Finn’s father would say that Lego toys are no more than models, meant to resemble statues more than toys.

That is clearly not the case. A simple plastic figure can and always will be more when it is guided by imagination. A character made of paper and ink has the capacity to change a life or many lives. But this change can only be brought about through the power of imagination. How fortunate we are to have these two great works working side by side to remind us of this.

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