Emmet’s Vacillating Value
This notion of value as socially and extrinsically conferred deeply informs Emmet’s understanding of his worth throughout the film. Both varieties of the extrinsic account of value—the Frankfurtian version, in which his value is conferred by particular individuals, and the economic version, in which his value is derived from the value he brings to society—inform Emmet’s thinking at different points in the film. Emmet’s self-esteem depends directly on others’ widely vacillating assessment of his worth, leaving him with a highly unstable and fluctuating understanding of his value.
Early in the film Emmet sees himself as worthless according to the extrinsic theory of value because he holds no value either to individuals or to society as a whole. After he meets Vitruvius and Wyldstyle, however, Emmet begins to believe that he might possess some value both to them and to Bricksburg. When Emmet finds the Piece of
Resistance and deftly navigates Wyldstyle’s car through a host of enemies, Wyldstyle comes to believe that Emmet is “The Special.” She tells him not only that he might be the “most important, most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe,” but that he will save the universe from President Business.
For once, a particular group of people—Wyldstyle and the Master Builders—value him. Just as importantly, because of his unique ability to stop President Business from freezing the world, Emmet has a great deal to offer Bricksburg. Of course, in light of his new knowledge about President Business’s evil plot, Emmet’s conception of what it would mean to contribute to society is different than before. His ability to save the ignorant citizens of Bricksburg is not in fact something they presently value. Nonetheless, he offers something they would later value. And his newly acquired belief in his value is not merely of personal psychological significance. Emmet later admits to Wyldstyle that when she told him that night that he was “talented, and important ... That was the first time anyone had ever really told me that. And it made me want to do everything I could to be the guy you were talking about.” Wyldstyle’s statement of his importance gives Emmet the confidence to act and attempt to fulfill the hopes and expectations the Master Builders have for him.
Unfortunately, Emmet’s feelings of value do not last long. Once Emmet reveals that all of his opinions and preferences conform to President Business’s propaganda, Wyldstyle quickly reverses her judgment and concludes that Emmet is a nobody and a great disappointment. His apparent inability to come up with any ideas more creative than a double-decker couch causes Wyldstyle and Vitruvius to question whether Emmet has anything worthwhile to contribute. Emmet seems to internalize their view that he has nothing productive to offer, conceding to Wyldstyle that “I never have any ideas.” Emmet thereby again comes to believe that he is worthless. For not only do no individuals value him anymore but he contributes no value to saving Bricksburg.
Emmet’s perception of his value continues to ebb and flow in the scenes that follow. The Master Builders realize that Emmet’s seemingly asinine ideas are not useless after all when he saves them from the sinking submarine. Thus their faith in him—and accordingly Emmet’s confidence—grows. While Emmet may not properly be “The Special,” the Master Builders begin to follow and value him because they believe he might be able to generate and orchestrate a plan to infiltrate the “infinitieth floor” of President Business’s office. Emmet likewise has the confidence that his seemingly ordinary plan of simply following instructions might actually work.
But despite overcoming President Business’s “security forces of every kind imaginable: lasers, sharks, laser sharks, overbearing assistants, and strange dangerous relics that entrap, snap and zap,” Emmet and his friends are ultimately no match for President Business’s robot army and penny boomerang. President Business decapitates Vitruvius, and Emmet’s efforts to save the world have apparently failed. As a result, Emmet’s potential contribution to society has been negated and he is again reduced to a lowly construction worker. President Business quips, “Hey, not so special anymore, huh? Well, guess what? 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!”
Devastated that he has failed to defeat President Business, Emmet makes it clear that he still understands himself according to President Business’s extrinsic account of value. “Didn’t you hear him? The prophecy’s made up. I’m not the Special. To think for a moment I thought I might be....” At this moment when Emmet despairs because he has nothing worthwhile to offer to anyone, he fully grasps how unstable his value has been. His hopes that he would be special have vanished, and Emmet is left feeling just as worthless as he ever has been.