February 9, 2017
The Lego Batman Movie (Directed by Chris McKay)
The Lego Batman Movie marks the 10th time that Batman has been the titular character of a feature length film. From the goofy camp of Adam West to the intense brooding of Christian Bale, from directors Tim Burton to Zak Snyder, this is a character that has been through it all. And that’s just the film incarnations of the character to say nothing of the many video games, television series, and of course the comics themselves. Prior to entering the theater then, it seemed hard to believe that someone could have a fresh take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, his butler Alfred, his sidekick Dick Grayson/Robin or especially his arch nemesis The Joker, and yet that is exactly what The Lego Batman accomplishes. While in the past everything about Batman has been awesome, this is the first time in quite some time where Batman is fun.
The Lego Batman Movie is a riotous affair letting fly one joke after the other and delivering action beats that stand up to some of the character’s greatest. This is a movie that respects the character’s history but never places the character on a pedestal. Like last year’s Deadpool, this film is not afraid to break the fourth wall with some of the best moments involving sly references to past iterations of Batman and actual animated recreations of some of those iconic images. The film does not rely solely on the love that audiences already have for the character walking in, but takes a risk by making this version of Batman unlike any other that we have yet seen: someone that loves being Batman.
In this story, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is adored by the city of Gotham. No one is trying to hunt him down or put an end to his actions as a masked vigilante. Batman is never more at ease than when pummeling villains. Indeed, the only time where Batman starts to doubt himself is when he is forced to be Bruce Wayne (forgetting to even take off the cowl as he heads to a party until Alfred (the ever dependable Ralph Fiennes) admonishingly reminds him to do so). Standing between him and the love of Gotham is the Joker, but unlike in past tales the Joker is not someone who is feared, but rather someone mocked about past failures to defeat Batman.
The story begins as the Joker (Zach Galifinakis) enlists the aid of some of the greatest foes in Batman’s rogue gallery: Bane, The Riddler, Catwoman, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Calendar Man, and Egg Man (yep, they are all here), and many more. After a hilarious fight sequence that includes a new original composition by beat boxing extraordinaire Batman, Batman once again emerges victorious. More importantly, he informs the Joker that he does not have a greatest enemy; indeed, this, “Batman doesn’t do ships… you know, relationships.” Hurt, the Joker hatches a plan so dastardly that Batman will be forced to admit that he is in fact Batman’s greatest enemy. This reviewer won’t go into details of the plan (it’s best seen to be believed), but suffice it to say that some of the greatest villains in cinematic history (and not just Batman villains) get their moment in the sun here, and it is glorious.
While the Joker stews in Arkham Asylum with all the other villains, Batman is forced to come to terms with his life as Bruce Wayne. Alone in his batcave with nothing but microwaved lobster thermidor and 1990’s romantic comedy dvd’s to comfort him, Batman’s life is eventually disrupted by the appearance of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) who Batman accidentally adopted due to his fascination with Barbara Gordon in a humorous party scene. As the young orphan roams Wayne Manor, Batman is reminded of what it was like to have a family and the pain that could be caused by losing one. Soon Batman is faced with not only stopping the Joker, but also coming to terms with the pain that has haunted him ever since his parents were lost all those years ago.
Mercifully, this movie doesn’t spend too much time on the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne. Audiences have seen these two get shot in a dark alley too many times to count. Here, there is no scene with their murder, pearls flying in slow motion; instead we have Bruce Wayne looking at their picture on the wall, thinking of the life that will never again be. For an animated film that goes big in so many places, the grief that this man-child feels is subtle and all the more effective for it. There are other scenes like this throughout, where despite the mayhem and rapid fire comedic bits that are hurled at the screen, the movie takes its time to let the characters (including the Joker) express actual human emotion.
Let one thing be clear: this movie is first and foremost a comedy, and a great one at that. Some of the gags might go over the heads of less casual bat fans, but there is something here for everyone to enjoy. While the movie will inevitably face comparisons to its predecessor The Lego Movie, it is fair to say that the two films have different goals. Whereas The Lego Movie was about the act of creating like a kid and not losing one’s inner child, The Lego Batman Movie deals with the importance of family. It is interesting that both films in the Lego franchise so far deal with social outsiders and the idea that no one person can be a chosen one, but it takes a team to ultimately succeed. While both films have pop culture references to spare a la a Dreamworks animated production and heart that would be at home in a Pixar film, the Lego film series so far has done an astounding job finding its unique voice; there really aren’t other animated films like these in the current marketplace.
Much of the success of both entries in this franchise so far have been its characters. Over the top and sneakily subtle at the same time, this version of Batman is one of the best superheroes to grace the screen in some time, a mix of Star Lord, Tony Stark, and Deadpool, but also a little Bart Simpson, the writing and Arnett’s husky growl blend together to create a revitalized iconic version of the dark knight. Some may have worried that this character (taken from 2014’s smash hit The Lego Movie) may have been too one note to work as a protagonist. The efforts of the writer’s here have paid off, ensuring that the characters bravado is just three dimensional enough to not come off as annoying. While he is a jerk (as the movie makes sure to point out in a very effective scene), he is a human jerk.
The supporting characters are equally effective here. In what is maybe Michael Cera’s best performance, Robin especially brings eager charm to the proceedings. The writing of Barbara Gordon is effective too, allowing her to be so much more than similar characters in other superhero entries. It’s no accident that Batman, despite his crush, describes her as “My platonic coworker, and my friend.” As someone who has done a little research on female representation in film, this label is very refreshing. The villains too are allowed to bring bite to the story, and although most are just one dimensional shout outs to previous versions of themselves, each feels true to their characters and the overall tone of the film.
Like The Lego Movie, the animation in the film is exquisitely detailed. As Lego pieces fly, childhood memories fly too. Each brick has a purpose and each song chosen for the soundtrack is equally effective in setting the mood the filmmakers had in mind. Some will no doubt have issues with this franchise as it not only tells a story, but also sells a product (aka the Legos on which the films are adapted from). It is clear that the filmmakers would like you to leave the theater and buy some Lego sets. It’s not ineffective either, as the idea of being a “master builder” does sound like a lot of fun.
Drawing on nostalgia both of playing with Legos as a kid and the popularity of Batman to children the world over, it would have been easy for the filmmakers to have put together a cookie cutter plot and script. The film concept really did sell itself. The film that we actually got then, the fresh version of Gotham and the Batman, is not only one of my favorite superhero films in recent memory, but is also bound to be one of the most fun films of the year. Those that are building the DC universe would be wise to watch this movie and see how superhero team can actually be enjoyable instead of grim for grim sake, and for anyone that is looking for an escape from the all the overwhelming negativity of Facebook and television, here is a chance for you to watch the billionaire self-obsessed vigilante that you may not deserve, but the hero that you need right now.