It has often been observed how malleable a character Batman is. Over the past several decades he has found himself equally at home busting the heads of petty street criminals and out-witting cosmic menaces with (new) god-like powers. What unities such diverse plots is a common interest in the humanity of the hero. The tone of the narrative might emphasize oppressive bleakness or optimistic redemption, yet what all the best Bat-stories have in common is an interest in who the man is beneath the cowl. This is true of the movies as well; for example, Christopher Nolan’s masterful Bat-trilogy is as, arguably more, concerned with Bruce Wayne than it is with Batman. In many ways, The LEGO Batman Movie liberally skewers the melancholy tone of Nolan’s films, while sharing with them an interest in the hero’s personality. Amidst the bonanza of gags, Chris McKay’s new film has something to say about Batman’s character.
The LEGO Batman is a spinoff from 2014’s hit film The LEGO Movie. A surprise success with both critics and audiences, The LEGO Movie took the current formula for a Hollywood animated film (fast paced hijinks for the kids, meta-humor for their parents, life lessons for everyone) and delivered it in a package which felt fresh and charming. Included with the cast of supporting characters buzzing around Chris Pratt’s lead was Batman. As voiced by Will Arnett, Batman was an ego-maniac whose abilities have clearly gone to his head. That said, he was also a lovable ego-maniac, naturally becoming one of the most popular figures in the movie, which, even more naturally, led to his own solo movie being fast-tracked into development while a LEGO sequel was crafted. Such circumstances could have resulted in a craven money-grabbing mess of a movie. Instead, viewers receive something entertaining.
The movie announces from its very first digital frame that it will be continuing The LEGO Movie’s winking tone. The film opens with a black screen over which Batman authoritatively intones “All great movies begin with black.” Then the familiar Warner Brothers logo appears. “And overly complicated logos.” The narrative itself commences with a cargo plane from MacGuffin Airlines requesting permission to fly a craft full of explosives over Gotham City. What could go wrong with that? Nothing except the Joker with a plan, the complexity of which would be the envy of Lex Luthor. And for a split second, The Clown Prince appears that he might succeed, only well, you know, Batman.
This opening sequence encapsulates many of the strengths and weaknesses of the film. It is pretty hilarious, full of affectionate nods at the absurdities of both cinema and comics. The Joker has recruited for himself an army of villains which range from the big guns (Penguin, Bane) to the trivial (Crazy Quilt, Eraser). It is delightful seeing so many characters on the screen at once and the filmmakers find some clever ways for The Caped Crusader to use them against each other (his employment of penguins to neutralize Poison Ivy is particularly inspired). However, at times, it is a bit too much. The action can grow hectic and it is hard to keep track of who is doing what in the confused melee. Given how so many of the villains are silent one second cameos, the filmmakers might have been better served by cutting down their number and reducing the clutter. Still, the sequence remains engaging as both spectacle and comedy.
It also introduces the theme of Batman’s humanity, or more specifically, his denial of it. The screenplay (credited to Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Sterns & John Whittington) gives this familiar theme a new twist by dressing it in the language of romantic comedies. Indeed, Batman’s interest in the genre in general, and Jerry Maguire in particular, is a running joke throughout the film. At the end of Batman’s initial encounter with the Joker, the Joker is crestfallen when Batman does not return his sentiment that “I am your greatest enemy.” Batman denies that he has any “greatest enemy” preferring to “fight around.” The movie really sells this moment through a combination of expressive animation for the Joker’s face and Zach Galifainakis’ pitch perfect line readings as the Joker. This slight truly wounds the villain who becomes obsessed with demonstrating that he does in fact complete his adversary.
Meanwhile back at Wayne Manor stately perched on the heights of Wayne Island, Batman is experiencing a bit of, yes, arrested development. Or as Alfred puts it: “you cannot spend your life dressed in black, sleeping all day and listening to loud music.” Despite receiving all the love of Gotham City, Batman lives a rather lonely life. One of the best moments in the film depicts Batman microwaving his dinner. He simply stands there staring at the appliance, making random noises to himself. The ridiculousness of Batman in dressing gown and cowl patiently waiting for his lobster thermidor to be reheated is pretty funny in and of itself. Yet, it is also the most affecting image in the movie because it isolates an aspect of Batman to which any viewer can relate.
Luckily for Batman, Alfred is there to nudge him to Commissioner Gordon’s retirement gala where Bruce Wayne crosses paths with Gordon’s daughter and replacement Barbara and a young ebullient orphan Richard Grayson (“The other kids at the orphanage call me ‘Dick’”). As anyone who has seen an animated kid’s film or read a Batman comic might guess, these three individuals eventually form a new family for Bruce Wayne, replacing the one lost in Crime Alley all those years ago. As mentioned above, this theme of learning to trust in others is enlivened through the language of romantic comedies. Ultimately, what makes it work is Arnett. As memorable as Job Bluth was, Arnett’s was often the most one-note performance on Arrested Development (to the degree that he has been accused of simply playing himself). More recently he has demonstrated the ability to evoke a more wide-ranging panorama of emotions. On the brilliant Netflix animated series Bojack Horseman, he voices the title character with a mixture of narcissistic self-destruction and clear-eyed empathy. While his Batman does not require the same level of heartbreaking poignancy (seriously, watch Season 3’s Sarah Lynn episodes), Arnett does a great job conveying Batman’s subtle acceptance of others. Arnett portrays Batman’s evolution as a gradual one which, beyond any dictates of studio formulas, feels entirely organic. At the same time, he never entirely abandons the gruffness which makes Batman who he is.
In addition to Arnett, Michael Cera makes a spirited Robin. While Batman parodies the brooding post-Frank Miller/Tim Burton conception of the character, Robin embraces the more freewheeling, campy aspects of The Dark Knight’s history. That these different tones blend so well is largely a testament to Arnett and Cera’s skill. Indeed, the voice talent of LEGO Batman is strong throughout. Ralph Fiennes is a perfect fit for Alfred; his droll delivery is, at least vocally, the best portrayal of the butler on screen to date. Rosario Dawson successfully keeps her character from slipping into type. Galifianakis is a devilishly conniving Joker, emphasizing the character’s gleeful love of mischief. Jenny Slate proves herself a good match for Harley Quinn, but is poorly served by a script that gives her too little to do.
This is where the sea of villain problem arises again: too many actors, not enough lines. Viewers who have spent the last 28 years wondering what Billy Dee Williams’ Two-Face would be like, are going to be left unsatisfied as Williams is quickly lost in the shuffle. The same happens with Conan O’Brien’s Riddler. Doug Benson gets in a couple choice one-liners as Bane, but he is the exception. On the hero side, Channing Tatum delightfully reprises his Superman from The LEGO Movie. However, a Justice League scene sidelines way too many characters, including all the female ones. This is a movie where non-Batman adversaries receive more dialogue than Wonder Woman (who, for the record, made her cinematic debut not in Dawn of Justice but The LEGO Movie where she at least had one or two lines). Sometimes less is more.
It seems silly to complain about excessive product placement is something which in its essence is a two hour toy commercial. However, it does get obtrusive at times, especially all the iPhone plugging (the voice of the Batcomputer is credited to Siri). It pulls the viewer out of the story at inopportune moments.
However, such discomforts do not linger. Overall, The LEGO Batman is an entertaining, funny film. It affectionately parodies The Caped Crusader’s colorful legacy while also celebrating what makes him so great. In the end, it’s a reminder that there is more than one way to tell Batman’s story.
Perhaps someone over in Warner Brothers live action division is paying attention . . .