Ever since The Dark Knight came out in 2008, a shadow has hung over the cinematic representations of DC’s comic book heroes. From the lukewarm The Dark Knight Rises to the underwhelming Man of Steel, and finally to last year’s bloated and turgid Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Brothers has struggled to find its way forward in the new landscape of superhero cinema. Silly as it may sound, The Lego Batman Movie, succeeds where these other films have failed not only through parodying the past six decades of the Gotham Knight’s films, but in treating the source material with as much, if not more, respect than any representation has before.
After the success of The Lego Movie, which is one of the best animated films of the 21st century, more Lego-based films were inevitable. Batman was the easy standout character of the film, providing a perfect parody of the overly dark and serious Batman films we’ve seen since Tim Burton’s 1989 film. It remained to be seen, however, if a feature film could be made from this fiber, given that side characters tend to have increasingly diminished returns when they are brought more into the spotlight (i.e. Jack Sparrow, Boba Fett, Fonzie, Jay and Silent Bob, etc.). Thankfully, The Lego Batman Movie bucks this trend by being both a great film in its own right, but also by introducing us to a fresh new world and cast of characters that was merely glimpsed in The Lego Movie.
After saving the Gotham City for the umpteenth time, Bruce Wayne (in his Lego incarnation introduced to us in 2014’s The Lego Movie) spends his evenings brooding and eating microwaved dinners alone. This lonely calm is disturbed by the retirement of police commissioner Jim Gordon and the subsequent promotion of his daughter Barbara, as well as Wayne’s accidental adoption of boisterous orphan Dick Grayson. In the midst of this cacophony of change entering his life, the Joker concocts a master plan to finally get Batman to admit that he is his arch nemesis, beginning with his abrupt surrender to the Gotham City P.D. which renders Batman’s vigilante nature obsolete.
If that description sounded pretty par for the course for a Batman film, don’t worry one bit– for every basic plot detail that sounds like another mediocre rendition of the same old bat-song-and-dance, there are dozens of absolutely bananas things going on in the film. There’s Justice League dance parties (including a cameo appearance by Channing Tatum’s Superman from The Lego Movie), multiple Batman rap/metal songs, henchmen who throw condiments and eggs, and one of the best Wham! needle drops of all time, just to name a few. This is a kid’s movie, through and through, with a laugh a minute and an uproarious sense of imagination and creativity in every joke.
Will Arnett returns as the voice of our caped crusader, bringing with him an incredible growl to parody that of Christian Bale’s from the Dark Knight Trilogy. Arnett, whose comedic strengths tend to be more physical than vocal, hits a wonderful groove in his interpretation of Batman that pays dividends this second time around. Lego Bruce Wayne’s arc is remarkably similar to that of his live action counterpart in BvS, but the scripting surrounding Arnett, as well as his performance, lead to a much more earned payoff.
Alongside Arnett is fellow Arrested Development alum Michael Cera as Dick Grayson/Robin, who brings a jovial and youthful energy to his starry-eyed and frantic rendition of Robin. Ralph Fiennes is stellar as Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred, providing a stern, but loving, tone to match Arnett’s gruff but childish disposition. Rounding out the Bat-family is Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, whose spunk and tenacity is on display from her very first scene.
The MVP of the film, for all intents and purposes, is Zach Galifianakis’s Joker, who is as menacing as he is touchingly sensitive. I’ve long soured on Galifianakis as an actor, growing tired of his Post-Hangover shtick and seldom having any desire to seek one of his films out, but here he is incredible as Batman’s primary foil. Galifianakis brings a take on the Clown Prince of Crime that, while obviously much more comedic and lighthearted than those of Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger, is audacious enough to steal the show. This is probably the most traditional interpretation of The Joker since Mark Hamill’s version from The Animated Series.
Much like how Nolan and Burton’s Batman films have brought forth each filmmaker’s unique vision of Batman to the silver screen, director Chris McKay and his writing team (consisting of Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington) provide their own unique stamp to the three-quarter-century’s worth of lore in the Batman universe. With the exception of Joel Schumacher’s two middling-at-best attempts, we’ve never seen a film this devoted in its focus on the Bat-Family as well as the rogues gallery of Gotham.
Most importantly, The Lego Batman Movie is FUN. Its humor is broad and kid friendly, but rarely is actively dim-witted and infantile (although having the maturity of a 9 year old, I found scenes like the Joker rubbing his butt on Batman’s stuff to be exquisitely hilarious). The action scenes are a creative blast that uses both the film’s superhero trappings as well as its Lego environment to the fullest. While the occasional shot is a bit too kinetic and frenetic, leading to some incomprehensible action, the majority of the scenes are vibrant and clear, providing a color palette that has been sorely missing in the Batman films of the 21st century.
The Lego Batman Movie wouldn’t work if it were merely a comedy parodying the films of Batman’s past and make no mistake, The Lego Batman Movie is a riotously funny movie for all ages that is entirely aimed at making the crowd laugh. While it undoubtedly succeeds at taking the piss out of the nine feature length attempts to bring Bruce Wayne to life, its understanding of Batman’s extensive history is key to the whole film work. While it’s impossible for there to be one “correct” adaptation of Batman, given the 78 years of backstory not to mention the hundreds of artists and writers behind the comics, The Lego Batman Movie touches on many of the aspects of Gotham and Bruce Wayne himself that often get brushed aside, making it one of my favorite adaptations of Batman yet.