With the exception of Marvel’s Wolverine, Batman is undoubtedly my favorite superhero: a silent avenger driven by an ironclad code, forced again and again into combat with comics’ best rogues’ gallery. From the campiness of Adam West’s 1966 live-action outing to the R-rated darkness of Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” Batman has cycled through story after story, confronting both his own psychosocial demons and the villains that threaten Gotham City.
Given all that history (and particularly after last year’s disastrous “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”), you might think there’s not much more to be done with the character.
But “The Lego Batman Movie” proved me wrong.
This New ‘Batman’ Considers Vigilantism And Rule Of Law
This Batman—last glimpsed as a hilarious, hyper-arrogant supporting character in 2014’s “The Lego Movie”— is voiced by Will Arnett (perhaps best known for his turn as Gob in “Arrested Development”) and has a fondness for bad self-referential music. Despite doubling down on the zaniness, this incarnation manages to tap into deep elements of the character that live actors have somehow never fully embraced.
“The Lego Batman Movie” kicks off where most Batman films typically end: the Caped Crusader facing off against the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), the Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, and everyone else. After a brilliant display of Bat-techno-superiority, the Dark Knight triumphs again, sending his nemeses back to the lockup.
But he doesn’t have much time to relax: Commissioner Gordon is on the cusp of retirement, and has planned for his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) to succeed him. To Batman’s chagrin, it turns out that Barbara is something of a criminal justice reformer: after cleaning up neighboring city Blüdhaven with a combination of “compassion and statistics,” she’s set her sights on Gotham. Vigilantism is out; “rule of law” is in. And that’s not all: when he accidentally adopts wide-eyed orphan Robin (Michael Cera, in an inspired bit of voice casting) at a gala event, Batman is abruptly forced to be the father he never had himself.
Adult Fans Can (And Will) Enjoy ‘The Lego Batman Movie’
While “The Lego Batman Movie” is certainly an all-ages film, adult fans will probably enjoy it the most. Beneath all the silliness and snark is a thoughtful reflection on the Batman character that fills a gaping hole in his cinematic canon.
Batman isn’t an easy superhero to capture in any medium, let alone a computer animation style designed to mimic stop-motion cinematography. Irreducible elements of the character are both freakishly goofy (c’mon guys, he wears a rubber hood with ears and fights a man with a freeze gun) and grimly adult (murdered parents, psychopathic clowns with neurotoxins). I’m personally quite fond of his portrayal in the Arkham video game series, but none of his recent silver-screen outings have adequately balanced all the dynamics in play.
As a 2012 article in The Economist put it, “Nolan’s films, as ambitious and intelligent as they may be, aren’t definitive. There’s one element of the Batman mythos that they haven’t cracked, just as Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher lost sight of it during the previous run of Bat-movies. They haven’t captured the character of Batman himself.”
How This Batman Film Captures His Character Best
“The Lego Batman Movie,” for all its outrageous slapstick, manages to do so. This film hinges on a blindingly simple insight into the character, a truth that previous stories have somehow overlooked or sidestepped: Batman’s need to inspire fear in his enemies emerges from his own internalized fear of tragedy. For Batman, to care about anyone else is to risk losing them—and in that loss, to experience afresh the nightmare of his own parents’ death. Batman’s desire to assume the cowl doesn’t come from pride or rage, but from an impulse to numb his need to love and be loved by others.
An early sequence set in Wayne Manor—Batman, eating and watching TV alone in the midst of spectacular opulence, is particularly poignant. Director Chris McKay allows the scene to linger painfully. It doesn’t look so cool to be Batman, you think. It looks really sad and lonely. And for a long moment, you completely forget you’re watching Lego characters.
The heavy thematic stuff doesn’t stop there. When Batman is sent to the extradimensional “Phantom Zone” prison, a strange entity forces him to relive his darkest moments to see if he’s really “a villain who belongs there.” As it so happens, Batman’s life is a saga of pushing away those who care about him, embracing an “idealism” that differs little from straight-up narcissism, and recklessly pursuing his own missions of vengeance without much regard for collateral damage. It’s a Dante-esque, uncannily sobering sequence that resembles nothing so much as a blocky vision of purgatory.
The Film Captures An Important Truth About Love
Happily, by the end of the film, Batman has learned a lesson that’s been only murkily expressed in other media: love requires risk, but it’s worth pursuing nevertheless, and keeping love at arm’s length leads only to emptiness and self-consuming destruction. In any context but this, the film’s underlying message (“everyone works better together as a team!”) would feel impossibly twee: given the Batman underpinnings, though, it plays brilliantly.
Thought-provoking as the movie may be, it’s worth mentioning that things aren’t entirely seamless. The third act of “The Lego Batman Movie” sags a bit, particularly in comparison to its predecessor (alas, here there’s no meta-commentary about humans and Legos).
And while the climax is clearly a riff on the “giant monster-spawning sky hole in space-time” trope, at times it’s played a little too straight—though it’s pretty funny to see the range of non-Batman villains Warner Brothers pulls in from its other cinematic properties.
But these gripes are minor: by and large, “The Lego Batman Movie” fires on all cylinders. In McKay’s capable hands, the film captures not only everything that made Batman such a great part of “The Lego Movie,” but everything that’s made him such an iconic character in the first place.
Lay aside any inhibitions you might’ve had about seeing the Dark Knight storm the screen in Lego form. This “Batman” is one of the character’s best outings yet.