Cast: (voiced by) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes
Director: Chris McKay
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
It’s interesting how in the space of a single year we saw the release of two films about Batman that could not be more different. One is a mature, gritty thriller in which Batman is portrayed as a brutal, grizzled warrior with a severe attitude and lethal methods. The other is a light-hearted animated family picture where the Caped Crusader is a narcissistic jerk who secretly just wants a family. What really surprised me when I saw both was how much better the ‘kids’ movie understood the character than the ‘grown-up’ film. Batman v. Superman was an altogether more serious film but its characterisation of Batman suffered from an inconsistent tone and an overly complicated plot. LEGO Batman is streamlined and simplified and it has a clear idea about the approach it wants to take with its main character. Following the success of Nolan’s trilogy, there emerged this view that ‘dark’, ‘gritty’, and ‘serious’ equals ‘better’. To me this silly, childish, over-the-top romp is proof that this simply isn’t the case.
The film starts with a typical day in Batman’s life as he beats up bad guys, foils the Joker’s latest plot, and is celebrated by the people of Gotham City as a hero and an all-round cool guy. Afterwards he retreats from the exaltations of his adoring fans and returns to his solitary life in Wayne Manor. There, without any companions save his trusty butler Alfred, Batman spends his nights feasting on lobster and watching rom-coms, all by himself. As Bruce Wayne he attends the city’s gala where the new commissioner Barbara Gordon announces her plans to restructure the police force so that they might serve without Batman’s help. This announcement is interrupted some of Gotham’s most prominent (and also some hilariously obscure) villains, led by the Joker who then immediately surrenders. A suspicious Batman determines that his arch-rival must have some secret plot and sets out to stop him with the help of his accidentally adopted ward Dick Grayson.
As a film in its own right, LEGO Batman is an utterly enjoyable and hilarious movie. It doesn’t quite have the timeless quality of The LEGO Movie but its jokes are a laugh a minute and it can be surprisingly poignant in its quieter moments. As a Batman movie it works both as a parody and a tribute. The Batman canon has a long and colourful history and this film embraces every side of it, including the campier side of West and Schumacher that directors like Nolan and Snyder might have preferred to brush under the rug. It’s easy to forget that Bob Kane’s character started out as a children’s comic book action hero before writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore discovered his darker side and reinvented him for a more adult audience. This film understands intuitively what works and doesn’t work about each incarnation and pokes fun at them all in equal measure. It speaks to the strength of the character that he can be subjected to this level of satire and still be treated with a deep level of sincerity, seriousness and respect, and that’s exactly what the film does in its characterisation of Batman.
The movie’s version of Batman is the same macho, egotistic Master Builder we met in The Lego Movie who believes he’s brilliant at everything and who rejects any kind of human attachment in all of its forms. Not only does he always work alone, he refuses to even acknowledge that he and the Joker are nemeses who share any kind of a special bond. His solitude is challenged both by the unintentional adoption of the wide-eyed and insufferably annoying Dick, whom we all know will later become Robin, and by the plan hatched together by the bitterly rejected Joker, desperate to prove that the unhealthily co-dependent relationship he shares with Batman is real. As Batman recklessly pushes himself further into this pursuit to stop whatever it is the Joker really has planned, it is Alfred who must try and reel him in. It is he who observes that his rejection of attachment is driven by the same fear that compels him to dress like a bat and beat up bad guys, the trauma of losing his family.
There is a lot going in The LEGO Batman Movie with jokes being fired on all fronts and a legion of characters to balance, but the movie knows when to keep things simple. Batman wanting a family is more than enough material for an enjoyable and compelling family adventure and the film uses it well. The movie is dumb and self-aware enough that it never demands to be taken too seriously. It’s a film which understands (in the same way that Deadpool understood) that superhero movies are inherently kind of silly and that’s okay. Unlike Batman v. Superman this movie isn’t ashamed to call itself a superhero movie and isn’t embarrassed of being childish, campy or light-hearted. The movie may have more in common with Adam West’s wacky adventures than it does with Nolan’s epic saga, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy of the Batman name or any less of a treat for fans. This is not the Batman movie we need; it is the Batman movie we deserve.