Everything is Batman
Warner Brothers and DC Movies had a very difficult year in 2016. Their nearly three hour introduction to Justice League was a cluster-clucking mess of grimdark and self-seriousness that aspired to be high art but came across as elegantly as an episode of Dragonball Z. Then their “fun” super villain team up turned out to be a lame, unfunny mess of ideas that tried in vain to copy Guardians of the Galaxy. My opinion of the DC film franchise is so low that I’ll be genuinely surprised if Wonder Woman is somewhat watchable. But maybe, just maybe, Warner Brothers can save itself from the mountain of negative press if they follow the wise words of…a literal toy version of their major property. Truth is stranger than fiction after all.
Yes people, Lego Batman (Will Arnett) returns from his scene stealing debut in 2014’s The Lego Movie, to star in a film dedicated in service to his massive ego. And against all odds, not only has director Chris McKay made a film on par with the joke a second riot that was The Lego Movie, but he’s also crafted the best roast of the Caped Crusader while he’s at it. I don’t use the term lightly, everything in Batman’s 75-plus year history gets ludicrously ridiculed. When I say “everything” I’m referring to every comic, television show, film, side project, radical interpretation, and video game ever produced in connection with Batman. What follows is not only a great history lesson on one of popular culture’s most enduring figures in an intriguing and hysterical way, but the film still manages to introduce an emotional core to keep audiences invested.
So Lego Batman is celebrating another day beating up his entire rogues gallery lead by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), when he reveals to the villain that the hero doesn’t have an arch bad guy…apparently shattering the Joker’s heart. Meanwhile, Comissioner Gordon steps down to let his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) take his place and make the startling case that Gotham City doesn’t need Batman if the populace wants to reduce crime in the city. Thanks to her efforts, Batman feels bored and neglected to the point he wants to put the Joker away in a place where he can never hurt anyone again, the Phantom Zone. But to accomplish his task, and to get his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) off Batman’s back, he recruits the orphan boy his alter ego adopted by accident, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), to be Batman’s sidekick Robin. Hilarity and carnage ensues.
The story is a pretty flimsy excuse to see shenanigans on screen, but it’s perfectly serviceable as you’re not paying attention to the plot as much as you’re trying to catch every joke the film bombards you with. That might sound like a critique, but it’s only because I now want to rewatch the film to catch all the references and gags I missed the first time around, since the ones proudly on display entertained me so thoroughly. Praising a comedy is always tricky without giving away the jokes, but trust me when I say that you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at both the absurdity of the situations presented and the incessant cracks against Batman himself.
Honestly, taking the super hero down a peg has been a long time coming even as his morose and “serious” interpretation became popular through Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, particularly with The Dark Knight. And while I still rank the film as one of my all-time favorites, the obsession with making Batman “darker” and “grittier” has begun to look just plain silly culminating in the disastrous Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This film here explores not only why Batman’s loner routine is just plain stupid, but the film presents a recently overlooked portion of the lore that had been long ignored.
Batman’s obsession with the death of his parents is presented here as every Bat-movie is required to do, but unlike the rest of the other films, they don’t recreate his parents’ death for the umpteenth million time. Instead, the movie uses the death of the Waynes to get Batman to learn to trust again and feel part of a family. Granted it’s a silly, corny lesson that’s nonetheless important for kids to walk away with, the moral serves as an antidote for Zack Snyder’s disturbed 13-year-old creepy fantasy of seeing Batman as The Punisher. But not only is the tone and character development more light hearted than recent Batman or even DC fare, but the movie still manages to find ways to wow you in terms of animation.
Like The Lego Movie, this production was completed through a mix of stop-motion animation and computer-generated animation. The director, Chris McKay, has had plenty of experience in this area through his work on Robot Chicken after all these years and he’s managed to top himself for a full-featured motion picture. The way characters and sets move feels like a fever dream through its speed and vivid colors to illustrate an utterly madcap world straight out of a child’s imagination. And yet, this film manages to top some of the delights in The Lego Movie with huge, bombastic scenes and large, gorgeous landscapes that are truly a sight to behold. Moreover, for a Batman flick the background feels like a Joel Schumacher wish come true, only this film hired decent writers and actors to tell the parody the maligned director allegedly was going for in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
The childlike spirit even extends to the sound design, with characters sputtering “pew-pew-pew” as they fire weapons and “beep-beep-beep” as they press buttons on a computer. Hell, even the clicks of Lego pieces sticking together never grates and casually reminds you that you are in fact just watching toys on screen having a ridiculous adventure. But that’s what is so damn surprising about this film: a mere toy line is capturing the spirit of what makes Batman tick than the live action stuff is while remaining more accessible and even more interesting than a rated-R version of the Caped Crusader viciously murdering thugs for little to no reason at all.
Lego Batman has well-established reasons for why he does what he does: he’s a freaking man-child that’s also a billionaire and therefore allowed to indulge in his every psychotic fantasy to assuage his guilt complex. He’s basically Archer with somehow even less restraint, and Will Arnett communicates that attitude flawlessly. While I think Kevin Conroy and Michael Keaton are still the best Batman, Arnett is pretty high up there which I’m sure is causing a never ending amount of grief to Ben Affleck (though it might explain the recent rumors of him trying to leave the DC Film Universe).
The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with Ralph Fiennes as the Batman’s sole confidant, Alfred, even delivering a pretty emotional scene that has been missing from recent Dark Knight-related productions: the bond between Bruce Wayne and Alfred. I initially thought Michael Cera would annoy me as Robin, but I was happily proven wrong as he’s just playing an overly-excited orphan that still manages to be both competent and helpful to Batman and, once again, bringing back from the dead a great relationship between father and son that has existed over and over again in Batman’s long history. And Rosario Dawson even provides a far more interesting interpretation of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl than the creepy, abusive stuff that most comic nerds have liked to focus on with stuff like The Killing Joke. Hell, unlike the recent animated version of Allan Moore’s story, this film manages to show an unrequited romance between Batman and Batgirl that is in no way skin-crawlingly awful and is played up more for laughs than for tragedy.
Damn, I’m not even through all the stuff I like. Big ups to Zach Galifianakis as well for providing a long joked about version of the Joker: that he’s in love with Batman, and not only does it serve as the driving force of the plot but it’s resolved in the most perfect way imaginable. Doug Benson pulls off Tom Hardy’s operatic Bane voice from The Dark Knight Rises to great comedic effect and the film manages to right a wrong with casting Billy Dee Williams as Two Face. For those who don’t remember, ol’ Lando Calrissian appeared in Tim Burton’s Batman as Harvey Dent with the intention of making him Two Face in a sequel. But when Burton left for the third film, Schumacher recast Two Face with Tommy Lee Jones instead. It’s little jokes like that are why I love this film.
Make no mistake, I truly adore this little movie. It’s a wonderful flashlight in the darkness that was the dreary Zack Snyder nightmare and it even raised my spirits after seeing one of the worst films of 2017 the day before. Go out and see this film as soon as possible if you have kids, and go see it if you don’t. This is a damn fine film that’s not getting my highest rating only because it didn’t make me cry. But it kept a big, stupid grin on my face through the whole run time, so I’m awarding this with a super high…