I hesitate to say this since—according to The Lego Batman Movie—his head is already pretty swollen, but this spin-off in the Lego movie franchise only confirms my contention that Batman is the most compelling of all superhero characters.
The Lego Batman Movie takes the basics of the Batman legend—the death of his parents; the fame and fortune he inherits; the vigilante alter ego he adopts—and imagines that they’ve added up to a pompous crime-fighter whose obsession with justice purposefully leaves no room for human connection. Superman has Lois Lane. Spider-Man has Mary Jane. The Avengers have each other. This Batman has his cavernous underground lair and a plate of lobster thermidor left for him by Alfred, his butler. Coming home after a long night of Joker-battling, he pops the lobster in the microwave and watches the plate spin, twiddling his bat thumbs.
That bit is one of the funniest moments in The Lego Batman Movie because it does something few portrayals of this iconic character have managed: it portrays Batman as human. Save for Michael Keaton, our movie Batmen have been pretty boring. Not here. Voiced by Will Arnett, reprising his performance in 2014’s The Lego Movie, this is a boorish Batman obsessed with his abs (he claims he has a “nine-pack”), his vast array of bat vehicles, and defeating the endless stream of super villains threatening Gotham City. (How had I not heard of the Gentlemen Ghost before?) All is good in Batman’s world until two people force their way into his solitary life: new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants to rein in Batman’s vigilante ways; and orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom Bruce Wayne inadvertently adopts in a moment of distraction.
If the jokes don’t do it for you, you can always get lost in the dazzlingly intricate production design.
The team-written screenplay is packed with gags at the front (I love the merch gun Batman uses to outfit a crowd of adoring orphans in logo wear), but gets bogged down with Batman’s personal growth by the end. We get it: by learning to work together with Barbara and Dick, Batman will learn to open his heart. Thankfully, while these lessons are being laboriously learned, director Chris McKay and his team of animators are stuffing the film with visual treats and pop-culture asides. (There’s a particularly amusing dig at Doctor Who). And if the jokes don’t do it for you, you can always get lost in the dazzlingly intricate production design, which uses the familiar block shapes of Legos to construct vast variations on the Bat Cave, Arkham Asylum, and Wayne Manor, the latter of which boasts fireplaces holding individual Lego flames. Like The Lego Movie, this film finds invention by embracing the rigid Lego aesthetic. (Another hilarious moment relies on the various painted expressions used to register Joker’s increasing sadness.)
The Lego Movie was my favorite film of 2014 both for this visual ingenuity and for the way it served as a social experiment: how we play with toys, the movie argued, can serve as a stand-in for how we want to run the world. The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t have that sort of depth, but neither is it a quick cash-in on its predecessor’s success. He’ll probably let this go to his head, but I have to give Batman credit: once again, he’s managed to beat the odds.