When Will Arnett’s braggadocious Dark Knight grapple-lined into the spotlight in 2013’s perfect The Lego Movie, it was a refreshing contrast to the deadly serious Bats fresh off the heels of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. In the same way that Adam West’s delightfully earnest and square caped crusader was the perfect parody of the Batman of comics in the 50s and early 60s, Lego Batman was a stocky plastic mirror held up to the grim and joyless “unbeatable justice ninja” persona that came into vogue in the wake of Frank Miller’s standard-bearing take on the character in the mid-80s. But would the elements that made Arnett’s Batman such a hit in a supporting position translate well into a feature film of his own? The answer, is thankfully and enthusiastically yes. Packed to the brim with the same kinetic pace and humor of The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie is the funniest movie of the year so far, and one of the best Batman stories ever told on film.
The plot: Hero of Gotham, carefree millionaire, and “heavy metal rapping machine” Batman (Arnett) has an awesome life filled with fighting crime and watching romantic comedies alone in Wayne Manor. When Batman fails to requite the Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) claims to being his number one bad guy, the clown prince of crime hatches a scheme that threatens to destroy Gotham with the help of a few new friends. Unable to face the heinous plot alone, Batman must grudgingly call upon the aid of Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), newly appointed police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and his accidentally adopted orphan Robin (Michael Cera), and finally face his greatest fear once and for all.
Right off the bat* The Lego Batman is imbued with those same elements that made The Lego Movie a winner. The jokes are silly and mile-a-minute, peppered throughout with sly visual gags, fizzing zingers, and some exceptionally well-executed meta-humor (the Batcave’s password: “Iron Man Sucks!”) There’s a murderer’s row of celebrity cameos, ranging from Conan O’Brien as The Riddler to Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face, to others so wonderful and spoilerly that it would be criminal to divulge them here. Director Chris McKay and writer Seth Grahame-Smith synthesize the tone of the first movie, the end result being a movie that feels like an organic extension of the original without feeling like a retread. The same creativity, warmth, and attention to detail that were the hallmark of its predecessor permeate The Lego Batman Movie, but rather than being a Lego story hastily painted with the black (and very dark grey) of Batman, it’s a Batman story told as only the Lego franchise could allow.
The Lego Batman movie does what very few Batman movies have ever done: it makes him confront his deepest fear. It’s not the moment in which he loses his parents, as suggested by Batman Begins, it’s building a family in the wake of that fateful moment. The thing is, Lego Batman is kind of a miserable jerk-ass. Loved as he is by the citizens of Gotham, he is plagued by a compulsive need to push others away, and in turn The Lego Batman Movie pushes the guy to lighten up. Batman’s journey from clueless loner jerk to part of a functioning, if unconventional family, is a satisfying one made all the better when said family includes Ralph Fiennes weary Alfred, Michael Cera’s unfailingly chipper Robin, National Treasure Rosario Dawson’s no-nonsense (well, some nonsense) Babs Gordon, and even Zach Galifianakis’s endearingly insecure Joker. Towards the end of the film is a tearjerker moment between Batman and Robin that stands not only as not only the key scene of the movie, but as perhaps one of the character’s best moments in his long and storied history. Come to The Lego Batman Movie for the jokes, stay for the engaging narrative about accepting loss.
The Lego Batman Movie is one of the few recent lighthearted takes on Batman that feels thoroughly modern. While I adore the likes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and last year’s Return of the Caped Crusaders, both find their humor in Batman’s campy exploits of the 50s and 60s. The Lego Batman Movie takes stock of the full range of Batman’s 75+ years, and tells a story that builds upon all of it. More than any recent offerings, The Lego Batman Movie is about Batman as a character as he exists in 2017, told with the meta-textual aplomb only the Lego veneer could provide.
*HAHAHAHA. We have fun here.