Chris McKay’s blast of comic-geek humor tweaks the Dark Knight’s gothic pretensions while teaching him the importance of that old Sesame Street standby: teamwork.
Now we know: Batman the TV show had it right. For years, the hit on the series was that it undermined the Batman character, that Adam West’s self-consciously stiff portrayal and the show’s countercultural zing contradicted the very idea of heroism. But there was a reason that tuned-in hipsters and agape schoolkids loved it. Because, despite the Batusi and the Liberace guest spots, Batman was always the incorruptible hero fighting to save Gotham. His true nature was never doubted.
Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie manages the same trick. And it’s a hoot.
A sugar high of self-conscious product placement and satirical mock-epic, The LEGO Batman Movie strip mines Batman’s mythology for all its comic potential. Because it’s also an industrial widget that means to sell toys, the movie showcases the hero underneath that cowl and scowl. Voiced by Will Arnett (reprising his role in The LEGO Movie), this Batman is part Christian Bale’s Dark Knight and part reality-show star, a showboater who loves saving the day but won't let anybody steal his light or get close to him. Yes, there is a lesson here. But after three Christopher Nolan efforts and lord knows how many Zack Snyder bores, Batman could use a little therapy that doesn’t involve punching people.
The movie opens on your standard Batman-saves-Gotham-City battle scene. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is unleashing an army of villains upon the city, a fantastic montage that includes a who's who of Batman nemeses (Riddler, Two-Face, Scarecrow, even Clayface!) and also a deep dive into some more “C-grade” opponents, including Condiment Man. Batman makes short work of them all and busts out some mean dance moves as well, exploiting the sort of blind self-aggrandizement that Arnett perfected on Arrested Development.
This Batman is not only lonely, but also resolutely anti-romantic. When a needy Joker makes the familiar declaration that "We need each other" (see: Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke), this movie turns their dilemma into an unrequited love story. The Joker bursts into tears when Batman selfishly refuses to admit how crucial his villainy is to the Caped Crusader’s sense of self-worth. They proceed to have a massive battle, the animated Legos morphing and exploding in pixelated gouts of color that bring a retro arcade-game, homemade fannish glee to everything. The voice actors actually make "pew-pew" noises to simulate gunfire enhances the buzzy immaturity of it all.
After the big splashy battle, though, Batman has only himself. He’s no Superman (Channing Tatum), with his Justice League buddies and TV-ready charm. Batman goes back to the Batcave (huge, empty) and up to Wayne Manor (huger, emptier), where he microwaves the Lobster Thermidor that Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) left out for him and watches Jerry Maguire.
Perhaps worse, Batman faces criticism of what he does, his self-defining fight against crime. When Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) -- a new-fangled CompStat and neighborhood policing-style hotshot who graduated from “Harvard for Cops” -- becomes the police commissioner, she takes direct aim at Batman’s vigilantism. Gotham, she says, doesn’t need Batman “karate-chopping poor people.” After all, she points out, it’s not as though crime has gone down in all the decades that Batman has been supposedly keeping the city safe.
Batman hates everything he’s hearing, of course. But then he’s saddled with Robin (Michael Cera), a hero-worshipping orphan sidekick in too-short an outfit, and suckered into bringing yet another of the Joker’s evil plans to fruition. At that point, Batman has to deal with the fact that his hubris and refusal to work with others is potentially dooming the city of Gotham. To succeed, he can’t just rely on his gadgets, crime-fighting awesomeness, and amazing abs (he likes to talk about those), but he must also rely on those people he’s been rebuffing all those years.
So, yes, there's a lesson to be learned here: family and friends and teamwork are good things. On one level, this seems a generally healthy counterpoint to the amoral near-psychopathy evinced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. On another, it's a way for the franchise to look ahead. No matter how awesome Batman’s kung-fu moves and many vehicles may be, they’re no match for the full-spectrum villainy that Joker unleashes from a Guantanamo-like super-prison. There are almost too many genre references to register in the final battle, from Godzilla and Gremlins to Daleks, King Kong, and even the roving fiery eye of Sauron, it feels like a ComicCon exploded inside this movie.
Self-satirizing and self-replicating, The LEGO Batman Movie might be described as playing it safe. The large staff of credited screenwriters keeps the gags flying, and the screen is busy with surprisingly beautiful scenery (Gotham has never looked so gorgeous) and whip-fast action editing. There’s little chance anybody is going to be bored while watching it. Given the pop-Wagnerian gloomy stranglehold on the character -- at least since Tim Burton's Batman -- it’s about time that somebody took a different tack.
The LEGO Batman Movie is a breath of life before the next faux-serious slab of the same-old comes rolling off the DC assembly line. Moreover, The LEGO Batman Movie references the 1985 classic Gymkata and makes the Joker cry. Let’s see Ben Affleck do that.