“Irreverence” isn’t typically a term one associates with Batman, except in this newest film starring the world’s greatest detective. Since comic writer Denny O’ Neil shifted the creative direction of the character away from the campy vibe of the 1960’s show and towards darker, more serious stories, he’s been generally defined in most of his media as a brooding loner who is both intense and remarkably cunning.
The goal of The Lego Batman Movie is to somehow translate that into an adventure featuring the character that can appeal to a younger audience, and it more than succeeds. Its wit is sharp enough to go well beyond that and will probably delight older moviegoers as well.
No stranger to self-deprecation in the roles he chooses, Will Arnett’s Batman is often childish, overzealous, and insecure with a massively inflated ego. But in spite of his faults, his sense of justice is unwavering, displayed well in a visually impressive opening that takes advantage of the Lego toys’ creative potential.
As he jams to a catchy theme song composed by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, he proudly claims to the Joker (a diabolically amusing Zack Galifianakis) that he’s a cool loner who doesn’t need relationships. This revelation doesn’t sit well at all with the clown prince of crime, and his obsessive need for Batman to regard him as his arch-nemesis is the kickoff point for his scheme to conquer Gotham City.
It seems at first that the adulation of the citizens of Gotham are all that Batman needs…until he finally retreats to the Batcave and tries to drown his inner desire for companionship in a sea of reheated lobster thermidor and sappy romantic films. It’s this need for a family that forms the overarching plot of Lego Batman, even as different twists are thrown into the story.
Batman has been written and marketed for many years as something of a power fantasy, an absurdly wealthy playboy who moonlights as a genius vigilante acting outside the boundaries of the law. Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon pokes a number of holes in said fantasy and serves as a good romantic foil for Bruce, replacing her father Jim as Gotham’s commissioner and insisting that Batman (to his horror, of course) work more closely with the police.
As the loyal butler Alfred, Ralph Fiennes is warm and also drolly funny playing a parental figure to the immature and impulsive Batman, while Michael Cera’s Dick Grayson/Robin is adorably upbeat, clueless and a laugh riot when he’s accidently adopted by Bruce. Together, the trio serve as an interesting rebuttal to Batman’s “man who can do anything” presentation in many stories.
One could easily compare Lego Batman to a good MAD Magazine parody. Not simply in regards to how it features multiple guest appearances from many other characters, including a Justice League (led by an appealing Superman voiced by Channing Tatum) that’s reluctant to invite the normally isolationist Batman to their anniversary parties, but in how it works as a good natured ribbing of the more ludicrous aspects of the franchise. There are a variety of callbacks to different Batman films and television series, among them Batman Beyond (which caught me by surprise), the 1960’s Adam West TV show, and even The Killing Joke.
Thankfully, this is a much, much better Batman film overall than that recent Killing Joke film. Arnett’s performance as Batman stands out as a highlight, playing the iconic character as his own biggest fan. Using Legos as the theme of the animation almost feels appropriate, as it reflects the both the childlike spirit of the story, and the affection the filmmakers clearly have for the character. The Lego Batman Movie gets a huge recommendation from me- it’s a fun analysis of the Caped Crusader that also works as a genuinely engaging adventure.