The toy brick spinoff is a blitzkrieg of silliness that still pays tribute to 70 years of the Caped Crusader.
Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.
I have aged phenomenally.
The best comparison for The LEGO Batman Movie is probably Galaxy Quest. If you haven’t seen that (and if not WHY NOT, STOP READING THIS AND GO WATCH IT), what made the 1999 film special wasn’t just its cast or its wit, but how the film, in the process of poking fun at Star Trek, ended up being a pretty great Star Trek-style adventure. Fans still rank it among the best in the series, despite Quest’s highly meta approach to the genre and not directly sharing any elements or characters. It stands as a shining example of how you have to really know and love the thing to do a parody of it justice.
The LEGO Batman Movie, the unasked-for spinoff to the surprisingly successful The LEGO Movie (one of my top films of 2014), brings that same impish spirit to the the Gotham universe. Which, let’s be honest, could use the boost. We’ve dealt now with years of behind-the-scenes confusion delivering nigh-unwatchable results, and there’s no reason to hope that the now Affleck-less (as director) The Batman won’t be more of the same. It’s just no fun, man. We haven’t had a worthwhile Batman anything since the last Arkham game, and it’s been a solid decade since the The Dark Knight set a bar for polished dourness that DC Studios will never be able to clear. Fox’s Gotham is a joke; only the kids in The CW’s colorful Berlanti-verse seem to be having any fun. Not only is Marvel eating DC’s lunch on an entertainment level, when they go “dark,” like for Luke Cage or the new series Legion, Marvel is still doing it better.
Enter director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken), story writer Seth Grahame-Smith, and the gravel-scraping voice of Will Arnett. They’re not here to reinvent the wheel or expand the Batman mythos. But more importantly, they’re also not here to mock what came before, but to pay homage. And in the process, they’ve delivered not only a screamingly funny, whiz-bang, hyperactively animated action comedy, but a remarkably solid Batman film all on its own. LEGO Batman might sound like Christian Bale, but the film is pure Adam West, colorful and cornball and self-aware.
Fresh off another successful thwarting of the Joker’s attempt to destroy Gotham City, and the post-thwarting high fives and distribution of merchandise, Batman is settling in for another quiet night at Wayne Manor. Some of LEGO Batman’s funniest moments come in the film’s first third, as the high of an awesome job done awesomely dissipates in the face of an uncooperative microwave, cavernous dining room, and the quiet loneliness of Bruce’s private screening of Jerry Maguire. Batman hates people, he wants you to know, and plays the spoiled child for long-suffering butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, immediately one of the franchise’s best Alfreds), but only because — say it with me — he still hasn’t gotten over his parents’ death. Mercifully, the film doesn’t make us watch them die for the 18th time.
Before long, his monotonous Batman routine (72 years and counting, and he’s as handsome as ever) gets upended with the appointment of a new police commissioner, Gordon’s nunchaku-wielding daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), and by his distracted “adoption” of young orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, exquisite). If you picked up in the first few minutes that the film’s emotional gears would turn on Batman’s acceptance of his new “family,” you’d be right, but the film doesn’t really care that it telegraphs that; it just wants you to sit back and let the chaos wash over you as if a child just turned a bucket of colorful bricks over your head.
In any case, LEGO Batman’s Batman’s key relationship isn’t with Barbara, Dick/Robin, or Alfred, but with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), and here’s where the film shines brightest. The Clown Prince of Crime isn’t resentful of Batman’s repeated disruption, because he enjoys the game and always gets away. No, it’s the fact that Batman just doesn’t take him, or their relationship, seriously. Batman won’t even say “I hate you” and mean it, and in the early scene where he crushes the Joker’s dreams of platonic frenemy-ship, you actually feel for the maniac. In response, the Joker plans to get himself captured (of course), and sent to — cue the dramatic choir — The Phantom Zone, a trans-universe netherspace where he can upgrade his Rogues Gallery for the best that the Warner Brothers library can offer: Voldemort, Sauron, and other baddies too good to spoil.
That’s basically it for the plot, and though the film leans toward exhausting over the course of its 104 minutes, the energy doesn’t flag too badly. McKay and the wizards at Warner Animation Group take their cue from the candy-colored anarchy of The LEGO Movie and one-up it, throwing all manner of sight gags, vehicles, creatures and DC deep cuts (Condiment King! Yes, he’s real!) at the screen and not caring what sticks. There’s also a dizzyingly stacked voice cast, including all the aforementioned names plus luminaries Eddie Izzard, Ellie Kemper, Jemaine Clement, Billy Dee Williams, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brian, and more.
It’s a low bar to clear, but The LEGO Batman Movie is pretty easily the finest outing for the Caped Crusader since The Dark Knight (Nolan haters might even put it up against Batman Returns), and the reason it works is because it’s not trying to be a Batman Classic. It just knows what makes Batman, Batman, and adds a healthy dollop of nostalgic silliness. “All great movies start with a black screen,” Arnett rumbles in the opening moments, and he’s not wrong about this one, either.