Batman films exist in homeostatic cycles—for every good iteration, there will be an equally overwrought, underwritten or bat-nipply version just around the corner. After brooding his way through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the caped crusader is back in possibly the most appropriate form ever—an animated, toy-based irreverent comedy.
Batman (Will Arnett) is doing what he does best: fighting crime and living in the shadows, burying his crippling loneliness under piles of gadgets and money. Unfortunately for him, new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) is much more interested in fighting the causes of crime through social engagement and statistics, not punching people in dark alleyways. Batman’s also on rocky ground with the Joker (Zach Galifinakis), who is insulted that Batman doesn’t even think of them as mortal enemies. While Barbara is stripping Batman’s power and stealing his spotlight, the Joker hatches a plan to upgrade his villain crew. In the middle of all this is wide-eyed orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom Batman accidentally adopts and must now co-parent with his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and his “roommate” Bruce Wayne.
The LEGO Batman Movie’s biggest strength is its ability to play into the inherent silliness of Batman in a way that no other film version has. Bruce Wayne is a grown man who dresses up as a bat, shuns his emotions and spends his time stuffing an asylum full of C-grade villains—it’s amazing we’ve ever been able to take him seriously, let alone for so long. The film leans into this, encouraging viewers to Google the more obscure villains like Polka Dot Man, and referencing events of previous Batman films as “phases” that Batman has been through. The design choices have been iconic rather than consistent—the most recognisable versions of each character are cherry picked from all over the Batman canon, including Tom Hardy’s Bane, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, and Burt Ward’s Robin. The film does offer a fresh take on Barbara Gordon, promoting her to Police Commissioner and only touching on her father’s fame rather than characterising solely as “Commissioner Gordon’s daughter”—she’s community minded, sensible but not stuffy, and it’s particularly good to see such a well-written version of Batgirl after the mangling her character received in 2016’s adaption of The Killing Joke.
While the film embraces silliness and irreverence, the film making is solid; it moves at a punchy pace, rarely missing an opportunity for a joke and using its action set pieces as comedic moments to avoid lagging. Even the score is played for laughs, with a dramatic choir announcing any scenes in the Phantom Zone and Batman singing a song about how great he is while fighting every villain in Gotham city. It avoids the trappings of an origin story, with Batman already well established as the hero Gotham deserves, and manages to keep Batman in action even though the Joker’s plan is unknown to him for most of the film. In short, it’s smarter than most superhero films, steering clear of the midpoint fight sequence and stretched cliches in favour of dress up montages and Batman literally singing his own theme song.
Another real strength of the film is the fact that it doesn’t restrict itself to one audience—while some jokes might land better for kids or DC fans, there’s still plenty for everyone else. LEGO Batman’s sense of humour is easily its biggest selling point, but it doesn’t sacrifice pace for humour or humour for pace. The film builds on both the mythology of Batman and the wider DC universe (the Justice League make a brief appearance), but also plays within the world established by The LEGO Movie—Batman is a master builder, and the Joker’s new rogues’ gallery includes basically every bad guy ever immortalised in Lego.1 The animation style is also consistent with that of The LEGO Movie, produced by Australian animation house Animal Logic, and the stop motion style is another tool in the comic utility belt of the film.
It feels strangely fitting that Lego Batman was released so close Fox’s Logan—two films that share a genre and, arguably, a story. Both are about a grizzled, crime fighting hero who loses their purpose, and must learn to let in a loveable orphan and an old British father figure to create a new family. Both are about characters not just unwilling to face their flaws, but often unaware of them. But while Logan is surly and serious, LEGO Batman is energetic and irreverent, with a lot more Michael Jackson references and far less of downer ending. And as the volume of superhero movies released each year reaches critical mass, it’s smart filmmaking like this that differentiate the genuinely compelling movies from rote origin and save-the-world stories. Perhaps the real triumph of LEGO Batman is that it makes a movie about the Dark Knight saving Gotham city from destruction feel fresh, original and fun.
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