See, Zach Snyder? Batman can be fun.
Since Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” plunged the Caped Crusader into morally dubious territory in the 1980s, Batman has been defined by a grim aesthetic. Tim Burton made him a tortured weirdo; Chris Nolan a grounded-but-haunted vigilante. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” depicted him as an angry dudebro, branding his symbol into thugs’ flesh and trying to kill Superman. He’s become pretty one-note.
Sure, Batman’s always been a character that operates best in the shadows, and some of the movies (Nolan’s in particular) have resulted in genuinely great comic book films. Somewhere along the way, though, DC Comics and Warner Brothers forgot that the concept of a man dressing as a bat to beat up bad guys is inherently silly, and that comic book movies are intended to be enjoyable. It baffles me that the only Batman movie suitable for my Dark Knight-loving son is the campy 1960s Adam West/Burt Ward vehicle.
So it makes me happy that his first theatrical experience with the character is “The LEGO Batman Movie,” which features Will Arnett as a hero who spends more time bragging about his shredded abs than he does moping about Wayne Manor. Like 2014’s brilliant “The LEGO Movie,” this spin-off is a clever, very funny poke in the ribs to a story that often takes itself way too seriously.
The Batman of this movie is a rock star, introduced saving Gotham City once again from the clutches of The Joker (Zach Galifianakis). Batman preens for the crowd and shows his Batmobile off to the local orphans before showering them with free hats and T-shirts from his merch gun. He then retires to the cavernous Wayne Manor, where he heats his lobster thermidor in the microwave and watches “Jerry Maguire” alone. Batman, you see, likes his solitude. His isolation gets tested, however, when alter ego Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts chipper orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and the two reluctantly team with new commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) to stop the Joker, who’s assembled a lineup of every Batman villain ever (along with a few other notable nemeses whose presence should not be spoiled). Can Batman save the world, accept that he needs a family, and still maintain his nine-pack?
“The LEGO Movie” took what appeared to be a cynical cash-in and turned it into one of the most clever films of that year. Watching it felt like someone put a film projector in a child’s brain, as its characters cut between worlds, intellectual properties collided and everything was delivered with a clever, postmodern wink. It riffed on the idea of chosen ones and was a paean to unbridled imagination. In that instance, the idea of a LEGO movie became less about toys and more about tone, deconstructing beloved tropes with a heavy dose of humor and heart.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” isn’t as narratively inventive or thematically rich as its predecessor, but its attitude is still in check. Director Chris McKay and his stable of five writers plumb the Batman mythos and leave no Easter Egg unturned. Each incarnation of the character is name-checked, from the Adam West series to Snyder’s dark and dumb take (even “Suicide Squad” isn’t spared). Every A, B and C-list villain from his rogues’ gallery shows up (even Condiment King, who I wasn’t aware was a real character). The entire concept of a man “dressing in a Halloween costume to punch poor people in the face,” as Barbara puts it, is mercilessly skewered to very funny aplomb.The film moves with the pacing of a Zucker and Zucker parody, with a gag always less than a second away; the majority of them land. While Bat-fans will salivate over the in-jokes, general audiences and kids will be tickled by every silly pratfall or turn of phrase. Few people do preening stupidity as well as Arnett, and it’s possible his Batman has gotten even more arrogant and clueless between this and “The LEGO Movie.” From the film’s opening, in which he narrates the production logos (“Warner Brahs”) through every attempt to craft a theme song for himself, Arnett owns this movie, poking fun at Batman’s self-obsession and tortured brooding but also finding true heart to the character. It’s probably silly to call him the best Batman ever, but he’s definitely the most entertaining.
The supporting cast is also great fun, particularly Galifianakis, who plays Joker as a villain nursing wounded pride. One of the film’s delightful plot threads is how it presents the Batman/Joker dynamic as a twist on a love story, leaving their desire to say “I hate you” to each other unrequited until the final act. Cera gets big laughs as Robin, adorably chipper and a big fan of short shorts, and Fiennes is a delight as no-nonsense Alfred, who even gets to suit up late in the film. The film is full of many wonderful cameos, mostly as big-name comedians take turns voicing various villains. Even if they show up for just one line, everyone seems excited to be part of the universe, and the film feels ready to burst with comedic anarchy.
Like “The LEGO Movie,” this film is also a visual delight, taking its cues from the candy-colored Schumacher films and the 1960s series (at one point, Batman advises Robin “we’re going to hit these guys so hard, words spontaneously materialize.”) Using computers to create a LEGO world, the movie homages previous Bat-films while also giving us a fresh, fun take on the universe. The film’s opening action sequence is a wild, overstuffed battle for Gotham and its final act use other intellectual properties to pit Batman against an array of villains from other media. It’s silly, but that’s part of the fun. It doesn’t make sense why my son pits Batman and Superman against his “Star Wars” characters, but the film works on the same 5-year-old logic.
But the film is not just a tweak of the Batman saga; it also has enough heart and understanding of the character to be a genuine Batman movie; indeed, one of the best. The film takes his isolation and need for a family seriously, and there’s a warm heart beating under the relationship between the hero and Robin, Alfred, Barbara (Batgirl) and even the Joker. The film captures the over-the-top nature of his rogues’ gallery that’s gotten lost in the days of grim-and-grit, and it also celebrates the family dynamic that has fueled the character’s comic book legacy and been pushed to the side in favor of Batman the Loner. It’s a valid take on the character; it just happens to be lighter than what we’re used to, and the world looks a bit more plastic.
I remember rolling my eyes when “The LEGO Movie” was announced. And even after seeing that and loving Arnett’s take on the character, I still thought “The LEGO Batman Movie” wouldn’t have enough juice to sustain itself. So, LEGO, that’s twice I’ve been proven wrong. I’m not going to doubt whatever you come up with next.