Such a feature would be useful for adults and the internet sometimes.
Finally a Batman movie I can fully get behind. I am well known for having mixed feelings about the Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, especially on the writing level. I’m particularly mocking of the cultural impact, where you can’t get through a comment thread anywhere without someone doing the “____needs/___deserves” line, and the weird legions of maladjusted young men who rose up in the wake of criticisms about the Nolan movies to literally threaten the lives of film critics and people who disagreed with them. Entirely the wrong lessons were drawn by fandom of those movies. I really feel for the long-time and holistic fans of Batman as a character and part of the larger DC mythos. To me, they are constantly abused by Hollywood. DC fans in general. There are those super serious fans out there who are probably predisposed toward hating and dismissing this movie, but I would really urge them to give this a chance. Because it’s not just a parody of Batman and his fandom and legacy, it’s also a huge fucking love letter to fans of the character, of comic books, and of nerds in general.
Except something weird happened when The Lego Movie arrived. Batman was a major character and he was not only a series of jokes about the silliest elements of the character, he was also really funny.That’s got a lot to do with Will Arnett who doubles down in this movie to deliver maybe the best cinematic Batman to date, but it also owes a lot to the way the writers and directors are also huge Batman fans and able to draw on almost a hundred years of cool shit, silly shit, and flat out weird shit for this version of the character. It seemed weird to set a movie around him, like we were all surprised that The Lego Movie wasn’t just a toy commercial, but a Lego Batman movie? That had to exist just to sell more overpriced licensed Lego, right?
Wrong. Lego Batman is legit. I wasn’t sure that the absence of Chris Lord and Phil Miller would be a good thing for this movie, but Chris McKay seriously knocks it out of the park. It takes more out of The Fast and the Furious and Deadpool than it does out of any existing Batman property. It’s full of humor that threatens the fourth wall, including numerous references to the other Batman movies and the age of the character. There’s a great vocal cast having a ball here. Biggest surprise? This movie has a strong emotional core about a lonely Batman who needs to let people in so he can relearn the value of family. If there are any missteps it’s that some parts are a tad underwritten (there were something like 6 writers on this) and it maybe relies too much on flat, bombastic superhero action. But for the most part, it re-appropriates the pseudo-stop-motion aesthetics of The Lego Movie, riffs on 78 years of Batman lore, and makes fun of the silly aspects of the character while also reminding us that Batman was always silly and that this is perfectly okay.
Also, this movie both makes fun of Suicide Squad and manages to be better at the core concept. That is just a win all the way down.
Batman is at once a stand-in for middle aged men and young men, both being vulnerable to delusions of grandeur and crippling emotional stuntedness and resulting loneliness.
In Lego Batman, Batman (Will Arnett) has completely overtaken Bruce Wayne. This is a Bruce who loves being Batman so much that he wears the cowl almost all the time, unless Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) makes him take it off. Batman is where he has placed every scrap of his dubious self-worth and it culminates in lonely dinners and longing gazes at old family photos when he thinks no one is looking. This is a sad Batman, where the gadgets and toys aren’t the product of a hyper-competent mastermind but of a damaged, overcompensating, manbaby. This is incredibly appropriate both in terms of undercutting the iconography of the character, but also in the way the film draws parallels between Batman and the kind of lonely nerds who may be attracted most to him as a character. The toys and memorabilia aren’t all that different from the stuff nerds like me enjoy collecting, and it’s completely harmless until it’s a fixation which gets in the way of our lives.
In a whiz bang battle that feels like only the latest in hundreds for the character, Batman duels all the villains in his rogue’s gallery, who are led by a weirdly sympathetic and delightfully homoerotic version of the Joker (Zak Galifianakis). As Batman trounces them, Joker pleads with him to recognize their mutuality, their essential bond. But Batman refuses, hiding behind machismo and a kid-friendly version of the “no fucks given” superficiality that hangs off masculinity like an ill-advised, anachronistic cloak.
This is probably the one time where if someone said their favorite character in the movie is the Joker, I won’t feel a need to slap them upside the head.
Joker hatches a scheme to get up in Superman’s (Channing Tatum) super-prison, the Phantom Zone, to unleash a bunch more villains from all over nerd fandom (Sauron is in there, so’s Zod and Daleks and even the fucking Wicked Witch). As Joker rips Gotham apart with his new pals, his only wish to prove to Batman once and for all that he is important, Batman goes through the process of learning that other people are important and should be valued. He learns about finding a family! It’s fun, unexpected, and occasionally very moving.
Fixated on new commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), Batman, dressed as Bruce Wayne, accidentally adopts Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) who refers to Batman and Bruce Wayne as his “two dads” (brilliant) until he finds out they’re the same guy. Cera brings a wide-eyed earnestness and hilarious lack of subtlety to the role, and it’s the best (only?) thing he’s done in quite a while. Not only does he need to learn how to appreciate his new Robin, he also has to learn to appreciate Alfred and Barbara as more than a means to his own carefully constructed and rabidly defended fantasy of adulation from the people of Gotham, who are an abstract to him until he finally gets his shit together.
Having Alfred eventually suit up is an inspired choice.
If I can mention something that didn’t quite click, it’d be Barbara’s storyline. At first it seems like it’s going to be a great reimagining of the Babs-to-Batgirl arc, but instead gets third fiddle until Batman suddenly and with no real connective tissue in the actual movie, decides Babs is not his love interest but his platonic co-worker. It’s cool that the movie doesn’t shoehorn a romance, especially when Babs makes frequent references to Batman as being old, but there’s something missing (maybe a scene or two) that makes the transition more smooth. Babs doesn’t show much interest in Batman, it’s true, but Batman needs to have a moment where he realizes his infatuation transforms into respect and friendship. You can glean it from what you see, definitely, but it’s like a blurry spot on a photograph, which makes me think it’s an underwritten part of the no doubt many drafts this movie went through before being finalized.
Though I’m spending a lot of time focusing on the deeper characterization this movie presents, it’s not as if this is some kinda Charlie Kaufman meditation on the existential crises of old white dudes. That stuff is there for adults to appreciate as they watch this ostensible kids’ movie. But like The Lego Movie, this one is also filled with great jokes especially if you like Batman and Lego. Even if you don’t, there are great one-liners, sight gags, and extremely creative references all over the place here. It’s packed to the brim with solid content and it never lulls or drags except in the slightly overdone action sequences, but even those are broken up with gags and moments of beauty derived from the way the Lego medium is used.
That robe kills me.
There’s this sense that Batman is a serious character. This has to do with serious takes in the comics (The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, etc) which work or don’t work depending on who you ask, but mostly it has to do with the Nolan movies which ushered in an era of movies that take superheroes so seriously that it has become its own running joke. Its own useless can of shark repellent sprayed on everything the WB is trying to do with the DCEU to the ruination of all. I’m not saying a serious, Michael Mann style take on Batman was unwarranted or shouldn’t have worked. I’m saying that Batman is and always was a super silly character and the Achilles’ Heel of any serious take on the character is in forgetting that. Zack Snyder kind of hates altruistic superheroes because he is an objectivist and so he has finished Nolan’s (also probably an objectivist) work of robbing the fun out of these characters. No one in their right mind thinks that Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman or the Dark Knight trilogy are fun movies. Even Suicide Squad couldn’t stop getting in its own way long enough to be consistently fun. These movies don’t have to be fun. It’s okay to try serious and grim once in a while, but the MCU and Deadpool prove that you can be pretty dark and pretty serious while also remembering to be fun. I think after five or six straight movies where everything is serious and grim, it’s refreshing to find the fun again.
Lego Batman is super goddamn fun. It utterly embraces the goofy cartoonishness of its comic book origins, rather than deconstructing them to death. It’s definitely having so much fun at the expense of Batman, and everything that’s been done with Batman for literally decades, that it might be a bit tough for the super serious Batfans to accept. I had a hard time getting my thirteen year old daughter to want to see this because she thought a comedic take on Batman was a stupid idea. And she doesn’t give a shit about Batman. It’s just that’s how successfully Nolan and Snyder have reduced the character to that one grimdark dimension in the popular consciousness. Kids grew up with hyper-serious Batman and they’ve forgotten about shark repellent Batman. Thankfully most of them like Lego and Batman so much and so generally that they, like my daughter, saw this movie in droves. And it will remind them and hopefully Warner Brothers that Batman can be fun.
Because fun works.