The Lego Batman Movie
US (2017) Dir. Chris McKay
The success of The Lego Movie back in 2014 was a surprise for many but the creators wisely exploited all aspects of the Lego brand, such as the tie-in franchises like the Superheroes, to produce a fun film. This proved a vital element to its success, bringing us to this inevitable spin-off.
Gotham City is once again under threat by The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and his army of super-villains until Batman (Will Arnett) arrives and singlehandedly fends them off. During their latest face off, Batman hurts Joker’s feelings when he says Joker is his greatest enemy, and worse still, that Joker means nothing to him. Feeling dejected, Joker plots to teach Batman a lesson and surrenders himself and his gang to the police so that Batman has no-one to fight.
However, Batman still thinks the Joker is dangerous and plots to send him to the Phantom Zone, stealing the Phantom Projector from Superman (Channing Tatum), with help from Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a teen orphan Bruce Wayne inadvertently adopted. Batman sends Joker to the Phantom Zone but Joker gets his revenge by busting out and returning to Gotham City with the most dangerous villains and monsters at his disposal.
One thing that made The Lego Movie work was its tongue-in-cheek self-awareness which is carried over to this film, only turned up to 11. The Lego Batman Movie is wickedly funny in lampooning the superhero conventions whilst being a surprisingly effective superhero flick in its own right. If Ben Affleck’s Batman in his two cinematic appearances has brought out a solipsistic side to his character then the Lego version goes for the jugular and makes it the sole trait of Batman, but not in a mean way.
In essence, this is pricking the egos of the mega rich and the untouchable social elite, not just Batman/Bruce Wayne, yet doesn’t inflict any damage on the character’s reputation or appeal as a hero, since he is still cool and bad-ass even with the self-absorbed attitude. This is the self-awareness mentioned earlier that perhaps has made other portrayals of Batman seem a bit to distant, but lightening him up as a figure of fun at least spares him the campiness of the Adam West iteration, also mocked here.
With the target audience being young kids – although the script is heavy on satire for adult consumption – the central message is extolling the importance of family and not being afraid to ask for help from anyone. Batman has the ability to deal with the criminals alone, and does so, but his inability to share with anyone is his downfall, illustrated across a number of platforms and scenarios.
First, Commissioner Jim Gordon (Héctor Elizondo) retires with a huge gala celebration attended by a reluctant but still up himself Bruce Wayne, who becomes smitten with the new Commissioner, Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson). A highly skilled cop in her own right, Barbara is Batman without the suit and gadgets and vows to crack down on crime in Gotham City by working WITH Batman and not just relying on him, which doesn’t sit well with the Caped Crusader.
It is at this event that Dick Grayson (later Robin) approaches Bruce Wayne with many questions about adoption and crime fighting, which Bruce answers with a “yes” because he is gawping at Barbara, hence the “accidental” adoption. There is great humour in the cute development that Dick is so scatty he doesn’t realise that Bruce and Batman are one in the same, despite the overwhelming evidence, thus thinks he has two adopted dads.
But with Batman being cold towards his willing new charge, cruelly exploiting him for his own gain and not extending a loving wing for him, much to the chagrin of loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) who spells it out for him at every turn, our hero is proven to be cruelly than the villains he is trying to vanquish, a dichotomy that becomes an integral plot point, both one a comedic and philosophical level.
For comic book and action/fantasy film fans, the supporting cast of villains is one giant Easter egg of cross franchise giddiness. Perhaps only an all embracing commodity like Lego could pull off such a multi-property line-up in one domain and get away with it, making for quite the spectacle in a “nerd out” kind of way.
The roll call of fictional bad guys and beasties takes in Jaws, King Kong, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Lord Of The Rings, Gremlins and much more, whilst The Joker’s army delves right into the obscure DC catalogue with names that the script wryly encourages people to Google them to validate their existence – although I can vouch for Zebraman, from the two films from maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike.
Between the quick fire humour, pop culture parodies, nerd baiting fan service and morality lessons, there are the actions scenes, dizzying displays of manic movement and crisp choreography that must have aged the CGI animators by twenty years in putting them together. The Lego concept allows for a greater freedom in defying all sense of plausibility, so vehicles can reshape or rebuild themselves or characters can perform gravity ignoring gymnastics without recrimination for being farfetched.
Depending on how precious one is towards their comic books, the script is bristling with witty zingers and barbed observations of the mores and standards of the genre, mocking them with an affectionate acerbic tongue that, if anything, can be seen as a tribute than a slight in noticing the minutiae of the superhero fabric taken for granted by fans. The kids may not understand any of this, giving the adults their hook beyond the eye-popping escapism on offer.
It’s too easy to cynically dismissive of The Lego Batman Movie as an opportunistic cash in, but thanks to a canny and smartly crafted script, this is not just a great family film but a pretty decent Batman film too. Over to you Mr. Affleck!