Following a string of direct-to-video animated outings for DC characters in LEGO form, themselves spawned from a series of successful video games, Batman appeared in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 2014 smash hit The LEGO Movie and promptly stole the show. Now given his own big screen spin-off adventure, Will Arnett’s narcissistic, knuckle-headed incarnation of the Caped Crusader faces off against a packed rogues gallery of super-villains, whilst begrudgingly embracing the fact that cooperation, rather than lone vigilantism, might be the key to success and lasting happiness.
The plot sees newly-instated Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) insist that Batman cooperates with the GCPD or cease his crime-fighting activities altogether. Meanwhile, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) hatches a scheme to have himself banished to The Phantom Zone, where he plans to recruit a new cadre of bad guys capable of taking down the Dark Knight once and for all. Closer to home, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) challenges Bruce Wayne to face his greatest fear - not snake-clowns, but putting his trust in others - by accepting the Commissioner’s offer and training up his ward, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) - an orphan Wayne carelessly adopted at a recent charity gala.
At the heart of The LEGO Batman Movie, however, is the relationship between Batman and Joker, a yin-yang of good and evil that proves as co-dependent as it is adversarial. At least, that’s how Joker would have it. But Batman's recent tussles with Superman, on top of his overwhelming resistance to emotional commitment of any kind, sees Bats reject the Clown Prince of Crime as his one true nemesis. And this hurts Joker - really, really bad.
Including ideas from within the LEGO universe such as “master building” - having characters utilise materials around them to build vehicles and tools as required - The LEGO Batman Movie otherwise steers clear of its predecessor’s more meta aspects. Instead, the film embraces Batman's 78-year history, gleefully referencing every past screen incarnation of the Caped Crusader, from the 1940s black-and-white serial starring Lewis Wilson, through the psychedelic 60s TV show, the Burton, Schumacher and Nolan years, right up to Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.
Bursting with more Easter eggs, sight gags and in-jokes than can possibly be digested in a single viewing, the film gleefully mocks the franchise's chequered past, from ill-conceived villains to inappropriate costumes and the inherent repetitive nature of the brand’s formula. Batman foils preposterous crimes committed by the same criminals again and again, though fails to have a significant lasting impact on Gotham’s crime-ridden streets. The film even finds time to rope in numerous recognisable characters from other films and franchises, and even take pot shots at Marvel's rival franchise along the way.
LEGO has always taken great pleasure in poking fun at the Dark Knight’s brooding sensibility and stylistic edginess. While time restraints limited this to angsty adolescent song-writing in The Lego Movie, Batman - and Arnett - now have free rein to showcase just how emotionally damaged and shamelessly selfish he can be. In Batman, Arnett has found his best role, certainly since Arrested Development, if not of his entire career. He's a deplorable, insensitive character, whose lack of self-awareness resonates in stark contrast with everything else in the movie, and is arguably a greater threat to Gotham and its inhabitants than the Joker or anyone else in Arkham Asylum.
Supporting Arnett is an astonishingly adept voice cast, with Michael Cera bringing a dangerously naive enthusiasm to his Boy Wonder, while Rosario Dawson provides authoritative sass as Commissioner Gordon, and Zach Galifianakis perfectly captures the bruised insecurity of a Joker who’s just not feeling enough hate from his arch enemy.
Also noteworthy is how the Justice League is utilised here. While Superman, Wonder Woman & Co do feature, they are not called upon to assist Batman in his mission, despite the film’s major narrative arc focusing on Batman cooperating better with others. In the live-action DCEU, it is Ben Affleck’s Batman who instigates the Justice League, while here he has no knowledge of their existence. Sure, it’s all in service of a single joke, but it is an odd choice when a film presents itself as part and parcel of the DCEU, only to reject teaming Batman with his well-established allies in favour of… well, you’ll see.
Perhaps not as consistently hilarious as The LEGO Movie - although often very funny - The LEGO Batman Movie is an applaudably enthusiastic effort, packed with enough wit, energy and knowing self-deprecation to delight DC fans, LEGO aficionados, Michael Jackson acolytes and just about any enjoyer of a good time. Most importantly, it is also the most emotionally attuned and self-aware Batman movie ever to grace our screens, and something DC would do very well to build upon.
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