To those who love only the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan movies, and who ignore the Adam West and Joel Schumacher installments as a matter of course, Batman probably comes across like a bit of a loner. What else do you call a man who spends his days holed up in his man/batcave, inventing gadgets, designing fetish outfits, ignoring the pleas of his (surrogate) father to get out and date more, and who repeatedly goes out into the night to get into back alley brawls so he can feel better about not having friends or family?
The problem with this interpretation of Batman is that it leaves him trapped, a hopeless victim of his own arrested development. The only reason we can romanticize this obsessive isolation at all is because he saves the world on a semi-regular basis and it’s pretty hard to argue with results. But the majority of the Batman films haven’t given the character any room to grow. I suspect this is why many people complain that his villains are more interesting than he is. Unlike Batman, their stories are allowed to reach conclusions.
And while it’s fair to say that a lot of these sourpuss Batman movies have been quite excellent, it’s also fair to say that monotony was setting in. You can only be “grimdark” for so long before someone who cares about you will suggest that you should grow up. And in the films, at least, Batman just grew up. By playing with LEGOs.
The LEGO Batman Movie is a bright and thrilling exaltation of all things Batman, and I do mean all things. Chris McKay’s animated picture doesn’t just reference every iteration of Batman but uses all of those previous iterations as a source of inspiration. The film makes fun of how rigid Batman’s persona has become and forces the hero, largely against his will, to acknowledge that he’s more rich and complicated than even he believes he is, and that there’s more to life than just getting results.
Batman (voiced, like a lawn mower, by Will Arnett) begins his story by saving Gotham City from a gloriously overcomplicated scheme by the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). It would be a thrilling introduction to any Batman movie, and the people of Gotham City – and the audience – are grateful, and they happily celebrate the awesomeness that is Batman. Then our hero goes home to his empty mansion, reheats dinner, fiddles with the A/V settings on his home theater system, and tries to ignore the existential horror of his own existence.
He’s been able to put off dealing with this soul-crushing loneliness because of the ego-stroke that comes from being Batman, but when new Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) reminds Gotham City that despite Batman’s heroics all of his supervillains still run rampant, he shrinks a bit. He gets more obsessive than ever. Batman gets so distracted by his desperate need to be revered that he kind of forgets that he accidentally adopted an orphan, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
The majority of
The LEGO Batman Movie is about a fiendish plot by The Joker, one that will force Batman to admit once and for all that they’re functionally soul mates, and about Batman learning to love and trust again with the help of his new sidekick, Robin. It sounds family-friendly and it is, but not just because it’s made of LEGO. It’s a story about family because that’s what Batman’s story has been consistently about for over 70 years, even though most of his movies tried to ignore that part.
Batman has spent the majority of his time in the comics building up a surrogate family for himself, consisting of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Barbara Gordon, Superman, Catwoman, a bunch of Robins and – if we’re being honest – also his repeat offender villains. Batman doesn’t send The Joker, Two-Face, The Riddler and all the rest of them to jail to be punished, he sends them into psychiatric counseling so they can get help. In the comics, whether or not he’d always admit it, he really does give a damn about them.
The LEGO Batman Movie has fun with all the other versions of Batman, and if those versions are your favorite you’ll have all the fun with the world watching this manic and hilarious motion picture play with them, but its heart belongs to a Batman who is capable of being vulnerable, and who learns that from vulnerable comes great strength.
The LEGO Batman Movie, more than any other, is a film about Batman’s experience as a human being, not just as a superhero. (Joel Schumacher tried and failed, and even Batman Begins is more about a young man who chooses to become a symbol than it is about a fully functioning adult.) It’s a Batman movie that cares about Batman, that gets inside his head, and finds something to love. And it shares that love with all of us in one funny scene after another, one exciting (albeit bizarre) action sequence after another, one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to obscure Batman comics after another, one bit of brilliance after another.
Lay all of those ingredients on top of each other and they snap together like little plastic bricks, creating a world we want to visit. A Batman film with more humanity than the Batman films with actual humans in them.
The 40 (Other) Best Superhero Movies Ever:
Top Photo: Warner Bros.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon , and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick . Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani .
The OTHER Best Superhero Movies Ever Made
40. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
Ninja Turtles movie had more in common with the cartoon series than the darker, more serious first movie. But despite the pervasive silliness there's a lot to like about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, if only ironically. The unapologetically campy "Ninja Rap" by Vanilla Ice will always hold a place in some people's hearts. Photo: New Line Cinema
39. The Crow: Wicked Prayer
Edward Furlong dons the gothic face paint in the fourth movie based on James O'Barr's tragic revenge comic, and while it's not nearly as good as the original,
Wicked Prayer is a lot more interesting than the middle two films. David Boreanaz and Tara Reid overact the hell out of their villain parts, and Six-String Samurai director Lance Mungia overloads the film with wonky weirdness. It's a mess, but it's a very watchable mess. Photo: Dimension Films
38. Avengers Grimm
Fairy tale princesses follow the wicked Rumplestiltskin through the magic mirror to modern day Los Angeles, and wage a war with abilities culled from their various stories. (Sleeping Beauty puts bad guys in a trance, Rapunzel attacks with her hair, you get the idea.) The budget is painfully low and the acting is all over the place, but the script is undeniably solid, with a fully-realized fantasy world and entertaining riffs on old archetypes. With a bigger budget
Avengers Grimm might have been a lot higher on this list. Photo: The Asylum
37. The Green Hornet
Seth Rogen and Jay Chou have fantastic chemistry in
The Green Hornet, a film that sets out to dissect the superhero/sidekick relationship and does a good job of it. Christoph Waltz is also an excellent villain, who only turns to masks and gimmicks because of a mid-life crisis. Unfortunately, the action, the pacing and the third act are mediocre at best, leaving The Green Hornet feeling like an amiable misfire instead of a genuinely good flick. Photo: Columbia Pictures
36. The Return of Captain Invincible
Alan Arkin plays a has-been superhero forced out of retirement in this bizarre Aussie musical.
The Return of Captain Invincible isn't as funny as it thinks it is, but it's worth watching just to hear Christopher Lee croon about being, essentially, an evil bartender. Photo: Seven Keys
35. The Guyver
An adaptation of a violent manga series,
The Guyver isn't very well written but it features cool action sequences and astounding makeup effects by co-director Screaming Mad George. Photo: New Line Cinema
34. My Super Ex-Girlfriend
A clever screenplay is sabotaged by hokey direction in
My Super Ex-Girlfriend, about a hapless boob who dates a superhero, breaks up with her, and discovers that all that grim 'n' gritty emotional baggage has consequences. If you can look past shoddy fight scenes and obvious rom-com staging, you'll be able to see that screenwriter Don Payne understood superheroes very, very well. Photo: 20th Century Fox
Will Smith is great as a superhero whose isolation leads him to self-destruction in
Hancock, a film that draws smart parallels between costumed crime-fighting and Hollywood celebrity. Unfortunately, the film's second half abandons that concept entirely, in favor of endless exposition and pointless action. Both halves average out to a watchable mixed bag. Photo: Columbia Pictures
Guillermo Del Toro's fanciful adaptation of Mike Mignola's stylish comic book series gets all the monsters and makeup just right, but saddles the audience with a boring human protagonist who does nothing but distract from the star attraction: Ron Perlman, perfectly cast as a grumbling, satanic monster-hunter with a heart of gold.
Photo: Columbia Pictures
31. Doctor Mordrid
Horror star Jeffrey Combs was never suaver than he was in this low-budget
Doctor Strange knockoff, about a master sorcerer trying to stop his oldest enemy from rising to power. Doctor Mordrid suffers from a low budget, but the film has its moments, like a nifty climactic stop-motion dinosaur skeleton fight. Photo: Full Moon Entertainment
30. Hero At Large
John Ritter is positively charming as a naive actor who accidentally inspires New York City when he stops a liquor store robbery while he's still in his superhero costume.
Hero At Large has smart things to say about the rocky relationship between what's real and what really matters, but it's probably too long by about half an hour. Photo: MGM
29. RoboCop 2
From the director of
The Empire Strikes Back and the writer of The Dark Knight Returns came a jokier RoboCop, but one that nevertheless boasts non-stop social satire and kick-ass action sequences. It's not as good as the original, but it's not as bad as a lot of people remember. Photo: Orion Pictures
28. Sky High
Witty in-jokes and hilarious cameos elevate an otherwise lightweight teen comedy, about the son of a superhero who gets sidelined at school because he hasn't gotten his powers yet. It's a fun film, but the climax veers way too far into silly territory.
Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Kick-Ass has serious script problems - like a title hero who has almost no impact on the story whatsoever - but the good parts are damn near unforgettable, particularly a scene-stealingly weird performance by Nicolas Cage and a badass (and utterly irresponsible) mass murdering turn by a young Chloe Grace Moretz. Photo: Lionsgate
26. V for Vendetta
In spite of an ending that completely, shamelessly misses the point of what its protagonist stood for, this handsome adaptation gets a lot of things right, with a revolutionary mentality and memorable star turns by Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.
Photo: Warner Bros.
25. Behind the Mask
Behind the Mask is the second in a trilogy of films based on The Shadow (all of them released in 1946), and it's easily the best, with masked vigilante Lamont Cranston juggling a false murder accusation and his charismatic but meddling girlfriend in equal measure. Light, quirky, admittedly dated, but still a lot of fun. Photo: Monogram Pictures
24. The Shadow
Alec Baldwin took over as The Shadow in this handsome, pulpy thriller that failed to find an audience but has aged rather well, thanks to sly performances, a winking sense of humor and surprisingly creepy set pieces.
Photo: Universal Pictures
A supervillain finally kills his arch-nemesis, takes over the city, and immediately suffers from an existential crisis in
Megamind, a movie that doesn't always fire on all cylinders - the details are head-scratching at best - but gets by on personality and showmanship. Photo: Paramount Pictures
22. The Toxic Avenger
Vicious, puerile, disgusting... these are all points in
The Toxic Avenger's favor. The breakout film from Troma told the story of a nerd who fell into a vat of chemicals, mutated into a monster, got superpowers, and became homicidal whenever evil people were around. And there are some UNBELIEVABLY evil people in Tromaville. It's a divisive film, but then most of the truly "cult" films are. Photo: Troma
21. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Guillermo Del Toro ditched the boring non-hero and focused on the title monster. A wise move that makes this sequel the superior
Hellboy. The plot isn't quite as captivating as the movie makes it out to be, but the impossible menagerie of masterful makeup effects more than compensates. Photo: Universal Pictures
20. Griff the Invisible
Strange and wonderful, the Australian import
Griff the Invisible is the story of a socially awkward office worker who spends his nights protecting the neighborhood. He picks up an unexpected partner on his quest to build an invisibility cloak, but looks can be deceiving... on multiple levels. A bittersweet and very good film about the thin line between fantasy and delusion. Photo: Vivendi Entertainment
19. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
A shallow cheerleader inherits supernatural powers and overwhelming responsibilities in
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a clever and funny film whose biggest crime is not being half as good as the spin-off television series, which expanded on the characters and the mythology. Still, the original Buffy holds up rather well as a 1990s high school superhero comedy, with Kristy Swanson kicking butt and Paul Reubens and Rutger Hauer stealing scenes. Photo: 20th Century Fox
18. The Powerpuff Girls Movie
An impressive fusion of bright colors and total darkness, the unexpectedly melancholy origin of the hit Cartoon Network superheroes left some audiences baffled. But for those who take Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup seriously (as well as their arch-nemesis, Mojo Jojo), this energetic motion picture hits all the right marks.
Photo: Warner Bros.
17. The Watchmen
Zack Snyder adapted one of the most unadaptable graphic novels in history, and to his credit he got a lot of it right. The sense of history and scale is spot on, and the cast of characters comes to life: victories, failures and all. Strange visual cues and controversial changes to the story keep
The Watchmen from achieving greatness, but sometimes it actually comes close. Photo: Warner Bros.
16. The Mask
A loverlorn loser dons a magical mask and becomes... well, not a superhero, but a superpowered explosion of unbridled id. Jim Carrey gives the perfect cartoon performance in
The Mask, a film that brims with style and energy and mania. Photo: New Line Productions
From the creators of
South Park came a low-budget comedy about a Mormon who became a porn star, who then became a superhero. It's as dumb as it sounds, but that's at least partly the point: Trey Parker has so much fun sending up superhero movies and pornography that you almost forget that the film has hardly any sex or nudity in it, or that it actually has intelligent things to say about the evolution of individual morality and the social impact of adult cinema. Photo: Rogue Pictures
14. Mystery Men
Lots of superhero stories are about how one man or woman is destined for greatness. In
Mystery Men we meet a whole group of wannabes who are destined for mediocrity, but who get a brief moment to shine when the city's biggest superhero is kidnapped. A hilarious film that's full of wonderful characters. It's a mystery why Mystery Men doesn't have a bigger cult following. Photo: Universal Pictures
13. The Specials
A low-budget superhero comedy about a middling superhero team - on their day off, no less - the conversational and intelligent comedy
The Specials dissects the everyday nonsense that would have to befall every costumed crime fighter. By bringing these titans down to our level, we are reminded that heroism isn't a 24/7 occupation, and that our greatest heroes are usually just dorks like the rest of us. A great superhero comedy, written by future Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn. Photo: Anchor Bay
12. The Mark of Zorro (1940)
Tyrone Power cuts a dashing figure as the masked crime fighter Zorro, who spurns his affluent upbringing and risks life and limb to bring equality to the poor. It's a rollicking adventure of the highest caliber, and somehow it's not even the best Zorro movie.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
Spider-Man director Sam Raimi cut his superhero teeth on Darkman, a stylish and kick-ass action/adventure about a scientist who loses his face and has to steal the identities of bad guys to find revenge and save his ex-girlfriend. Liam Neeson is impressively unhinged, as is Raimi's virtuoso filmmaking. Darkman is like a classic Universal Monster movie crossed with a modern superhero thriller. It's equal parts weird and wonderful. Photo: Universal Pictures
M. Night Shyamalan's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated
The Sixth Sense was ahead of its time, subverting superhero clichés before most audience members were able to even recognize them. But this dark parable about a family man re-discovering his true potential is masterfully filmed, impressively acted, and only let down by an ending that is almost comically rushed. Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie works better than it probably had any right to, with impressive costumes, cool fight scenes and an emotional storyline that actually made you care about whether these pizza-eating reptiles lived or died. And the messages about teen apathy and capitalist brainwashing is downright subversive, considering that this film was at the forefront of a massive merchandising empire. Photo: New Line Cinema
8. The Crow
The late, great Brandon Lee gave a heart-wrenching performance in his last film, based on the gothic revenge comic by James O'Barr.
The Crow is a gorgeous music video pumped full of angst and anguish, an adrenaline shot of violent grief that overpowers its otherwise conventional storyline. It is tragedy, caught on camera, and whatever its flaws it is beautiful. Photo: Miramax Films
7. The Mask of Zorro
Grand, old-fashioned action abounds in Martin Campbell's
The Mask of Zorro, which finds an older version of the iconic hero making way for a younger, feistier, more sensual leading man. Great sword fights, a sly sense of humor and the occasional creepy moment (that is NOT what you're supposed to do with a severed head) make The Mask of Zorro the second best Zorro movie. Photo: TriStar Pictures
A group of teenagers get superpowers, act like dumbasses, and then realize that with great power comes a great excuse to act out on your most deplorable urges. Josh Trank's
Chronicle captures the fantasy and the horror of becoming more than human, in a film that plays a bit like an Americanized version of Akira, but also a lot like one of the best superhero movies ever made. Photo: 20th Century Fox
The superhero genre got its own version of
Taxi Driver in James Gunn's brutal comedy, about an emotionally troubled man who thinks God has chosen him to beat the crime out of his community with a wrench. Rainn Wilson gets himself a sidekick and tries to stop a local villain, only to confront the sad, sexual, violent realities of the superhero fantasy. Potent, powerful, kind of brilliant, Super is truly super. Photo: IFC Films
4. The Mark of Zorro (1920)
The original heroic ideal who put on a mask, carved his initials in evildoers and inspired us all to make better choices. Douglas Fairbanks' film came out only one year after Zorro first premiered in print. He co-wrote the screenplay and performed some amazing stunts. And this film helped define superhero storytelling in all mediums, comics and beyond.
Photo: United Artists
3. The Rocketeer
The wonders of flight never seemed more wondrous than they do in Joe Johnston's
The Rocketeer, a fabulous throwback to old school adventure about a dashing young hero who finds a jet pack, fights Nazis and proves he's a better man than Errol Flynn (kind of). This is the kind of superhero movie you assumed they always made, but maybe they only made it this once. Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
2. The Incredibles
The best Fantastic Four movie doesn't have The Fantastic Four in it. It's
The Incredibles, Brad Bird's animated adventure about a family of people who have stunted their own potential in an ongoing effort to be normal, only to finally break out and become the superheroes they were always supposed to be. The philosophy is controversial: the film argues pretty hard that some people are special and some simply aren't. But as a metaphor for how we all feel (as opposed to how the world actually works), it's an inspiring, breathtakingly realized metaphor for the hero in each of us. Photo: Pixar
Part action movie, part horror movie, part social satire, all
RoboCop. Paul Verhoeven's endlessly inventive sci-fi classic is about a cop his sacrifices his life, and then his identity after the corporate-owned police department turns him into a cyborg. The effects are incredible, the violence is unbelievable, the satire is biting, and the humanity is unmistakable. RoboCop isn't just one of the best movies about a superpowered hero. There's an argument to be made that it's one of the best movies. Period. Photo: Orion Pictures