‘The LEGO Batman Movie’ Review | How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bat
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.
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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.