Review: ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’

It’s not the Batman movie we deserve, but the one that we need.

The LEGO Batman Movie. Directed by Chris McKay. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith et al. Starring Will Arnett, Michael Cera, and Rosario Dawson. 104 minutes. Warner Bros. Rated PG. CNS Rating is A-II—adults and adolescents.

This may be the greatest Batman movie ever made. And heaven knows a lot of them have been made.

Although it comes from before my time, I grew up watching the Batman television series from the ’60s, starring Adam West. As a small child, I thought the show was hysterically funny. I would sit in front of the TV and laugh my head off, and my father assures me that his cousins used to do the same thing when he was a kid, watching it in its original run.

I was in grade school when Tim Burton directed Batman starring Michael Keaton. When that movie came out, Batman was suddenly all the rage. Every kid at my school was in to Batman, except for me. I didn’t care for this new, bloody, violent, brooding vision, even if it was closer to the spirit of the source material. The Batman I loved was bright and colorful and happy, with really, really cheesy acting.

Christopher Nolan’s still gritter vision didn’t appeal to me either. In addition to finding perpetual annoyance in Nolan’s inability to direct a coherent action sequence (love the guy’s movies, mostly, but seriously, he needs to hand the reins to someone else when the action starts), I found his vision of Batman’s world absolutely suffocating. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece, but it’s also hard to sit through. I spend the movie gasping for air.

There’s a scene near the beginning of The Dark Knight in which Batman ties up and then abandons some well-meaning but foolish vigilantes who are trying to follow his example. They yell at him that they only want to help, but he responds in Christian Bale’s laughable smoker’s cough, “I don’t need any help.”

I thought to myself, when he uttered that line, that there was a great excuse to introduce Robin. That’s what the Nolan movies need: they need Robin. Introducing Robin is one of the things that ruined the previous Batman movie franchise, so Nolan’s refusal to bring the character in is understandable. Still, The Dark Knight desperately needs something to lighten the mood once in a while, something like a twelve-year-old boy in a flashy red, green, and gold costume. Even Frank Miller, when he created the iconic and unrelentingly brutal Dark Knight Returns, recognized that Batman needs Robin.

My impression of Batman movies generally is that they try too hard. They recognize that Batman is the dark superhero, the brooding superhero, the tortured superhero, so they go all dark, brooding, and tortured, and they just keep going, never managing to crack a smile—except Batman and Robin, but let’s just pretend that one doesn’t exist.

The LEGO Batman Movie, being what it is, has an opportunity that the live-action movies, which are obligated to take themselves seriously, don’t have: an opportunity to inject a little fun into the world of Batman. Like the toys on which it’s based, it takes Batman apart. Then it puts him back together, giving him what he needs whether he likes it or not.

Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, who reprises the role from The LEGO Movie with a smoker’s cough decidedly more convincing than Bale’s, is an emo-teen-like loner who spends his days wandering around his empty mansion and spends his nights battling various villains. Although popular in Gotham, he has no friends and won’t let anyone get close to him while he moodily reminisces on the family he’s lost. The rest of the Justice League ignores him because he’s too awkward to hang out with. Secretly, he assuages his loneliness by binge-watching chick flicks, and he particularly loves Jerry Maguire, which this film uses to poke fun at Heath Ledger’s line, “You complete me,” from The Dark Knight.

The Joker, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, is something like Batman’s mistreated girlfriend, who just wants Batman to acknowledge him as his archnemesis. To make that happen, he conspires with Harley Quinn to break the universe’s worst criminals out of the Phantom Zone—and although a slew of Batman villains show up here, including even obscure ones like Egghead and Condiment King, the Joker brings in evildoers such as Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, and the Daleks. Because this is LEGO.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon retires and hands his post over to his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), who wants Batman to become an official police officer working with the law rather than outside it. Though smitten with her, Batman insists on remaining a loner—yet accidentally adopts a son, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), while he’s distracted.

Dick of course wants in on the action and soon becomes Robin. Then Barbara becomes Batgirl, and even Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) insists on being an action hero, so Batman discovers that he must finally learn how to play well with others. That is the overarching theme of the film, harped on repeatedly throughout but never growing tiresome: the importance of family and friendship. It is a full-frontal assault on the conception of Batman as the brooding, angst-filled loner.

The jokes come thick and fast, and they’re very silly. There are a lot of references to the ’60s television series (even a video clip!) as well as the previous movies. Packed into The LEGO Batman Movie is a history of Batman on film, and from that history, it correctly diagnoses what Batman needs: he needs friends, he needs a family, he needs to lighten up.

This is the first and only Batman movie to capture the spirit of the TV show I loved as a kid. I know Adam West didn’t care for Tim Burton’s dark and violent version, though of course he couldn’t do anything about it—he played Batman, but doesn’t own him—so I hope he’s seen this new version, which finally brings a bright, colorful, and fun caped crusader to the big screen. Among other things, The LEGO Batman Movie is an homage to West’s legacy.

The look of the film is similar to that of The LEGO Movie, which won audiences over in 2014. Although made on the computer, it has deliberately herky-jerky animation to look like stop-motion. The manic and beautifully rendered action sequences call to mind a small child smashing up his toys. Because Batman is a Master Builder, he can instantly create various fancy cars, flying machines, and mecha out of blocks. The pace is fast and the script is sharp, with rapidly delivered gags, sometimes on point, sometimes random, and sometimes decidedly obscure (they make reference to the famously bad Gymkata for no reason whatsoever). It is consistently laugh-out-loud funny. This is the most fun I’ve had at a movie in a long time.

A few of the jokes are slightly off color, but the film overall is pretty tame. Probably a decent family movie, but possibly not for the youngest children.