the lego batman movie
review by dara mcwade
There is an inextricable worry around a film like The Lego Batman Movie, as it is both a spin-off of a popular children's film (The Lego Movie), an animated version of a beloved character and a superhero movie for children. It's an understandable worry, but fear not fans of both Batman and the cinema, for the film honours the vast and varied legacy of the character, referencing everything from obscure Batman films, the newly formed grudge-match on Superman and that most classic of Bat-Gadgets, the Bat-shark repellent. It might just be the second best Batman film ever made - and as a gag in the film notes, there's been quite a few.
Taking its cues from The Lego Movie, itself a surprisingly fantastic film woven from a material that could easily be mere merchandising, Lego Batman keeps things fast, fresh and funny. The jokes come a mile a minute - blink and you actually will miss something, whether that be a soon-to-be classic line or a background moment. Like its predecessor, the animation is fluid and surprisingly expressive for blocks of computer-generated Lego. The film pops on a visual level, as the camera and environment move and twist around each other for whatever joke is on screen.
I was unsure that Will Arnett's take on the Batman in The Lego Movie could anchor a solo film, but he acquits himself very well as the lead. Arnett remains the perfect choice for a comedic Batman pitched to self-indulgent love, his gravel deadpan selling every self-effusive comment he makes. while masking the pain he feels behind the mask. And there is pain behind the cowl - as an actual realised character arc appears beneath the shiny action and jokes. I would argue that the film deals with the character flaws inherent in the Batman myth better than any other film in the Batman canon (except The Dark Knight), surprising considering that this is, again I will remind you, a spin-off of an advertisement.
This is a film about family, and Batman's journey to it. He is a man scarred by the death of his family, so terrified by the concept of loss that he shuts himself up in his mansion eating Lobster Thermidors by himself in between rescuing Gotham and receiving praise. There's a surprisingly emotive shot of Batman standing in front of the microwave in a dressing gown and his mask, as the revolving light from the microwave casts a shadow on the wall behind him. As he tells the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) after an early fight, the Batman "doesn't do 'ships". By allowing the drama inherent to the character to appear in these moments, the film allows itself a genuinely affecting plot that revolves around building a family with Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Robin (a standout Michael Cera) and Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson).
None of this would work without the film doing its primary job, to make you laugh, and by heavens will it make you laugh with its unpredictable insanity. One minute Batman will begin singing about his 8-pack mid-battle, the next the Joker pines over Batman's hatred. He wants to be his greatest enemy and Batman just can't commit to any one great enemy. He likes to fight around, you see. The cameos come on fast and thick (who even remembers the un-classic 1960's villain Polka-Dot Man?) and it's not just an impressively vast DC Universe that get's a spotlight; the film takes advantage of its place in a wider Lego universe with a well-realised twist.
I expected a fun film with Lego Batman, but what surprised me about it was how it dealt with the real questions of the material; is Batman good for Gotham, and what makes a man like Batman tick? That the film comes away from these questions with both interesting answers and good gags is a real triumph. Warner Brothers have succeeded a second time at exceeding the expectations of their Lego films with smart incisive humour and character work. One gets the impression that their live-action Superhero division could learn a few lessons from them. To paraphrase a line from the film, if you think it's comedic muscles are big, wait 'til you see its brain.