One of the weaknesses of most Batman films is that they’re unwilling to question the nature of Batman himself, to interrogate the vigilante who patrols Gotham City single-handedly and anonymously. On paper, what Batman represents isn’t all that great – Bruce Wayne is a privileged 1-percenter, an individualist who happily bypasses government programs to work alone and decide what’s best and who’s bad or not.
Which is why “The Lego Batman Movie” is quite possibly the best Batman movie ever made, if not a close runner-up to “Batman Returns.” Liberated from the constraints of “dark,” “edgy” or even “campy,” “Lego Batman” is able to poke fun at the costumed gentleman hero and really dig into the elements of Batman that make the character who he is, for better or for worse. Who’da thunk you’d get all that from the sequel to an adaptation of building blocks.
“Lego Batman” is very much in the vein of “The Lego Movie,” from which this was spun off. Will Arnett’s growly, sarcastic, heavy metal-loving Batman was such a hit in that movie that he deserved his own project. It was always going to be a fun Lego property, but no one probably expected this to be one of the best and most refreshing Batman movies.
It’s due in large part to writer Seth Grahame-Smith, who is known for his twists on the classics, books-turned-movies “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” If there’s anyone who can give a beloved character a true rejiggering, it’s Grahame-Smith, working within the Batman canon and the larger Warner Bros. universe. A host of comedy writers contributed to the screenplay as well, so the jokes are densely packed and fast and furious – visual gags, puns, wordplay, one-liners. “Robot Chicken” director Chris McKay keeps a steady hand on the direction of the exciting whirling dervish visuals.
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The film’s meta, self-referential nature starts at the very beginning, with Arnett huskily describing the opening credits, logos and all. He plays Bruce Wayne/Batman as the arrogant playboy he always has been, but the film reveals his vulnerabilities and loneliness more starkly. That cowl masks more than just his identity.
He still mourns his family, but in “Lego Batman,” that lack offers the room for a new family to move in – sidekick Robin (Michael Cera), new police commissioner and love interest Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and, of course, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes). What’s different is that this time Batman actually accepts them into his world. As the saying goes: “Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team.”
There’s another song that informs the themes of “Lego Batman,” which is threaded throughout, with the lyric “take a look at yourself and make that change.” That’s the main idea to take away from “Lego Batman” – no one is beyond redemption or evolution. After 10-plus feature film iterations, not to mention the ’60s TV series and even more planned for the future, it was time to take a look at Batman and make that change. Sometimes, existential investigation yields great things.
Also, the movie is truly hysterically funny, cute and very lovable. To describe any of the jokes would be to ruin all the fun of discovering it yourself.
The Lego Batman Movie
Cast: Will Arnett, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Jenny Slate, Zach Galifianakis
Director: Chris McKay
Rated PG (rude humor and some action)