A pure riot from start to finish, The LEGO Batman Movie is a love letter to Golden Age Batman and a long-overdue middle finger to deconstructions of said.
I have written before, at least twice in an extensive manner, about modern comics and comic book movies’ obsession with “realism,” “seriousness,” and “maturity.” Particularly this past decade and a half, comic book movies have been trying their darndest to shake off any traces of silliness or childishness or camp, as the genre as a whole continues to reel from and overreact to the walking punchline that is Batman & Robin. After that film was laughed out of cinemas due to its bat-nipples, innumerable godawful ice puns, and hysterically campy everything – none of which are the reasons as to why Batman & Robin was such a terrible movie, which is the thing that everybody ignored at the time and now just don’t realise because who wants nuance when you can get easy jokes – comic book movies aimed for the most “serious” and “realistic” type of movie imaginable, particularly after Christopher Nolan’s deconstructionist take on Batman brought in almost $2.5 billion worldwide total.
Of course, in a way, comic book movies have just been mirroring the evolution of comics themselves – a medium that struggled for years to gain any respect from the wider world outside of its primary audience (kids), until Alan Moore wrote Watchmen and Frank Millar wrote The Dark Knight Returns, two grim and gritty deconstructions of the superhero vigilante concept that brought that kind of wider acclaim and a new prospective audience. You likely don’t need me to explain what happened next, since we are still dealing with the consequences today. Comic book movies have the now-twice-annual soul-sapping DC Cinematic Universe whose primary creative control is still in the hands of Zack Snyder, the embodiment of the most emotionally-stunted and nihilistic teenage boy stereotype whose crossfit regimen is mad legit, brah, that you could come up with. Whilst comic books continue to buckle under the weight of events like Marvel’s Civil War II, a series that treats the very real and very threatening concept of fascism the same way a Game of Thrones writer treats rape plots.
How did it get to this point? How did we lose sight of the innate silliness of superheroes and costumed vigilantes? Why have we been so consumed in taking this relatively innocent and childish concept and trying to turn it “super serious” and “edgy” and “mature,” only to drive away all but the most hardcore of fans in the process? Superheroes and vigilantes such as Batman are childish. They are. They are often initially based on simplistic concepts of Good and Evil, philosophies that of course fall apart to reveal a bunch of unintended unfortunate implications once scrutinised too hard, but with a pure joy and kind-heartedness to them that makes their naivety so charming and even somewhat reassuring. Then, of course, on top of that you throw in ridiculous costumes, themed villains that ostensibly reflect some part of Batman’s psyche but can oftentimes just be based upon any random idea, and the emotional throughline of a teen soap…
None of this is meant as a burn on Golden Age Comics, for the record, or comics as a whole. What it is, though, is a necessary reminder that also happens to explain why comic book movies, and particularly Warner Bros. comic book movies, have been drain-circling for a good while now. Because we were far too busy trying to adapt The Killing Joke into a movie despite there being no reason to make a Killing Joke adaptation in the year 2016, we’ve lost sight of one incontrovertible fact. These are children’s stories and, like everything else aimed at children, there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about that fact. It is fine to enjoy silly children’s things as long as you remember that they’re not aimed specifically at you and nor should they be.
Therefore, The LEGO Movie really is the perfect delivery system for this critique. One may be tempted to assume the most cynical of thoughts when presented with the prospect of The LEGO Batman Movie. A Batman spin-off from a movie based on children’s toys, being made at the same time by the same studio that is making real Batman movies, to ensure complete market saturation of Batman. Except that one of the main thematic thrusts of The LEGO Movie was a long-overdue message about how liking children’s things is ok as long as you stop trying to take the thing away from children to shape into your own image. All The LEGO Batman Movie is doing is zeroing in on that specific strand and expanding it out to a whole movie. In its very spirit, The LEGO Batman Movie is a successor to The LEGO Movie, but it is also, arguably, the first major Batman adaptation in at least 25 years (and maybe even longer than that) to actually get Batman.
In much the same way that The LEGO Movie did for LEGO and children’s toys in general, LEGO Batman is about 100 minutes of the filmmakers grabbing you by the scruff of your lapels and yelling, “BATMAN IS SILLY AND FOR KIDS, LIGHTEN THE FUCK UP ALREADY!” But, also like in The LEGO Movie, such yelling isn’t born out of malice or condescension for the property featured. It’s instead done out of love and respect, the result of a bunch of die-hard Batman fans seeing the direction their beloved property has gone in the past few decades and recoiling in much deserved horror. LEGO Batman (once again voiced with absolute perfection by Will Arnett) is the recent “mature” drive turned up to 1000 in order to expose said “maturity” for what it is, petulant and teenage and obnoxious that masks fears and insecurities over loving something so frequently and obviously silly. It shows a Batman who is afraid to lighten up and let others in, who has become such a symbol of dark, brooding coolness that he’s become too deluded to realise that there’s more to Batman than himself.
The genius, again in much the same way as The LEGO Movie, is how the film is able to simultaneously lean heavily upon the meta button for those themes, yet also roots those exact same themes in character work born out of genuine and distinct characters, causing them to work on both levels. Batman’s fear of being able to be a part of a family again and even admit that people like The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) are important to him works as both a meta-commentary on Batman’s recent refusal to embrace elements like Robin (Michael Cera) and Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) either at all or as anything other than ridiculous “realistic” versions, and as legitimate character work for this specific Batman in his own right. It even occasionally works on triple layers. An early sequence where Barbara (now Commissioner) Gordon lays out her plan for Batman to work with the Gotham City Police rather than doing all of their work outside of basic ethical principles works as both a commentary on just how far gone from its more innocent roots that Batman has gotten, as character work for this version of Batman and Barbara, and as a meta-meta-commentary on the oversaturation of deconstructionist Batman takes in general.
This is one really, really smart movie, is what I am getting at, born out of a sincere love for the properties and the character that manifests itself in the form of both meta in-jokes and a quiet but always prevalent emotional undercurrent of genuine sincerity. The devotion to Golden Age Comics and the 60s Adam West TV show version of Batman is made apparent in the appearances of minor villains like Zodiac Master, Egghead, and Condiment King, who are resultantly mocked but in an affectionate manner. But it’s also apparent in every one of the film’s major relationships, which are almost always portrayed without a hint of cynicism. Even the relationship between The Joker and Batman – which is purposefully framed as an unspoken romantic one, with subtextual undercurrents of lovelessness bordering on abusive until everyone’s character development kicks in – whilst still being rather funny, is not played purely for jokes. There’s a real emotional weight there, the same one that exists in Batman’s relationships with Robin and Barbara and Alfred (a phenomenal Ralph Fiennes), that works like gangbusters in the finale.
It’s the kind of heartfelt sincerity towards any kind of silliness or campiness that used to be a staple of comics and comic book movies. That tapping into one’s inner child, taking the emotions and relationships at its centre seriously but isn’t afraid to get plenty silly otherwise because, hey, this is a universe in which a billionaire dresses up as a bat to fight crime with his orphan sidekick! Why does such a thing need to be super serious and realistic? That’s why I feel director Chris McKay and the film’s four credited writers get Batman in a way that I haven’t seen for myself in a long while (for the record I have not seen The Brave and the Bold), and the film is, resultantly, the best Batman adaptation in perhaps decades. And that’s not even touching on the gorgeous animation by the folks at Animal Logic, or any of the jokes.
Oh, dear lord, the jokes in this thing! They don’t even wait for the studio logos to finish before flinging jokes at you like a fastball pitcher with an unlimited supply of baseballs and no tiredness ever! When I tell you that this thing averages roughly 900 gags per minute, I am barely exaggerating. They come on like a freshly loaded chain-gun. Some about the wider Batman mythos and history, some about the characters in the film, some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight gags, some fourth wall leaning, some physical comedy, some buried on the soundtrack of all places, and some that are just genius gags without any prior-needed context. All of the guns in the film have their resultant sound effects being nothing more than the actor firing them shouting “pew pew” as a joke about guns in kids’ films. Batman brings a song about himself that he wrote to the opening setpiece extolling the virtues of himself and how he doesn’t pay taxes. And, in my personal favourite gag in the whole film, Barbara Gordon’s hype video (itself an embarrassment of comedic riches) brags about how she graduated “top of her class at ‘Harvard For Police;’” she even has a t-shirt with “Harvard For Police” on it because we do not deserve a movie this brilliant!
Admittedly, the film does have some issues – most specifically, when it does bring in wider LEGO in order to fulfil its obligation as a LEGO movie, it feels somewhat unnecessary given just how well the rest of the film has its hooks specifically in the DC Universe – but they’re incredibly minor and only ones I thought felt were flaws well after the ride had finished. The LEGO Batman Movie has pulled double duty in being 2017’s first new animated feature and its first new superhero movie, and it’s only gone and set the bar extraordinarily high for both categories to compete with. This is whiskers away from being as good as The LEGO Movie. A hysterical, affectionate, necessary, and genuinely sweet riot of a time that gets Batman better than almost any ‘proper’ Batman movie has been able to. Who would’ve thought that all it would take to do so would be remembering to lighten up every once in a goddamn while? After all, Batman’s for kids, and that’s more than OK.
Callie Petch could chokehold a bear.