It would be easy to say we’ve had our fill of the Batman. The hero’s on-screen adventures have run from the silly (1960s Batman) to the disgusting (1992’s Batman Returns) to the sinister (Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) to the more kid-friendly (Batman: The Brave and the Bold). The Dark Knight even appeared not once, but twice in theaters last year (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad). While there’s no arguing that Will Arnett’s portrayal of an arrogant, unaware Batman was a highlight of The LEGO Movie, that’s no guarantee of success in a stand-alone spin-off, particularly in such a saturated franchise. So how does one create a successful LEGO Batman movie? By acknowledging the full spectrum of Bat-adventures: the good and the bad (particularly the bad), while exploring a direction rarely touched upon in previous films: Batman’s commitment issues.
The LEGO Batman Movie brings back the Batman Arnett played in The LEGO Movie: an overconfident, bragging, somewhat-clueless incarnation of the Dark Knight. What we didn’t see in his supporting character before that we get now that he’s been brought into the spotlight is the isolation Batman puts himself through. Yes, we get echoes of the tragedy of his parents’ death, just like every Batman project has brought to life, but here Batman has reacted to that tragedy with hyperbolic isolation. He refuses any aid – even his relationship with Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is significantly lessened than in other adaptations. Batman’s fear of commitment goes so far that he refuses to admit any kind of hatred or dislike for the Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who has a co-dependent need to be Batman’s arch-nemesis. It’s an interesting take on the superhero paradox. Quite frequently projects explore the trope of the hero and villain creating and needing each other for existence, but Arnett’s Batman refuses to acknowledge that, leaving Galifianakis’s Joker desperate for attention, initially relying on Batman’s regular rogue’s gallery to fight the Dark Knight, and eventually moving to the kind of franchise crossover we’ve come to expect through The LEGO Movie and LEGO Dimensions, assembling an army that includes Lord Voldemort, King Kong, and the Tower of Sauron.
While the Joker is desperately trying to get Batman’s attention (and maybe destroy Gotham while he’s at it), Batman finds other personal conflict in the adoption of orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who discovers the Batcave and eventually becomes Robin. The adoption of a ward and sidekick, however, is another potential relationship, and therefore another crisis for Batman. Add on to that the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), wanting to build a relationship between the police force and Batman, and you’ve got relationship problems aplenty, which is perfect fodder for a character who wants to work alone, but clearly is so dysfunctional that he needs the added help. The result is a story with surprising depth about Batman’s commitment issues framed in a light-hearted presentation.
The LEGO Batman Movie is at its best when it is looking at Batman’s relationships and poking fun at the hero’s long history. For example, we get to see LEGO versions of key Batman scenes from just about every other Batman movie… except 1960’s Batman, where they just present live-action footage. Clearly the implication is that it was already too light (they call it “weird”) to adapt to the LEGO format. Actually, the ‘60s version provides plenty of fodder, from rips on the costume to a subtle reference to the shark-repellent Batspray, but it isn’t alone. Billy Dee Williams finally gets to play Two-Face (he was Harvey Dent in Tim Burton’s Batman but was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones when the character finally became a villain for Batman Forever), and the “two boats” from The Dark Knight is listed among the Joker’s failed plans (even though technically Batman has nothing to do with it there). Batman fans will have a field day catching the references laden throughout, particularly as some are incredibly subtle in their delivery.
While the Batman references are quite superb, where The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t quite work for me is when the story or comedy becomes too focused on the LEGO part of the title. Removing the character from the setting of The LEGO Movie makes it harder to integrate the idea of Batman as a Master Builder and the “Everything is Awesome” dynamic of the LEGO Universe. Those ideas are still brought into play here, but they feel like an interruption rather than a synergy of Batman and LEGO. It’s a conundrum. I’m not sure anything other than a LEGO movie would allow for such a comedic approach to the Batman, yet allowing this to be a LEGO movie becomes distracting at times, particularly at the rather ludicrous climactic scene. I wish the writers had focused less on the LEGO aspect of the world, although it’s that same dynamic that lets the Joker assemble a rogue’s gallery the likes of which we haven’t seen before. While the interconnected brick element doesn’t always land for me personally, I have to admit it’s a necessary part of the story in order to give us the movie as a whole.
Part of me hopes that this is it for Will Arnett’s take on Batman. He was a fantastic supporting player in The LEGO Movie and surprisingly makes a feature-length story work as well. I’m just not certain there is enough fodder in Batman’s history for another LEGO sequel however (at least until Batfleck gets his own movie). What we get with The LEGO Batman Movie, however, is a lot of fun, and if this character ends with this story, he winds up one of the more entertaining, well-rounded, and intentionally humorous takes on the Dark Knight that we’ve seen.