Lego Batman Was Silly, but it Loved and Understood Its Iconic Hero
You don’t make it to 84 years old without trying new things.
If a pop-culture commodity is going to outlast the average human lifespan, it has to be malleable. To become a generational piece of art that can find itself in the imaginations of young people for decade after decade, it has to be open to change. Trying to recreate the old using new technology won’t cut it, which is why Disney live-action remakes like The Lion King and Aladdin have been memory-holed.
The average lifespan for American women is 79.1, and men are six years behind at 73.2. Batman, who debuted in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, will turn 84 next month. To have outlasted most of the real people born that year, Batman has transformed time and again into something silly, something serious, and something in between. Chris McKay’s 2017 The Lego Batman Movie is a celebration of that history, casting The Dark Knight’s story as delightfully goofy while never forgetting that beneath the everchanging cowl, a few key elements make any Batman story great.
McKay’s background is in Robot Chicken, the rapid-fire stop-motion late-night show that threw bits at you faster than you could blink. It’s easy to see its influence on Lego Batman, which begins with Batman (Will Arnett) making a meta-reference to all serious movies opening on a black screen, just like this one does.
Then, to ensure viewers haven’t missed the meta-nature of the movie, McKay appears in the first scene as Pilot Bill, who’s transporting a plane full of explosives over crime-ridden Gotham City. When the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) shows up to steal the explosives, Bill explains that he isn’t afraid of the Joker, because Batman inevitably stops him.
And he does, beating a whole rogue’s gallery in a musical sequence meant to show Batman as “somewhere between Trent Reznor and Ice Cube,” McKay told Cartoon Brew. Comically dark, outlandishly confident, and tremendously proud of his nine abs, this opening heist scene is a love letter to everything a kid would love about Batman. He even plays guitar.
But then the music stops. A movie like Lego Batman operates from big moment to big moment, creating showstopping fight scenes connected through a plot. A lesser movie would put these big moments above all else, but McKay respects the kids (and parents) watching this movie enough to give them moments of genuine quiet. After he saves the day, Batman retreats to Wayne Manor, where Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) makes him lobster thermidor to eat alone. Then he watches movies alone. And looks at old family photos alone. You get the idea.
A party for Jim Gordon’s retirement allows Bruce Wayne some social time, and the billionaire catches the eye of young orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera). Dick talks his way into being adopted by Bruce, who’s more focused on the new police chief Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who was top of her class at “Harvard for Police” and helped solve nearby Blüdhaven’s crime problem with “statistics” and “compassion.” And she doesn’t want Batman’s help.
Both Bruce and Barbara are surprised when the Joker shows up. Furious that Batman doesn’t see their relationship as special, he turns himself and all the other villains in, ending crime in Gotham City. Batman is skeptical, and decides Arkham isn’t enough for Joker. He must be sent to the Phantom Zone, so Batman and the newly-named Robin crash a dance party at the Fortress of Solitude and steal Superman’s Phantom Zone projector. They send Joker into the Phantom Zone, but Barbara locks the dynamic duo up, suspecting that this is what Joker actually wanted all along.
Realizing that he can’t do it all alone and must confront his fear of joining a family, Batman reluctantly accepts the help of Robin, Barbara, and Alfred, who dresses up in an Adam West-style bat-suit because he misses the ‘60s. References to Batman’s complete filmography are scattered throughout, often directly. These references do more than just wink and nod at older versions of Batman, but allow the movie to argue that this Lego brick version is just as valid as any other.
Arnett and Cera’s chemistry, first built in Arrested Development, makes the movie shine. McKay told Cartoon Brew he wanted to pair “somebody who’s like the grumpiest, dark grittiest, broodiest Batman with the most positive, indefatigable kid,” and he did just that. Live-action Batman movies rarely know what to do with Robin, and they usually drop the character entirely. But Lego Batman realizes that amid the cutesy silliness, Robin gives Batman a new start at a family. The cuteness allows space for the tragedy of Batman’s origin story to have a real emotional impact, making Lego Batman one of the cleverest iterations of the Caped Crusader.
The Lego Batman Movie is streaming on HBO Max until April 30.