You really should go see The LEGO Batman Movie if you can—not just because a lot of us really need some escapism right now, but because it’s one of the best Batman movies ever made.
Seriously. This, the 1966 Adam West-fronted Batman, the 1989 Tim Burton movie, and 2005’s Batman Begins are the ones to beat…and I’d rate LEGO Batman over two of those in a heartbeat. Not only is it endlessly funny (the jokes start before the picture does), but it’s extremely clever, draws from a bottomless well of Batman lore, and is genuinely sweet.
Oh and also? Best Barbara Gordon EVER.
Mild spoilers follow.
The premise is this: Batman’s awesome. We know this because he tells us so, repeatedly. He saves Gotham, is beloved by its people, and returns home to his sweet mansion on his private island to…microwave some Lobster Thermidor and watch Jerry Maguire. Alone.
Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) knows the score, because Alfred always knows the score. His boss is terrified of being part of a family again. Batman is the World’s Greatest Commitment-phobe and he’s convinced himself he’s happy that way. He even pushes the Joker away, denying the fact that they have a relationship with the deathless line, “I am…fighting a few different people; I like to fight around.”
That moment shows up in the trailers and gets a big laugh. What follows it is actually better, as Batman, his voice simultaneously gravelly and emotionless, tells the Joker that no one means anything to him. It’s a moment of unusual dramatic weight, and is one of several hefty emotional blows the movie lands right on target. This characterization serves up a vision of Batman as Bruce Wayne’s protective armour, and while that’s not new ground for the character, it’s rarely been mined as well as it is here.
First, Bruce falls madly in love with Barbara Gordon (played by Rosario Dawson). He doesn’t actually…talk to her much, but Cutting Crew plays every time he sees her and he instantly transforms into a black-clad ball of justice with a total inability to talk to girls. So entranced is he, in fact, that he doesn’t notice that Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) has talked his way into being adopted by Bruce. Then there’s the fact that the Joker surrenders, plus the Joker’s plan to force Batman to accept just how much they’re connected, Barbara becoming police commissioner, and a very, very different relationship with the GCPD to deal with. It’s enough to make anyone’s armored face disguise spin.
The film’s entire plot is designed to break Bruce down emotionally, to the point where he’s able to admit that he needs other people. It could be hokey and, at times, it is—but it’s never less than genuine and often really sweet. There’s an especially great action sequence which nails the “Two of my friends are about to die but I can only save one of them?!!” dilemma of classic comic covers. Plus a later moment, which sees Bruce pull a little bit of a Wrath of Khan on Team Bat, is possibly the first time you’ll ever feel sorry for a colossal walking bat vehicle made out of LEGO. Poor Scuttler. Best of all, though, is the way Arnett’s Batman begins to let people in. He’s still super serious, super badass, and super super awesome, but he’s also calmed down a bit. The Batman we see at the end of the movie might even be invited to the annual JLA party. He’d still want to DJ, and cater, and do the fireworks (all in the shape of bats, naturally), but it’s a start.
There are two brilliant choices the film makes as a result of this narrative and unfortunately, I can only talk about one without spoiling things. Please trust me, though: what happens in the second half of the movie is not only one of the best rolling action sequences you’ll see this year, but also gleefully over the top and wickedly smart. There are at least four full-on gut laugh moments, and the whole thing manages to simultaneously map the exuberance of playing with amazing toys onto actual honest to God postmodernist literary theory. With punching. And Batmobiles.
The thing I CAN talk about is how the thrust of the main narrative changes the other characters and does so very much for the better. Anyone worried that Cera would be playing Scott Pilgrim here should relax. This Dick Grayson is very young, very sweet, and the closest the movie gets to a straight man for Batman’s jokes. The running gag about his costume (you’ve probably seen some of this in the trailer) is great. His constant inveigling of parental love from Bruce is even better. Also there’s a lovely moment before he finds out the truth about Batman where he thinks Batman and Bruce Wayne are “roommates” and refers to them as his two dads. The last place I expected to see a subtle, positive acknowledgement of same sex parenting was in a LEGO movie, but I’m so glad it’s there.
Alfred fares very well, too. Fiennes’ pained, precise diction is perfect for the world’s finest butler and this Alfred has a far gentler edge to him than recent versions. Where Jeremy Irons’ Mr. Pennyworth was a tetchy if charming wannabe grandfather, Fiennes plays the character with a good deal more serenity and mischief. Plus, Alfred’s role in the closing action sequences is both welcome and surprisingly large. Never, ever mess with the butler.
But it’s Barbara Gordon who’s the breakout star of Team Batman, here. A graduate of “Harvard for Police,” Dawson’s Babs takes over from her dad as commissioner and spearheads a very different version of the GCPD. She’s the movie’s moral centre and is every inch the crime-fighter Batman is, but she comes at it in an entirely different way. It would have been so easy to make her the foil for every joke or an unassailable ideal, but instead she’s presented exactly as she should be: kind, brilliant, badass, and completely down to Earth. Barbara’s the emotional anchor for Batman’s entire plot, a vital part of the action, wears the most badass costume she possibly could, and is definitively (and, as far as I know, for the first time) a person of color. She’s still the exact same character, but once again the movie makes an immensely powerful point about diversity with grace, intelligence, and humor.
There isn’t a frame of this movie that doesn’t impress. There isn’t a single element that isn’t surprising, or witty, or fun. Richard Cheese makes his LEGO debut at one point with a loungecore version of “Everything Is Awesome,” the rogues’ gallery is stacked with gloriously awful obscure Bat villains (CONDIMENT KING!), and the soundtrack by Lorne Balfe is ridiculously clever. As well as the usual array of songs, some truly great, the score is littered with tips of the cowl to previous incarnations of Batman: Hans Zimmer-esque sliding key changes, hints of Danny Elfman orchestration, and actual honest to goodness “Na na na na na na na na na” Adam West-era touches abound. (Also, pay close attention to what the choir are singing, when it comes up. Trust me.)
This would have been such an easy movie to phone in. Arnett’s Batman was a breakout star already, the character has decades of lore and nostalgia to lean on, and the whole thing could have been put together to make a quick buck. Instead, Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington, and director Chris McKay have assembled a movie that’s both a celebration and a roast of Gotham’s favourite son, one that still breaks new ground with the character. Supremely witty and often very, very funny, it’s a much-needed delight from the opening minutes (featuring dramatic music and a black screen) all the way through the very fun ending credits.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.