We’ve seen a lot of incarnations of the Batman over the years. Leaving aside the vast spread of the character’s comic book adventures, we’ve seen the campy Caped Crusader of the 1960s, the stylized darkness of Tim Burton’s take in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the grit of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy and the Batfleck of the expanding DC cinematic universe.
But until 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” we’d never seen a Lego Batman on the big screen. The breakout success of that character (as voiced by Will Arnett) has given us that film’s first cinematic spinoff – “The Lego Batman” movie.
And it is just delightful.
This Batman is insecure and lonely, overcompensating for his needs with arrogance and bravado. Despite his efforts, Gotham remains the most crime-riddled city in the world. A massive confrontation with the Joker (Zach Galifinakis, TV’s “Baskets”) – one hilariously packed with a laundry list of Batman rogues that will tickle any longtime fan of the character – results in Batman telling the Joker that they aren’t arch-enemies and that their long enmity means nothing to him.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo, TV’s “Last Man Standing”) is retiring and handing the reins over to his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson, TV’s “Luke Cage”), who doesn’t believe that Gotham needs Batman. In addition, Batman is struggling with his relationship with Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, “Hail, Caesar!”) and the fact that he accidentally adopted a wide-eyed orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, “Sausage Party”) who he promptly turns into sidekick Robin.
But when the Joker enlists the greatest villains of all time to destroy Gotham, Batman must decide whether he’s willing to let himself be helped. He has to decide if he can trust these new friends and acquaintances to join him in defeating the greatest evil that the city has ever faced.
And he has to look cool doing it.
“The Lego Batman Movie” takes great pleasure in both celebrating and subverting a beloved character. The film is hyperaware of the interpretations that have preceded it, using them all as a reference point to build their own delightful creation. Director Chris McKay has done good work in capturing the spirit of controlled anarchy that made “The Lego Movie” such a joy while still allowing this film to be largely its own thing. The script is packed with fast-paced pop culture references and piles of jokes; there are a LOT of laughs to be had here. And of course, the aesthetics are a joy. The look of these movies is such a joy, full of playfulness and imagination. It’s a visual treat, packed with detail that invigorates and enriches the experience throughout.
The vocal talent involved here is extraordinary. Arnett is comic gold as Batman; his faux-growl and impeccable timing turn the character into equal parts hero and buffoon. The sense of silly narcissism and the absurd mindset give us a Batman that we haven’t seen in decades – a funny Batman. Cera is the epitome of gee-whiz as Robin; you can almost hear his wide eyes and the smiling exclamation points in every line.
Dawson is clearly having a lot of fun as Barbara; her work meshes particularly well with what Arnett is doing. Fiennes is having a blast, too – one assumes he was next in the “respected British actors who play Batman’s butler” queue. And Galifinakis is just a delight, capturing the codependent nature of the Joker/Batman dynamic and producing plenty of giggles along the way. There’s a wheedling charm to the performance that is hard to articulate, but easy to enjoy.
And of course, there are the cameos. Loads and loads of cameos. Superheroes and villains alike make brief appearances – every one voiced by a noted talent. Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Conan O’Brien, Mariah Carey, Eddie Izzard, Jenny Slate – it goes on and on. Personal favorites include Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face (inspired) and comedian Doug Benson as Bane (maybe the most hilariously consistent portrayal in the entire supporting ensemble), but the truth is that there are too many highlights to list.
“The Lego Batman Movie” doesn’t quite scale to the heights of its predecessor, but that’s OK. On the strength of a funny script, some dynamite performances, a great look and a joyous sense of play, the movie stands perfectly well on its own. It’s smart and subversive and silly, that rare movie that truly will prove to be fun for the whole family.
[5 out of 5]