The LEGO Batman Movie is not the best Batman film. That title still goes to The Dark Knight. But it is the best movie about Batman. While The Dark Knight is a heady crime drama set in the Batman universe, the eponymous superhero almost takes a backseat to the Joker’s scheming and the War on Terror politics that permeate the movie. Other Batman films tend to reduce him down to a symbol or a set piece. The LEGO Batman Movie, by virtue of being a silly animated spinoff, isn’t constrained by franchise building or catering to the nihilistic Batman fans who feel that the character only has room for dark and gritty emotions. Chris McKay’s movie is free in a way that Batman films have never been before, and it uses that freedom to explore Batman’s ego, fears, and desires. While the surrounding film can at times go off the rails as it explodes into lunacy and IP integration, overall The LEGO Batman Movie is a constantly delightful experience that embraces the family dynamic other Batman films have pushed away.
After an action-packed opening where Batman (Will Arnett) takes down an army of villains led by Joker (Zach Galifianakis), we see the Caped Crusader return to Wayne Manor on Wayne Island where he lives an incredibly lonely life. Losing his parents at a young age has left Batman in a state of arrested development where he’s scared to have a family again (and also afraid of snake clowns). However, while in his alter ego as Bruce Wayne, he accidentally adopts guileless orphan Richard Grayson (Michael Cera) after being distracted by the beauty of Gotham’s new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosairo Dawson). Gordon points out that the city can’t rely on a vigilante, and wants Batman to work with the police, much to his chagrin. Still determined to go it mostly alone, Batman brings Grayson into the fold only to discover that he might be making a new family of sorts.
For a movie that’s a spinoff and also ostensibly a toy commercial, The LEGO Batman Movie is ridiculously ambitious on just about every level. Its visuals are outstanding to the point of exhausting. While the action is eye-popping, I was grateful I didn’t see it in 3D because it would have been too much for my eyes to handle. McKay crowds the frame with references, colors, explosions, and cranks everything up to 11. On the one hand, it’s making a point about the action bombast Batman creates in his wake, but on the other hand, it’s a dizzying, dazzling display of what LEGO-style animation can accomplish. It’s part-showing-off, part-critique.
But the script also wants to incorporate as much about Batman as possible. It wants to touch on the character’s entire history, including the movies, the comics, the 90s animated series, and the 60s live-action series, and try to wrap all of that up into finding the core of Batman. Sometimes it will add up to a quick joke, (“I have aged phenomenally,” quips Batman) but other times it goes towards something more pointed, like when Gordon notes that Batman violates ethics and laws, so how exactly does that make him a hero? It’s the kind of criticism that could only be made by people who love Batman because you don’t devote the time to think about a guy who dresses up as a rodent unless you deeply care about him.
Unfortunately, The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t have answers for all of the questions it raises. It brings up Batman’s vigilantism, but ultimately shrugs its shoulders at how he employs it. It brings up how Joker and Batman need each other, but doesn’t have anything deeper regarding these two arch-enemies beyond the Joker and the rest of Batman’s villains being part of his family as much as his allies.
However, it does keep its focus on two things: How the dark and serious attitude given to Batman over the decades has morphed into something unintentionally comic, and that this attitude restricts the character’s growth. If Batman is always required to be a dark and gritty vigilante, then it diminishes him into a two-dimensional figure, haunted by grief but prevented by his fanbase from ever dealing with that grief. While the notion of Batman spending his free time swimming with dolphins, watching Jerry Maguire, and eating lobster thermidor might be silly, isn’t stunting the character’s development for a few decades also silly?
The only way to divorce Batman from the notion that being dark and gritty is “cool” is to make him hilarious. It’s the antidote for Batman’s personality woes, and since The LEGO Batman movie is free to just have fun and to laugh at the character, it breaks past a stale shield of po-faced antics. Rather than create a new Batman, the animated film satirizes the character to arrive at an honest point regarding his fears and desires. Just as Batman Begins worked backwards from the point of, “Batman dresses like a bat to strike fear into his enemies; fear must be a part of the character’s origins,” so does The LEGO Batman Movie understand that if Batman pushes people away, that comes from his tragic origins. Both readings of the characters are fair, and both led to more rewarding takes on the character as opposed to the Tim Burton films, which just assume Batman is crazy, the Joel Schumacher films, which just don’t care, and Batman v Superman, which just paints him as a fascist.
By comparison, The LEGO Batman Movie gives Batman, for all of his ridiculous posturing, a very human arc. He’s afraid of losing the people he cares about, so he pushes others away. Fighting crime isn’t a way to avenge his parents’ death; it’s a way to keep others from getting close. While some may take umbrage with this “softening” of Batman, this take is what makes Batman relatable for the first time in a long time outside of the comics. In worshiping Batman, his fans put him in a straightjacket and forced him to be a limited person. Ironically, the insanity of The LEGO Batman Movie frees Batman from that straightjacket.
As the film goes on, that insanity starts working against the film, and the madcap energy that worked for The LEGO Movie works against LEGO Batman. Although the universe still feels like its being crafted by an unseen child (for example, Barbara Gordon went to “Harvard for Police”), it also feels like it’s being crafted by unseen Warner Bros. executives asking how they can get more of their IP into the movie. The attempt to make the canvas bigger in turn makes Batman feel small, just another property in a universe full of them, and while that conceit worked in The LEGO Movie, which is about figuring out what makes you special and eschewing the Chosen One narrative, it becomes a distraction in completing Batman’s character arc.
When the focus of The LEGO Batman Movie stays on Batman and his universe, it’s pretty much brilliant. The satire is bitingly funny and clever, the animation is gorgeous, and the whole thing feels like a love letter with a little bit of a bite. As other creators struggle to figure out how to present Batman and work within the stunted notion of what’s “cool” for the character, The LEGO Batman Movie casts such worries aside and instead goes ahead and celebrates the character in all his paradoxical glory rather than trying to package him for a soulless adventure.