Let’s face it: The LEGO Movie was awesome. The Phil Lord and Chris Miller-directed animation took a beloved toy and turned it into a wonderful, colourful, surreal song-filled fantasia. Oh, and just when you thought it couldn’t get better, it had Batman in it. Voiced by Arrested Development‘s Will Arnett, channelling a little of Christian Bale’s gravelly gravitas, this Dark Knight ripped on the gloomy über-hero persona with real chutzpah.
So now Gotham’s finest gets his own LEGO movie. A spin-off film based around a best-selling toy tie-in might sound like one almighty corporate love-in, but thankfully The LEGO Batman Movie is nothing of the sort. Right from the very beginning, as Arnett’s voiceover muses on the passing studio logos (“Warner Bros? Why not Warner Brothers?”), it’s clear that this brick-based bundle of joy is taking the same way approach as its predecessor.
With Lord and Miller now fully embroiled in shooting Star Wars’ young Han Solo spin-off movie, in steps Chris McKay, the director best known for TV animation Robot Chicken (and its various Star Wars-themed incarnations). He’s also a more-than-able deputy for Lord and Miller, who employed him to oversee the animation, effects, and lighting on The LEGO Movie when they were directing 22 Jump Street.
For all the tangential connections to The LEGO Movie, this is very much a Batman flick. So don’t expect a cameo from Emmet, Benny the Spaceman or Princess Unikitty. Set in a LEGO-built Gotham, Arnett’s Caped Crusader follows the Batman mythology tightly. The alter-ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne, he’s the crime-fighting vigilante who oversees operations from his Batcave, with just his butler Alfred Pennyworth (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) for the company.
Sitting home alone, the superhero enjoys some pretty long Dark Knights of the soul, eating microwaved lobster Thermidor and watching Jerry Maguire in his home cinema. While he laughs at the “you complete me” scene, really, deep down, the Bat needs someone to love. Or even hate. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) recognizes this, becoming most upset when Batman refuses to acknowledge that this deadly prankster is his greatest enemy.
With Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) now in charge and saying Batman’s vigilante antics have not exactly lowered the crime rate in Gotham, the Caped Crusader becomes even more redundant when the Joker cooks up a sneaky plot, giving himself up for a spell in Arkham Asylum. His plan? To get himself beamed up to the Phantom Zone, that netherworld in space where Superman banished General Zod (a lovely in-joke sees newsreel footage of this provided by one Zack Snyder).
Meanwhile, with Batman moping around, he barely even notices the arrival of a young orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) in his life – at least until the script starts banging us all over the head with themes of family and togetherness. Even if that gets a little tedious, the avalanche of quick-fire gags keeps you going. Like the moment Batman turns up at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and everyone from the Justice League is partying there without him.
While the film riffs on the Batman v Superman rivalry, what is heartening is that McKay and his writers don’t embrace just the Snyder or even Nolan versions of the Dark Knight. One brilliant sequence, so rapid it’ll be worth buying the DVD to watch it again, illustrates every Batman all the way back to the campy Adam West days (that TV show’s hoary old technique of using cartoon words like “pow” on a screen to accompany fight sequences also gets a look-in).
While the film doesn’t have a keynote song that comes anywhere near The LEGO Movie‘s infernally catchy ‘Everything Is Awesome’, it does use music well – notably every time Bruce Wayne/Batman sees Barbara, a burst of Cutting Crew’s ’80s classic ‘(I Just) Died In Your Arms’ crashes onto the soundtrack. Much like The LEGO Movie, there’s plenty of nostalgia for big kids to wallow in – although the final act does rather get swamped in retro-appeal as villains far beyond the D.C. universe are unleashed.
If there’s a disappointment, it’s that the LEGO aspect of the film is rather sidelined. Yes, everything is still made of that beautifully tactile plastic but there are precious few building sequences. Why have one of the greatest toys and not play with it? Rather, it seems McKay and co. are more interested in mocking the superhero genre, from ribbing Suicide Squad, and the ridiculous idea of getting criminals to fight other criminals, to taking super-villains (Condiments Man, anyone?) to the lunatic extreme.
While The LEGO Batman Movie does get bogged down in too much plot, there’s no question it’s a refreshing kick up the Bat-side for a character who has, perhaps, been overused in cinema of late. But the really tricky outcome for Warners, the studio behind this and the live-action Batman films, is that this version is a lot more appealing than spending time in Snyder’s current, dour take on the DC universe.
Maybe there’s still time to retro-animate his upcoming Justice League movie with LEGO bricks.