As one of the oldest and most popular comic book characters around, there have been no shortage of different interpretations of Batman over the years. While every Batman story tends to adhere to the same basic principles — dead parents, brooding vigilante, you know the drill — DC’s Caped Crusader is very much a malleable character who tends to reflect the political and cultural climate of the day. Joel Schumacher’s campy 90s films were a reaction to the darkness of Tim Burton’s films, while Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight was a Batman for the post-9/11 world. And while The Lego Batman Movie arrives too soon after 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to be considered a rebuttal to the latter film’s overtly grim tone, it sure feels like a reactionary work, and is exactly the kind of superhero movie we need right now.
Despite its comedic tone and ostensibly being a “kid’s” movie, The Lego Batman Movie is something that hasn’t been seen in theaters for nearly a decade: a good Batman movie. Although it as much parody as it is a serious interpretation of the character, The Lego Batman Movie is easily the best Batman movie since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and a return to form for the character on the big screen.
*Note: Only Batman movies with a theatrical release are discussed here. The DC animated movies are their own separate thing.
Will Arnett Is Easily The Most Entertaining Version Of Batman
Will Arnett is not the greatest incarnation of Batman, but he may just be the most entertaining and that has to count for something. While Kevin Conroy is still the definitive voice of the Dark Knight, Arnett excels at capturing a very particular interpretation of the character. If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, then you already know what to expect from Arnett’s performance, but he still manages to take the character in different directions that weren’t even hinted at in that initial supporting role.
Arnett is just as comfortable doing “gym bro” Batman as he is doing tortured lonely man Batman and it’s hard not to want even more of his performance once the credits roll. While Ben Affleck continues to hone his take on the character in the DC Extended Universe, Arnett’s Batman is already here, fully realized, and I hope that Warner Bros. continues to provide him with opportunities to return.
It Knows How To Use Robin
As excellent as Will Arnett is in the lead role, he’s nearly upstaged by Michael Cera’s Robin, who is the heart and soul of this movie. Robin, particularly the flamboyant, colorful version of the character, is a tough character to get right on screen, which is part of the reason why we haven’t seen him in a Batman feature film since 1997 (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t exactly count). Of course, The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t really provide any answers for how to get Robin right in a more seriously-minded Batman movie, but it’s hard to care when his presence works so well here.
Cera is all wide-eyed enthusiasm and his sunny disposition is the perfect foil to Arnett’s cranky, blowhard Batman. Much in the way Robin fanboys out every time he sees Superman in the Lego Batman video games, Cera’s Robin is equally stoked about the very idea of being Batman (and Bruce Wayne’s) son. Rosario Dawson and Ralph Fiennes also turn in stellar performances as Barbara Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, respectively, but it’s Cera who steals the show.
A Loveletter To Fandom
This point really has nothing to do with comparisons to the other Batman movies, but I feel like it needs to be acknowledged all the same. Much in the same way The Lego Movie was a celebration of everything Lego, The Lego Batman Movie is a love letter to fandom in general. While the main focus is still on Batman and his colorful cast of supporting characters, the movie takes a toy box approach, especially in the final act, by introducing a variety of other characters from not just the DC universe, but other Warner Bros. properties as well.
I don’t want to spoil which characters make the cut, but I’ll just say that the villains Batman faces off against put even his own rogues gallery to shame. If characters from wholly separate franchises are able to guest star in a Batman movie, it’s exciting to think of how Warner Bros. may leverage this in future Lego movies. Assuming a Lego Justice League Movie is next (it is the logical next step after all), the Lego movie boom is just getting started.
It’s Surprisingly Emotional
Although The Lego Batman Movie is primarily comprised of wall-to-wall jokes, gags, and vibrant action sequences, it also takes its foot off the pedal every now and then to examine Batman’s human side as opposed to Batman the invincible rockstar (and no, that’s not just a comment on his persona. He actually plays the guitar!). Arnett’s Batman is still the egotistical jerk he was in The Lego Movie, but he’s given much more of a character arc here, with the film digging deep into why Batman is the way he is.
Sure, this is one of the underlying themes of pretty much every Batman movie and although other films have done it better, The Lego Batman Movie easily could have just kept its Batman cranked to 11 the whole time and not bothered to dig deeper into the character. The fact that it does and does so in a way that feels different from other Batman stories is perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise and arguably makes this the most interesting examination of the character (at least on screen) since The Dark Knight.
It’s Unconcerned With Adhering To Canon
Batman has been around for more than 75 years and this is a point that The Lego Batman Movie runs away with in some surprising ways. You see, Will Arnett’s Batman is acutely aware that he’s been fighting crime for over 70 years, but since he and the rest of the denizens of Gotham City are just toys come to life, the movie is able to take some wild liberties with Batman canon that the live-action films could never do. Namely, Lego Batman pretty much throws canon out the window and just does its own thing. This is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Batman is intimately familiar with each and every member of his rogues gallery, yet he is only meeting Dick Grayson/Robin for the first time here.
While there haven’t been any Batman movies that truly adhere to the canon of the comics, they are still bound to certain rules, primarily because there is only so much room for flights of fancy when trying to tell a more grounded Batman story. Some viewers may very well be annoyed by the film’s fast and loose treatment of the source material, but it’s refreshing to see a Batman movie that doesn’t have to adhere to the same old familiar tropes. In other words, if you’re sick and tired seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents get murdered, you’ll probably like this movie.
Celebrates Batman’s History
Jumping off the previous point a bit, one of the great things about The Lego Batman Movie is that it feels like a love letter to everything Batman. Sure, it’s a movie that makes fun of the character at almost every turn, but beneath it’s all done in a knowing way that respects and pays homage to the character’s legacy. If you can get over Batman being presented as a narcissistic buffoon (albeit one who gets results), you’ll find that The Lego Batman Movie is really a movie for fans of the character. Winks and nods to old Batman movies abound, while the most obscure vehicles, costumes, and villains are given their due (Man-Bat fans are in for a treat).
In fact, the movie is so packed with detail and references that it will probably take multiple viewings to catch them all, although some of them are certainly more prominent than others (for instance, Bane sounds just like Tom Hardy’s version of the character from The Dark Knight Rises and every one of his lines is a gem). Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare a movie that is able to make these sort of references much more liberally than a live-action Batman ever could, but at the same time, there’s never been another movie that celebrates the character’s history as much as The Lego Batman Movie does.
It Can Actually Be Enjoyed By Kids And Adults Alike
While there is certainly a place for “adult” stories in the Batman universe, it feels wrong that there hasn’t been an appropriate Batman movie for parents to take their kids too since 1997’s Batman & Robin. While I don’t want to get into a Marvel vs. DC debate, one advantage that Marvel does have over the DC cinematic universe in its current state is that their movies are actually appropriate for all audiences, whereas DC’s crop seems aimed at the over-30 crowd. That’s fine, but when merchandise for a movie like Batman v Superman is being aimed directly at children, it doesn’t seem right that the movie itself is wildly inappropriate for these kids to watch.
The Lego Batman Movie nails that sweet spot that Pixar movies do so well where there are a ton of jokes and references aimed at the adults in the audience, but still enough colorful characters and fun sequences to appeal to kids. It’s hard to see DC abandoning its darker cinematic universe (although there will likely be individual installments that are more lighthearted depending on the character) but it’s refreshing to see something like The Lego Batman Movie recognize the need for cross-generational appeal. Who knows, maybe a separate Lego DC movie universe is the answer?
Although Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy helped inject some much-needed realism and respectability to the franchise after Schumacher’s Batman & Robin went too far into campy excess territory, it also helped spawn this narrative that Batman movies are supposed to be serious and not have fun. Balancing the inherent darkness of Batman with entertaining storytelling has always been a difficult balancing act, but whereas Nolan’s films put a focus on entertainment alongside their examination of darker themes such as chaos, vigilantism, and the surveillance state, Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman was gritty to a fault, taking in its heroes being unlikable thugs.
Lego Batman, on the other hand, puts the emphasis on fun above all else, with a seeming mandate to put a smile on the audience’s face and keep it there for the entirety of its 106 minute run time. Again, The Lego Batman Movie is doing something very different from the more recent live-action adaptations, but it definitely sends a clear message to the Zack Snyders of the world to make sure their superhero movies don’t forget why people gravitate toward these characters in the first place.