Three years ago, Warner Bros. unleashed The Lego Movie onto an unsuspecting public. No doubt hoping that the general goodwill people have for the iconic toy brand and its wonderfully simple, yet effective sense of humor would appeal to a wide swath of moviegoers, the directorial effort by Phil Lord and Chris Miller received near-universal critical acclaim. For a movie shot with little plastic toys, it had a pretty large beating heart at its core, and a lot of people took notice.
For comic book fans, one of the biggest treats of The Lego Movie was its use of many of DC Comics' most prominent and iconic characters in situations most movies wouldn't dare put them in -- and the film clearly made no better use of the members of the Justice League than they did with Batman, as voiced by comedian Will Arnett. Borrowing all at once from multiple versions of Batman's legacy – from the campy 1960s TV show to the dark, brooding vigilante we know all too well from today's movies and comics – the film put forward a memorable and well-regarded parody of/love letter to the iconic superhero, clearly evidenced by how much more people wanted to see from him.
That new material arrives today in the form of The Lego Batman Movie, with Arnett reprising his role as the blocked Caped Crusader, and he brings with him many of his most iconic supporting characters, hero and villain alike. So, how does The Lego Batman Movie compare with this version of the character's debut from 2014? Well, he's Batman. How do you think?
(That means awesome-ly.)
Coming from a lifelong fan of the character and every facet of his existence across multiple mediums over his nearly 80 years of history, the best way I can feasibly describe The Lego Batman Movie is as a 1 hour and 44 minute love letter to everything Batman is, and everything he's been. Of course it angles the character in a more naturally comedic way, but when looking at Batman's history as a whole, there are a few elements that lend themselves pretty well to the kind of irreverent humor that you find in this movie. It does a successful job of paying at least some service and screen time to every previous cinematic incarnation of Batman, from the original 1943 15-chapter Columbia Pictures serial, all the way up through last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and everything in-between.
Beyond that, it also manages to make some hilarious use of fan service for even the most hardcore comics readers and students of Batman history, by calling back in the beginning to a legitimately ridiculous number of enemies – from the deathly serious, to the wild and weird, and all the way to the downright obscure – that Batman has faced off against across his four-color history. If you're a seasoned Bat-fan, and as long as you find yourself at least partially open to the kind of humor that was prevalent in The Lego Movie, chances are you'll find a lot of really fun Easter eggs and callbacks packed into the entirety of The Lego Batman Movie.
As far as the story is concerned, it doesn't concern itself with remaining too closely tied to the established canon, but of course it has absolutely no need to consider the kind of movie this is. That doesn't mean that fans of the characters won't find some familiar elements, especially as it pertains to the conception of the bond between Batman and a very innocent Robin (voiced here by Michael Cera). From a very broad perspective, it's the kind of Batman/Robin dynamic that fans have seen before in other places, but it delivers familiar lessons and character traits in decidedly unique ways.
Of course the film also gives a lot of service to another familiar dynamic, as the "relationship" between Batman and the Joker (as voiced by Zach Galifianakis) is also placed front-and-center in the movie. While the modern comics have broached the subject of their bond in a more unsettling and disturbing way (i.e. The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, or Death of the Family by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo), this film places it in an almost sweet kind of frame, with this version of the Joker acting more akin to the way a teenager might pine for a crush. Only instead of affection, the Joker just longingly asks, "why doesn't he hate me more?" It's a joyfully appropriate way to give service to one of the most storied rivalries in modern fiction within a family-friendly context, and contributes a lot to the sense of fun and irreverence that dominates the whole watching experience.
The other primary theme of the movie is family. While this also isn't new to Batman stories, it's again presented in a unique way by calling back both to the established origin story for Batman, and how he finds new purpose and self-dedication in a growing collection of allies. While it would've been fun for DC fans everywhere to see the characters of the Justice League play a more prominent part – though they do show up in a pretty fun way – we instead get a new take on the expanded "Batman Family." Chief among these allies – besides Robin – is Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and Batman's surrogate father and butler, Alfred Pennyworth (voiced by Ralph Fiennes). While there's a degree of "aw shucks" sappiness to the lesson Batman has to learn from his allies, the humor cuts through it with such pace that the movie never drops the ball with it. It's just as fun to see unfold as everything else.
As for Batman himself, the movie certainly hits the idea of "Bat-God," a character ludicrously prepared for every possible situation and enemy, very hard. It's appropriate, though, made all the more enjoyable by the gravelly over-the-top delivery of Will Arnett. Arnett's helped create a Batman that, like Adam West before him, could easily fall under the pressure of the zaniness unless the actor embodying him can keep it fresh while still feeling familiar. Adam West is one of the biggest believers in the intent of the 1960s Batman TV series and the camp and humor it brought to the table, and Arnett seems to similarly believe in a familiar kind of irreverence. Where West's Batman was a more classically heroic (and somewhat dorky) take on the stereotypical hero, Arnett's voice provides an effective parody of the overly-dark hero that's become so popular over the last couple of decades. In The Lego Batman Movie, that's exactly what Batman needs.
In the end, The Lego Batman Movie is the kind of story featuring the Caped Crusader that has something for everyone, and that everyone can go to. Even though as an entrenched fan I always enjoy the darker, more serious takes on superheroic icons found in most of the current live-action fare, I still hear loud and clear from a lot of people who are concerned that superhero movies are increasingly becoming less friendly for younger audiences. You need not have any concerns like that for this movie, and not just because the characters appear in the form of toys. Though they're rendered in plastic and CG, The Lego Batman Movie has a very clear and obvious beating heart behind it. Like the best episodes of the '60s TV show, it has themes and humor that can be appreciated by both kids and adults, and not always at the same time.
A lot of that would be useless, though, if the movie wasn't funny, and thankfully its humor – though a little slower near the end of the second act – brings the funny along with the heart. And of course, for those of you out there who identify as super-fans of Batman by knowing everything down to the combination on the Batcave's concealed clock entrance, there's a lot for you to appreciate and revel in, too. The Lego Batman Movie is a more than worthy follow-up to the last time we saw the "shredded abs" of Will Arnett's blocky Batman, and will stand as a solid addition to the rich legacy of the Batman character for years to come.
Bottom line: you could do a lot worse at the movies this weekend. Go for a joyride with the Caped Crusader, but be careful: he hasn't put in any seatbelts yet, because "LIFE DOESN'T GIVE YOU SEATBELTS." Have fun!