On multiple levels, The Lego Batman Movie is the most sophisticated Batman film made since 1992. Simply because its official target audience is young doesn’t preclude its maturity and intelligence. The Toy Story trilogy is for children, yet still features more complexity and emotional depth than most adult cinema. So it was with The Lego Movie; so it is with Lego Batman.
Opening with a metatextual commentary on the titles, a la Mystery Science Theatre 3000, it begins as a self-aware and witty gag-a-minute comedy, which is expected and very entertaining. Less expected is its investment in its characters. Lego Batman (Will Arnett) is arguably the most developed Batman ever seen. The Burton/Nolan Batman essentially operates as a stock, reactionary figure, with his director far more interested in the antagonists; The Lego Batman Movie is refreshingly about Batman.
The plot, devised by Seth Grahame-Smith, is brilliant. Batman scorns the affections of the Joker, refusing to recognise him as his arch-enemy, and so the Joker allows himself to be imprisoned to prove a point: Batman is lost without him. Unoccupied and frustrated, Batman is certain that his foe is up to something. The new Commissioner Gordon agrees, yet objects to Batman’s methods, pointing out how “karate-chopping poor people” has failed to drive down the city’s crime rates. In the meantime, Alfred frets about Batman’s loneliness, and encourages him to raise the orphan he accidentally adopts: “Richard Grayson, but everybody at the orphanage calls me Dick.” Batman: “Well, kids can be cruel.” Batman decides to take the precaution of sending the Joker to the Phantom Zone, an intergalactic prison plucked from Superman; in so doing giving his nemesis the chance to ally with the universe’s most dangerous monsters.
The greatest stroke of genius is Batman’s psychology: a likeably absurd, self-aggrandising narcissist who, deep down, feels unhappy. His greatest fear and desire are one and the same: finding a family. Its characters might be made of Lego, but Lego Batman offers a thoughtful exploration of loss and its consequences, wherein Batman tries to push his surrogate family away for fear of losing loved ones again. Their presence redeems and repairs him, however, not least Dick, whose happy-go-lucky optimism perfectly complements his mentor’s overblown machismo.
In short, then, the film offers a more thoroughly fleshed-out critique of Batman than the ostensibly adult and realistic Nolan trilogy, granting its hero depth, and solving the long-term problem of incorporating Robin into the story in a satisfying way. This is pulling off more tricks than the film is obliged to, and it doesn’t stop there.
An obvious starting problem is that the Joker as we know him is rendered somewhat redundant by the film’s comic tone: part of the character’s point is to comment on the world as though from the outside, personifying self-awareness, and to threaten to break the internal logic by offering this unique challenge. Grahame-Smith thus tweaks him—instead of being the mythic and insane arch-nemesis who completes Batman, this Joker is a needy and rather sensitive love interest who simply believes himself to be that mythic Heath Ledger guy (neatly paralleling how Batman sees himself as the uber-cool Christian Bale type). Delightfully, the fi m doesn’t just hint that the Batman/Joker relationship is homoerotic: it isn’t subtext, it’s the text. Indeed, although the family arc looms larger, it’s not until Batman can reciprocate the Joker’s infatuation—embracing, that is, the fundamental homosexuality and campness of the Batman universe—that Gotham can be saved. Because on top of telling a good story, The Lego Batman Movie takes the time to luxuriate in playing with the Batman mythos; its self-awareness is affectionate rather than sneering, with a sense of joy and adventure wholly absent from recent DC features. Within the story, Robin et al exist to show Batman that he can let loose and enjoy himself, and The Lego Batman Movie demonstrates precisely the same thing.
What this allows is pure fanservice, on an inter- fictional level, like seeing Batman and Robin fight off Lord Voldemort and the Daleks. The esotericism of its litany of callbacks also impresses: as well as appearances from Catwoman, the Riddler and the like, there are appearances from the Mutant Leader from The Dark Knight Returns, Vincent Price’s Egghead, and, in one of the film’s funniest moments, the Condiment King. Details like Billy Dee Williams from the 1989 Batman voicing Two-Face, and the Lego Penguin being based on the Danny DeVito portrayal, contribute to an overwhelming surfeit of fanservice. And out of this nostalgia, comes something constructive rather than hollow, a message to go beyond po-faced darkness and make something better. Of course, this will all be missed by children, but that’s fine.
What children get is something even better. They get a Batman who isn’t invulnerable and who needs his friends. They get a fey, effeminate hero who is every bit as brave and talented as his mentor; a heroine who doesn’t get blown up in the second act or exist for titillation; and, in effect, a story which confirms Fredric Wertham’s nightmares.