#12 in my ranking of theatrically released Batman films.
It’s interesting that it feels like modern movies can’t just adhere to silliness. There has to be some level of emotional catharsis, and just as I felt like it clashed in Batman & Robin I feel like it clashes here in The LEGO Batman Movie. The bulk of this film is a gag-a-second survey of the history of the Batman franchise, but it has to have a lesson. The main character has to grow, and the growth has to be genuine. And I think it clashes horribly with the comedy.
The Batman created in the original The LEGO Movie had little to do with many other Batman interpretations. He was a joke, a selfish, arrogant, incredibly vain loner who had little use for anyone other than himself. He was so popular that when Warner Brothers decided to move forward with a second LEGO movie, they latched onto the character and gave him his own film, handing the directorial reins to Chris McKay, the animation co-director of the first film. McKay produced an energetic, often quite amusing film that honestly just can’t handle the emotional quotient it assigns to itself.
I love the first ten minutes of this film. It’s the exact kind of goofy, relentless, and eager to entertain mentality I expected from the whole film. The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has decided to plant a bomb to destroy Gotham City, and he includes every villain from the Batman Rogue’s Gallery down to the most obscure for a joke. Batman (Will Arnett) rushes in, all full of himself and so incredibly capable that he ends the threat while jamming out to his dark, broody tunes he wrote himself. Then the movie shows us Batman’s life when he’s not fighting crime, and it’s a lonely existence of heating up leftovers, laughing hysterically at bits from romantic comedies where people are earnest with each other, and generally brooding. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is worried about Batman’s isolation, lack of emotional contact with anyone else, and his life being exclusionary to anything else other than Batman. At the retirement party for Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne absent-mindedly adopts Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) while obsessing over Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the new commissioner.
And this is where the movie begins to lose me. The movie never takes Batman seriously as a character, but they try to present him with serious kinds of challenges. The new commissioner has come in with plans on reining in Batman to do more effective policing (the fact that I watched the 1966 movie the night before where Commissioner Gordon proudly announces that Batman had been deputized is amusing). Are we getting some kind of mini-lecture on what policing should be in a silly animated movie about an arrogant Batman? Again, Batman in this film is a joke, so treating his antics at all seriously feels like a mistake in tone. It’s treated lightly (the tonal issues become much bigger later), but this just feels off to me.
The major subplot of the film is that The Joker feels unappreciated by Batman. Batman is such a loner that he won’t even admit that he has an arch nemesis. In terms of the attempts at emotional payoffs in this film, I think this side works much better because it’s inherently silly. The Joker just wants to hear Batman say that he hates him, that’s all he needs emotionally. So, he decides to completely remove himself from the world by getting cast into the Phantom Zone, an alternate dimension where bad guys are punished (originated in stories from Superman). Batman can’t cope with the Joker just in prison after he gives himself up, so he uses Dick Grayson to get the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman’s hideout and sends the Joker off. The Joker quickly turns the bad guys already in the zone (a panoply of WB properties that served as precursor to the awful Space Jam: A New Legacy) to his own side and returns to Earth…somehow.
The finale is a couple of extended battles where Batman has to take back Wayne Manor from the Joker using increasing amounts of friendship along the way.
Now, it’s in these battles that the movie pretty much completely loses me. I like the bit with the Joker needing emotional fulfilment from his rivalry with the Batman, and Batman refusing it in return. However, Batman needing to develop a family is all wrong. It’s not that it’s out of line with previous incarnations of the character, it’s that it is out of line with the tone of the rest of the film. Batman must develop a family, and it’s about him recognizing the worth of Robin, Alfred, and Barbara in a way that makes them into a team. This was handled okay in their effort to get to Wayne Manor when each had an idea real quick and Batman decided to follow through on them, the effort and energy matched the rest of the film. And then Batman pulls away, sends them off, and we get this extended bit of introspection of Batman after he gets sent into the Phantom Zone where he realizes that he’s not actually that good of a guy. This is so weird in this movie. Batman as he is presented in the film is a joke, and approaching him as a real character in need of real growth feels wrong. And, what’s probably worse, is the tone of the film becomes shockingly dour in its examination. This colorful film about Batman references as jokes doesn’t need this kind of self-reflective feeling at all, much less as a way to completely frame the film’s final act. Does Batman need to grow and gain real family by the end? Not in this movie. I think it would have been enough to just get him to accept the Joker as his arch-nemesis. That’s more in line with the ridiculous tone of the overall film.
I see that The LEGO Batman Movie has a similar problem that Batman & Robin has. It wants to be silly, but it keeps introducing elements that it also wants to be taken seriously. There’s a clash there that hobbles the film. However, The LEGO Batman Movie, when it is being silly nonsense, is far more entertaining than Batman & Robin. The embrace of the character’s past, stuffing the film with references, and just generally being chaotic fun with colorful special effects and photography is where this movie is at its best. Will Arnett is really fun as Batman, and the rest are fine as well.
I wanted this movie to be sillier more. Instead it got inertly serious for long stretches, deflating my appreciation of the movie by a lot.
Originally published here.