“Does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement?”
“No! Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic.”
While I may be a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy AND semi fascinated by Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I can’t really say that there’s been a film that adapts Batman in a way I can fully empathize with the character. Tim Burton’s goth opera adaptations come close, presenting a stylistically heightened but rather emotionally evocative portrait of a tragic and conflicted man. Of course, Batman / Bruce Wayne fit the bill for Burton’s modus operandi of showcasing individuals who feel both disconnected from the world and endlessly alone, but even with this expression of sad humanity, we still see something problematic with the heroic vigilante. Something we can’t all completely relate to.
Batman has been depicted as depending on crime and violence, in heavy doses, to justify his one man mission against Gotham’s worst. Without a failing system of justice and income equality, Bruce would probably go mad with rage and fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, becoming a domestic terrorist of sorts (NEVER let him visit Vermont). Michael Keaton’s portrayal said it best, when confronting Joker in the finale, saying “You created me.” This is shocking as it suggests both an awareness of his problems and a compulsion to keep going despite knowing. Bruce may never be whole (as Nolan attempted with The Dark Knight Rises) but this doesn’t mean Batman has to be the unpleasant (at best) fascist (at extreme) he sometimes is.
The Lego Batman Movie understands this, is about this, expands upon this and course corrects this. This spinoff from the wonderful and great Lego Movie – which saw Batman in a supporting yet show stealing role – is a combination satire / self parody and serious examination of the psychological mechanisms inside the caped crusader. For what was billed as a comedic riff on a comedic riff of the famed comic book star, director Chris McKay, voice lead Will Arnett and the rest of the team have crafted not just a breath of fresh air from the DC Expanded Universe, but a special and grand film in its own right. Dare I say, it may be my favorite cinematic Batman – by a close margin.
In the film, which treats its world as a literal and figurative franchise that’s been around for decades, features Batman facing an uncertain future and an unknown path – one without crime as he understands it and one with relationships he can’t grasp. He is comparable to a certain self loving President, but may I suggest that this is more on the level with Steve Jobs. Both stories and leads present men with everything and nothing, pushing away when they should be bringing together. It’s not binary, Bats; you can be gifted and decent at the same time.
Central to this version is the performance of Arnett as Bruce / Batman – almost beating out Chris Pratt in the first Lego iteration – who throws a deeply pained voice that moves beyond his facade of narcissism and jerkishness. This is the actor making up for the fact that he isn’t wearing the mask and cowl in live action, which visually represents the true face of Bruce. Through vocal talent alone, Arnett expresses the split personality and emotional wall with such grace and brutal honesty, it’s almost devastating to listen to.
All is not dreary, as Lego Batman Movie also continues the Lego trend of being smartly funny to no end. Incredibly self aware and meta, there are moments that defy time and space with lightspeed wit and excellent referentialism. Whether it’s making light of the Adam West era of the rogues gallery or passing with ease phrases and labels like “macguffin” and “Gymkata”, we have entered into – or maybe made a return to – a no limits phase of animated features. By no means is there “adult” content here, but there is an adult edge, by which I mean heavy. Heavy mind and heavy heart. Absolutely thoughtful, absolutely fun, absolutely funny.
Batman’s attic, I suspect, is filled with posters of himself and quite a few gruesome truths. Truths which Lego Batman Movie lays bare in a not quite safe and guarded but definitely not too mature manner. It’s amazing to me how cartoons, with their fantastical landscapes and graphics, can push and depict the human experience with more gusto and weight than a live action project would. Can, of course. It’s potential is immense. And The Lego Batman Movie fulfills its potential immensely. No problems here.
P.S.: Please screen The Lego Batman Movie at The White House. I hear our President learns better through visuals.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017) Directed by: Chris McKay. Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKay, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington. Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Ralph Fiennes, Doug Benson, Conan O’Brien, Zach Galafianakis, Rosario Dawson, Jason Mantzoukas, Billy Dee Williams
5 out of 5