I can’t write this review without acknowledging my long history with the DC superheroes. If you want to just skip to the fun part without the drama, scroll past until you see LEGO Batman. You’re welcome.
There was a time, years ago, when DC Comics and Warner Brothers could do no wrong in my eyes on this front.
Oh, don’t misunderstand me here. They had their problems, as every franchise does to some extent, but I’d shrug off the over-budget big screen misfires because there was a plethora of wonderful comics and animation that left me immensely satisfied on levels only a hardcore geek can know. It was a wonderful consolation prize given that, for me, the last big screen adventure that lived up to its potential and honored any of their characters was 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. That movie suffered only from a lack of marketing, which caused it to open on only a handful of screens in lesser theaters, ultimately closing early and existing as something of a cult rumor. It amazes me how many people do not know about this movie, but those who do… well, you understand. It’s my gold standard for Batman storytelling, the measuring stick I use for all others. Kevin Conroy is my Batman. The new golden age of DC superhero animation continued on TV while the comics took bold storytelling moves to regain the attention of those who’d been swallowed by the rise of several new comics companies and titles. It worked for a time. And then, inevitably, they rebooted the universe for no reason other than a money grab. It was so terrible, they did it again five years later because nothing brings in new fans while pissing off the diehards quite like a clean sweep. It’s an old and sadly familiar tale that every longtime comics fan will experience at some point. Some come back because they miss it too much. Some don’t. In all that time, I’ve not come back to the comics, and I never will. I readily acknowledge these characters have moved on without me in that format. At some point, the animation department started leaning heavily on these newer stories from the comics. With one big screen misfire after another making dump trucks full of money in opening weekends alone, and with the small screen offerings doing little to inspire my confidence, my heart eventually just shriveled, and rage slowly turned to apathy as I watched one character after the next turn into something I don’t recognize anymore.
As I write this review, Wonder Woman is blazing her way to success on the big screen following her opening weekend, the first big screen film for her in her 75 year history. As my favorite of the DC characters, after decades of championing her as an underdog after DC and WB both declared this character as “unmarketable,” this new success has overcome me with mixed emotion. I want her to finally win. She’s poised right now to supplant Batman as their top character just as Batman did to Superman in the late 80s and 90s. Just a few years ago that would have been exciting to me beyond words. I’ve since learned not to trust WB and DC. As the saying goes, once bitten, twice shy. I’ve been chewed up more times than I care to count, hoping beyond hope my heroes were still in there somewhere. The disappointment seems to know no bounds. So, yeah… I am that guy, the fan who kept screaming that it just isn’t that difficult to understand these characters, the one couldn’t roll with the punches and couldn’t let go until it was far too late.
With all that in mind, the notion that parody would honor a character and its legacy as well or better than anything DC and WB have given us over the past generation is nothing short of ridiculous. And yet… The LEGO Batman Movie has done this for me. I’ve enjoyed the other LEGO crossover offerings I’ve seen over the years, but parodies are mostly just ok in my book. When it comes to DC superheroes, the serious big screeners were joke enough. The LEGO Batman Movie offered up something the more serious offerings have been missing: heart. The legacy of Batman is honored — the good, the bad, and the ugly — even if it takes a slapstick approach to his character to do it. The result is something just this side of genius.
Let me tell you about this movie! From the opening narration over the film logos, this one hits all the right notes.
The central theme of the film deals with Batman and his relationships. The character has always had family issues of one form or another, with his villains ultimately being psychological fun house mirror versions of himself when they work best. It’s why The Joker is his arch-nemesis, being the one that pretty much gets him at every level. It’s why many don’t (or won’t) understand his relationship to Robin and often want to twist it into something it’s not. It’s why, despite all claims to the contrary, Batman has assembled a rather large surrogate family around him over the years. This film drives right to the heart of this idea, getting him to cross that bridge from brooding loner to family hero.
The plot used to pull this off is pretty simple, stereotypical if I’m being honest about it. Parody can get away with that. The Joker is on the loose, and he’s assembled an army comprised of pretty much every villain known to the Batman canon in every form, be it the comics or the most obscure references from the 1966 TV series. It’s built on this understanding of The Joker’s character from way back that isn’t spelled out here, but it’s definitely played upon. In The Joker’s mind, there are only two people in the whole of reality: himself and Batman. The rest are figments of their collective imaginations, pawns in their game of cat and mouse that will someday end with The Joker’s comic genius triumphing over the Dark Knight’s lame gadgets. But what happens to that reality when Batman declares he doesn’t need The Joker? Batman rejects his nemesis outright, even saying that Superman is his true rival. Naturally, this doesn’t rest well with The Joker, becoming the setup to an even larger scheme with the kind of audacity he’d be able to pull off in spades.
As Commissioner Gordon retires and his position transfers to his replacement, his daughter Barbara Gordon, the rules are changed for how Gotham will operate. Barbara wants to work with Batman, within the law. Vigilantes aren’t needed, she claims. Compassion and reason will win the day, not violence. And as if on cue, The Joker arrives with all of Gotham’s infamous. Without Batman as his nemesis, there’s no point to his crimes… so he surrenders himself and gift wraps all of the other villains, delivering them into custody, thus negating the city’s need for Batman.
In his newly-found downtime, Batman finds himself on the receiving end of Alfred’s plans to turn him into a functional human being. Alfred begins by introducing him to the son he unknowingly adopted a week ago, Dick Grayson. Batman, however, is determined to rid the world of The Joker once and for all, and he figures the key to his plan is Superman’s Phantom Zone projector. The Fortress of Solitude has been designed seemingly with Batman in mind, and Grayson happens to be small enough to get past the defenses. Gee, what are the odds?
Once the projector has been nabbed, Batman storms Arkham Asylum and blasts The Joker into the Phantom Zone, the impossible-to-breech other-dimensional prison that holds the greatest villains in the known universe. Batman’s actions land both him and Robin into custody, and you can no doubt already see where this is going. The Joker, being the undisputed king of one-upmanship in any franchise you can name, wanted to go to the Phantom Zone so that he could assemble an army worthy of his greatness to unleash upon Gotham. His entire point, of course, is simply to prove that Batman needs him as much as he needs Batman. They complete each other, you see.
The grand finale is an impossibly cameo-filled licensing nightmare that only LEGO can pull off these days. The battle royale that ensues would seem at home in pretty much every summer blockbuster. And I’ll say no more because I really don’t want to spoil the magic here. It’s absurd, it’s gaudy beyond description, and it’s an absolute delight to watch. These days, it’s pretty rare that a movie can make me laugh. This one did from beginning to end, and it plucked all of the nostalgic heartstrings along the way, playing this fanboy like a harp.
I cannot praise this film enough. The LEGO Batman Movie taps into something deep in the DC lexicon that DC itself seems to have forgotten, making it somehow a more legitimate Batman movie than most Batman movies they’ve released in the character’s long career. At the same time, at no point does it take itself seriously, which is in stark contrast to the overblown naval-gazing, city-destroying. soul-crushing excrement the so-called “real” Batman / DC films have presented over the past 20 years. More than that, it’s an acknowledgement that superheroes don’t have to be morally constipated killing machines to be relevant to a modern audience. The cast and crew of this film had fun at every turn, and that could have gone just as wrong in so many ways. The old saying goes, dying is easy… comedy is hard. The DC superheroes have been dying for far too long. In tapping the magic of the great history DC has built, The LEGO Batman Movie roasted the character while simultaneously breathing new life into him. It does it without leaving behind any fan of any level, from any generation. The more you know about the characters and their history, the funnier the movie is. If you’re not geek enough to keep up, no big deal. This one was crafted for the kid in all of us.