The endlessly flexible character of Batman has been through many iterations in the pages of comic books and on screens big and small. In 2014’s The LEGO Movie, Batman returned in comical, not comic-book form, as voiced by Arrested Development’s Will Arnett. This Batman was not only rage-filled but an egomaniacal narcissist overcompensating for his pain and suspicion of social inadequacy with defensive bluster and offensive smack-talk. This Batman takes center stage in the spinoff The LEGO Batman Movie.
Batman has been comical before, of course, in the classic 1966 Batman TV series and film, and more recently in Robot Chicken’s many spoofs of DC Comics characters. The latter proves particularly relevant to the style of The LEGO Batman Movie, since director Chris McKay’s two biggest credits are Robot Chicken and The LEGO Movie. Like both of those, Batman’s new movie is zany, frantically paced, and busy, busy, busy. For some, that will be a big plus. For others, at 104 minutes, it will be a bit exhausting, especially in brain-fatiguing LEGO-construction-block animated form.
The LEGO Batman Movie references just about every previous live-action version of Batman (perhaps leaving out one of the two black-and-white serials), but the film it’s most like in plot is actually the most reviled, Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. That’s because this is a story in keeping with the 1975-78 DC title Batman Family: a reminder that while Batman is superficially a loner, he has often relied on the kindness of long-suffering compatriots. These include Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), Dick Grayson/Robin the Boy Wonder (an amusingly chipper Michael Cera), and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Rosario Dawson).
Batman labors to keep all of these characters at arm’s length, but he must eventually acknowledge that he needs them to save Gotham City from The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who wants little more than for Batman to acknowledge needing him as well (a running gag turns the famous nemeses into a kind of bromantic duo). To blow up the story to epic LEGO-movie scale, Batman plots to steal the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman (Channing Tatum) to banish Gotham’s villains to the Kryptonian nether-region. The plan backfires, unleashing pop culture’s greatest villains (especially those from Warner Bros. properties), including Voldemort, Sauron, the Wicked Witch, King Kong, Gremlins, and a fleet of Daleks.
All of this makes for a geek-gasm for the Comic-Con set, and one has to bow to a movie that assembles this much sheer stuff (and so many impressive voice actors). The five screenwriters (led by Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith) cram the movie full to bursting with Easter Eggs for longtime Batman fans and construct a nominal lesson to kids that no man, not even Batman, is an island (“You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself”). The humor grows repetitive, and the ADHD style is a bit like being shaken by the shoulders for 104 minutes, but The LEGO Batman Movie still has plenty to recommend it, at least for those who care about the Dark Knight.