Before The LEGO Batman Movie, Chris McKay (of Moral Orel, Robot Chicken) was best known as the animation co-director and editor of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s 2014 film, The LEGO Movie. His work on the critically acclaimed film earned him the American Cinema Editors Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film, Animation, as well as an Annie Award nomination for Best Edited Animation Feature Film. Now, McKay will forever be known as the guy who saved Gotham City’s Caped Crusader from a dark and gritty existence with The LEGO Batman Movie, perhaps the best film based on a DC Comics property since 2008’s The Dark Knight, and maybe the best pure Batman movie since Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005).
The story opens with The Joker, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, leading a full-scale attack on Gotham City with Batman’s vast Rogues Gallery of bad guys, including heavy hitters Bane (Doug Benson doing his best Tom Hardy impression), The Riddler (Conan O’Brien), Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams), and Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate). Joining them are some of The Dark Knight’s more obscure villains like King Tut, Egghead, Clock King, and Condiment King — a whimsical weenie equipped with high-powered hoses that spray ketchup and mustard. And yes, he’s an actual DC Comics character.
The Clown Prince of Crime relishes in chaos, but what he’s really after this time is recognition. After decades of conflict, Joker feels that he and the Caped Crusader have forged a special hero/villain bond that needs to be formally acknowledged. Batman, not being one for relationships, refuses to recognize Joker as his greatest enemy and dumps him unceremoniously. “I don’t currently have a bad guy,” he says to a teary eyed Joker. “I am fighting a few different people. I like to fight around.” Rejected, the jilted Joker devises a plan that will earn his “greatest enemy” status: getting sent to the Phantom Zone, a prison dimension home to the universe’s most dangerous threats.
When Joker returns to Gotham City with a gaggle of uber-villains, our hero has his work cut out for him. Joining Batman in his fight to defend Gotham is the super-cheerful Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a young orphan on his way to becoming Robin; Batman’s loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes); and Gotham City’s new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), aka Batgirl, who inspires a needle drop of Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died in Your Arms” every time Batman sees her. Having friends doesn’t gel with Batman, a lone wolf who needs to work alone and brood alone on his dark past, distancing himself from everyone in the process. Arnett plays Batman to perfection here as a gravelly voiced vigilante with sick abs and abandonment issues. Oozing machismo, the completely aloof crime-fighter is forced to work as part of a team to defeat the Joker and his new gang of baddies.
The LEGO Batman Movie is so much fun. For those worried that it would be a retread of Lord and Miller’s film, worry no more: McKay’s movie isn’t a LEGO Movie clone — it’s a fantastic standalone Batman flick that subversively skewers Bat-cliches while paying homage to the history of the character created way back in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. From the psychedelic ’60s Adam West incarnation of the character to Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s iconic interpretations in the ’80s and ’90s to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and beyond, this movie covers every era of Batman and will no doubt delight every generation of Bat-fan. It even takes some time to poke fun at DC’s recent failures, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, with Batman declaring that Superman (voiced by Channing Tatum) is, perhaps, his greatest enemy, only for the Joker to remind him, “Superman’s not a bad guy!”
Not only is The LEGO Batman Movie consistently hilarious, it’s extremely heartfelt, too. Guided by Walt Disney’s philosophy that for every laugh there should be a tear, McKay’s film embraces the core of its story, about an orphan (in this case Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson) finding a family, and delivers a vibrant, candy-colored spectacle with a sweet center. This combination of satire and sentimentality is the result of the film’s Rogues Gallery of screenwriters, including Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Community, American Dad), Jared Stern (Toy Story 3, Wreck-It Ralph), and newcomer John Whittington. That’s a lot of writers for any motion picture, but unlike Suicide Squad, which suffers from tonal inconsistencies and studio tampering, LEGO Batman doesn’t feel like the result of too many cooks in the kitchen — its vision is clear, and it stays true to the core of the character and the universe he inhabits. It understands iconic characters like Batman, Robin, and Barbara Gordon far better than anything the DCEU has churned out thus far.
I had an ear-to-ear grin while watching LEGO Batman and found myself laughing hysterically at Arnett’s immature antics, including a scene in which Batman, in a silk smoking jacket and his signature cowl, sits alone in his Bat-theater, watching Jerry Maguire, laughing at the parts where he should be overcome with emotion. A joyous send-up of the Caped Crusader, The LEGO Batman Movie should not be missed. It’s the first film of 2017 that left me feeling happy and jazzed — yes, jazzed. I can’t wait to see it again (and again), so I can take in all the little details I may have missed the first time around. LEGO, like Marvel and Star Wars, has established itself as a brand, and as long as McKay and his creative team stick around, I will watch any LEGO movie Warner Bros. and the imaginative mad scientists at Animal Logic bless us with.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5