This post in honor of the late Adam West, who is obviously an object of worship for the latest in a long string of Batman films and the closest to rekindle West’s matter-of-factly deranged insouciance. It isn’t a perfect film, but it is a perfect tribute. RIP.
The first entry in Warner’s sure-to-drag-on-past-its-expiration-date Lego film franchise is not all that dissimilar from its progenitor race, 2014’s unexpectedly spirited, spiky, and whip-smart The Lego Movie. The Lego Batman Movie, perhaps expectedly, doubles down on both that film’s general vibe and its various specificities, including, unfortunately, corporate synergy. Grotesque product placement is de rigueur in this franchise. (Or is that character placement in this film? What does that say about the nature of individual consciousness when your protagonist is a product?). Conceptual thorniness aside though, The Lego Batman Movie is a generally sprightly and amusingly dysfunctional young upstart that feels just off-its-rocker and iconoclastic enough to not succumb to the realization that it is little more than a corporate gold-rush of marketing genius.
The real surprise is that The Lego Batman actually wields more than one or two rogue observations about Batman’s character, and considering how limp many of the live-action Batman films have been up to this point, this animated film isn’t far from the summit as far as understanding the character is concerned. Will Arnett, returning from The Lego Movie, voices both Batman and his moonlighting day-job as billionaire Bruce Wayne in the same sledge-hammered gravel-pit voice, and both Wayne and Batman – as written – are essentially identical. In turn, the writing and voice acting cunningly insinuate – at least more than any of other Batman films – either that Batman has swallowed Bruce Wayne whole or that Batman is really just an aesthetic embellishment of Wayne’s natural personality: an elitist, individualistic adolescent malcontent convinced of his own superiority and hiding his stunted-child egotism under a moral cloak, legitimized by a society that valorizes individual heroism and vigilante justice. I still find Batman Returns the most indelible film among the many adaptations of this character all these years later, and The Lego Batman Movie won’t change that. But Tim Burton’s interests were only tangentially connected to the character of Batman himself; the Batman name was primarily an excuse for him to bathe in his personal aesthetic itches, wonderfully so I admit. Comparatively, The Lego Batman Movie actually has designs on Batman’s consciousness.
That, and it rehashes – amusingly enough – the old psychological read about Batman and the Joker (a middling Zach Galifianakis) as tortured lovers suffering from the toxic repression of unstated emotional static between them. It’s been written before, but at least the film is the sharpest filmic workout of that notion thus far. Plus, I will give the film credit, probably owing to its for-family status, that it realizes, even if accidentally, that attraction need not be sexual or even classically “romantic” in nature, in the same way that queer readings of films need not directly address sexuality or gayness at all.
Case in point, the narrative in-proper begins in this film with the Joker actually submitting to Batman’s will. (Good writers will resist the sado-masochistic or dominant-submissive angle here; going for that low-hanging fruit is just showing off.) Letting himself be captured, along with every villain in Gotham city, he goads Batman into sending His Royal Clownliness into a nebulous realm where villains from multiple (corporate) universes reside. And while we are busy not having to guess at all what the conclusion will be to this development, the film begins a much more fulfilling arc concerning Batman’s loneliness and the development of his imaginative family. Batman needs to learn to work with all of Gotham to move out of his arrested development, but the primary points of contact on that front, the characters we spend the most time with, are his accidentally-adopted young ward Robin (Michael Cera, delightfully boundless and innocent), new police officer Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), and his reliable parent-figure-cum-butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes)
But The Lego Batman Movie only adheres to these themes as excuses, not genuine arcs, which is for the better. It boasts a grounding-rod of sweetness, but the primary pay-off is its increasingly schizophrenic subjectivity and adamant, committal form of zany eccentricity. Extraordinarily quick with its wit and its identity fluctuation, this film is slavishly devoted not to any one filmic or comic representation of the Batman world but to the more promiscuous multiplicities contained within this narrative universe. It’s free-wheeling, basically, and about as inclined to rib at the property as a film of this budget and corporate standing probably could ever be. But it boasts its deepest, most utmost affinity for the demented whimsy of the Adam West Batman TV series and the justly adored film version of it. As a direct offspring of this magnetic charge to the Papa Bear of cinematic Batman adaptations, The Lego Batman Movie is also the first film in 50 years to understand – or even submit to any interest in – the comic brio of the theater of the absurd always present in the noir-adjacent Batman comics. (Well, in all fairness, Joel Schumacher’s films were at least in the neighborhood of the ‘60s Batman show, but they mistook “grotesque malformation of” with “tribute to”). Irony is, I think, on the verge of a self-inflicted grave, but The Lego Batman Movie is inspired enough to keep cheeky self-commentary from seeming like a completely expended force.
If that weren’t enough, The Lego Batman Movie is also gob-smackingly beautiful at times, a zealously-colored, fluorescently-lit pop-art fantasia or an out-of-control circus, all of which bears testament not only to the designers’ obvious passion for the project and Batman as a whole, but to the film’s overall demeanor and bid to remove the cowl of solemnity from Batman’s brooding modern-day history. There are a panoply of carnival-esque amusements throughout (moments, ideas, phrases, hilarious silences that disrupt the pace of the film), all curious little devils that elevate this nonsense aesthetic to gleeful worship, and all of which are packaged in the prettiest bow imaginable.
On the subject of nonsense, it must be noted that The Lego Batman Movie adheres to a mantra of leftfield frivolity but isn’t as anarchic as it could be. It bears primary imaginative kinship primarily with the old Looney Tunes Chuck Jones shorts, where the characters, as the great Ronnie Scheib once wrote, were still mostly stable identities from which their attendant plots emanated. The Lego Batman Movie does not draw from the less-appreciated but arguably more revolutionary Tex Avery, whose characters (again, cueing Scheib) can only be described as physical manifestations of obsessive, frightening, undomesticated ideas: jealousy, repression, hunger, lust. These characters seem irreducible to or unassimilable with conventions of character “will” or “consciousness”, making their physicality ever-susceptible to un-definition and erasure. Look to Don Hertzfeldt if that is what you seek, and Hertzfeldt isn’t exactly about to be hired by Disney for his own Iron Man sock-puppet film, is he?
But a mainstream, contemporary animated film bearing the fractured psyche of a Tex Avery short likely will never exist, and that out-of-control kind of identity might only stabilize extended to 90 minutes anyway. (The pleasure of Avery’s shorts is that of a continuous tumbling to the ground, the endless friction of un-actualizing potentiality found in the sensation that each short’s self-decimation is never far away). On its own slightly compromised terms, then, The Lego Batman Movie is a delight, one that is highly aware of the over-baked gruesome nihilism of Batman today and particularly cognizant of the Nolan films’ rather dubious skill at simultaneously aggrandizing themselves and pretending to hate themselves as well (trying to seem dialectic, basically). The villains in The Lego Batman Movie even occasionally function as an interrogatory Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on Batman’s dysfunctional nature without ever being redressed for doing so (as seemingly every other Batman film does). As such, The Lego Batman Movie, minor flaws aside, deserves our attention as a film that is aware how constipated the “serious” Batman films are, how they reside up their own intestines with the belief that they are seriously interrogating themselves introspectively rather than simply awash in a gauze of moral ambiguity