Feb 12, 2017

Review: "The LEGO Batman Movie" is an Entertaining Dive into the Dark Knight's Psyche

Scene from The LEGO Batman Movie
There isn't a moment more piercing in director Chris McKay's The LEGO Batman Movie than the moment when Batman (Will Arnett) enters his Bat Cave. Everything before had been an exhilarating rush of animation and action as Gotham praised their hero for fighting The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and C-List villains. The line "Hey computer, I'm home." echoes through the cavernous walls. With exception to butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), he is alone and stubborn, not quite willing to part with his selfish ways. It is an emotional moment undermined by Arnett's ability to play the character with childish defense mechanisms. It may not be the most robust Batman that cinema has had - even with a nine-pack ab - but it's probably the most emotionally complex one that has ever existed. That's not even including the jokes or the countless references to the caped crusader's rich history, either.
Everyone knows who Batman is. He has been nearly inescapable for over 75 years now. Few superheroes have had the endurance to fit the mold of their era better than him. Whether it is the campy 1960's version played by Adam West, or the dark and morose current rendition by Ben Affleck, he has been there to fight crime while exploring deeper themes about the justice system. In that time, he's also acquired his fair share of highs and lows - and no film has effectively captured just how rich that well is than McKay's film that fuses together for the first time the campy with the dark and makes a loving dissertation for a pop culture icon. It doesn't take experience to like this movie, but deeper appreciation can be found if you've watched every last version going back to the 1940's serials. 

One of the biggest differences between the modern movie Batman and The LEGO Batman Movie, is that this is a film geared towards family audiences. In recent times, the dark knight has become a tad disturbing, exploring moral grey areas that are even greyer if you're a child. This is the jumping off point for the film, which is a spin-off from The LEGO Movie where his brooding, metal-loving persona became a runaway favorite for audiences. Here, he isn't just a one note joke, but an embodiment of something more complex than what bricks should be allowed to do. He may be a depressed character, but for the first time it is explored why he has become such a depressing figure in spite of the good that he's brought.
There's a lot of obvious clues. He is selfish. He works alone. The death of his parents make him hesitant to trust anyone besides his father figure Alfred. He even starts the film by telling The Joker that they're not each other's greatest enemies. This all builds to confidence issues that are compensated by sarcasm and elaborate expenses meant to distract from the hollow core. The choice to explore how this relates to the justice system - represented by Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) - and his insecurities as a responsible figure - represented by adopted son Dick "Robin" Grayson (Michael Cera) - help to deconstruct the mythos and get to the core of how silly Batman's tough guy persona really is. 
This is the reason that the film works. While it manages to properly reference almost every popular iteration of Batman that's ever existed, it is seen more as regret. The several films that came before are played off as weird phases in his life. Even the use of Jerry Maguire footage hides a clever callback to The Dark Knight. The film is so in awe of everything about this character that it feels strange that more all-ages movies haven't been made. There's enough silliness here to suggest that the Batman of Zack Snyder's world can exist alongside the onomatopoeia era of Adam West. Even then, it's fun to poke fun at how staggeringly different these two eras are.
Beyond this, The LEGO Batman Movie has plenty of solid action and jokes to spare. The third act does an effective job of mixing ethos with whiz-bang moments to make this, if nothing else, one of the most thrilling takes on the character in years. While one could argue that The Dark Knight or Batman '89 are better, one could only imagine how much better it would be if the climaxes featured more self-realization that paid off in beautiful dovetailing fashion. By the end, it's hard to judge this too harshly, as it is a kids movie that is self-referential to a fault. However, it is hard to ignore that McKay understands Batman better than probably anyone else currently going at it. He is supposed to be fun. He is supposed to be ridiculous. However, he's supposed to represent something of hope for positive change. In this film, more than he's had in years, it feels like he's finally achieving his goal.

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