As we approach the 80th anniversary of The Caped Crusader joining the public consciousness, his popularity couldn’t be stronger. We’ve seen two unique and highly successful cinematic versions played by Michael Keaton and Christian Bale in the last 30 years, countless animated versions, a new live action take introduced last year featuring Ben Affleck, and of course the comics themselves. Tough to put a finger on just what it is about Batman that appeals to so many, since spending time with a brooding, dark vigilante doesn’t exactly scream four quadrant appeal. That said, many incarnations of the character over the years have been lighter, and perhaps none more so than the Lego style crime fighter voiced by comedian Will Arnett two years ago. The overly husky bravado of his voice welds perfectly with a self aware and decidedly friendlier take on Batman, balancing tribute and parody expertly throughout The Lego Movie. Time Warner knows a winner when they own one, so a solo outing for him was inevitable. Ironically, the genuinely strong The Lego Batman is all about giving up the brooding loner status the character’s been cast with in recent iterations and embracing what we all know Bruce Wayne lost as a child: Family.
A triumphant, unstoppable and broadly loved Batman comes tearing in to thwart yet another Joker scheme in the opening reel, but we’re quickly shown no amount of lobster thermidor and screenings of rom coms in Wayne Manor can quite fill the hole left by his departed parents. Dutiful butler Alfred is there to do his part as always, Jim Gordon’s retirement gives way to daughter Barbara taking the reigns, and a plucky orphan named Dick Grayson (Dick: “My name’s Richard but everyone at the orphanage calls me Dick.” Bruce: “Yeah, kids can be cruel”) soon winds up in the picture with ceaseless optimism and a desire to help. Barbara wants Batman to work with the police, Robin is clearly up for being the most obedient sidekick in sidekick history, and even The Joker himself schemes a huge plot of mayhem just so Batman will admit that their twisted bromance is, in fact, a thing. As you can imagine, the story and players seesaw between disconnection and coming together like a group of kids playing with the namesake toys themselves; I’ll skip the spoilers but based on the rating and target audience you can assume this adventure doesn’t end with anything approaching the cynicism that punctuated Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
The voice cast can’t be celebrated enough; they bring the plucky script to life and even feature a familiar face or two in the credits (here’s looking at you, Billy Dee Williams). Arnett’s windbag of a superhero delights at every turn, careening from piloting an endless stream of increasingly radical vehicles to composing his infamous brooding metal anthems, and Michael Cera is perfect as the wide eyed orphan who has his back. Rosario Dawson brings Barbara Gordon to life as smart, tough, capable and caring, while Zach Galifianakis’ Joker is decidedly more Cesar Romero than Heath Ledger. It’s all highly appropriate for a kid’s film that bathes the black-clad hero in a full palette of bright colors instead of the gun metal gray we’ve grown used to. As you can imagine, the action is nonstop and the stakes are always more fun than high (any eruption of gunfire is soundtracked with “pew pew pew!”), culminating in an appropriately ridiculous, over the top final battle (or two). At the end of the day, a healthy dose of self satire combined with a thorough understanding of the character’s history and legacy come together to recapture a degree of childhood fun that has been lost as the scowl in the cowl has headed closer and closer to an R rating at the multiplex. Here’s to another 80 years, Batman, and may those who play in your cinematic sandbox continue to celebrate all of your aspects, including the silly ones as The Lego Batman Movie faithfully does.