In a way, it’s a little ironic: While DC/Warner Bros. struggles to deliver a successful Batman film to a public that’s still (for the time being, anyway) hungry for superhero flicks, in slips The LEGO Batman Movie with an outwardly silly riff on the Bruce Wayne mythos that explores the brooding hero’s psyche with more finesse than any movie that’s come before it.
If you saw The LEGO Movie, and you probably did, you’re familiar with the toy-brick take on Batman -- a cocky loner voiced by Will Arnett who takes great joy in his gadgets, hates Superman, and occasionally whips out a guitar solo. Here, we get more Bat-action as he uses his crazy array of vehicles to flip, fly, climb and propel himself in the name of justice. But we also get to see the loneliness behind the cowl, when he forlornly microwaves his solo Lobster Thermidore because Alfred’s out for the evening.
Batman’s insistence that he needs no one else extends to the Joker (Zach Galifianakis, striking a perfect balance of unhinged comic menace), who just wants the Caped Crusader to admit that he’s his biggest enemy. But even that’s more commitment than Batman can handle (“Batman don’t do ‘ships,” he tells the heartbroken Joker) so when, as Bruce Wayne, he accidentally adopts exuberant orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), he only lets the lad tag along on a mission because he’s “110 percent expendable.”
Tossing in clever throwbacks to every epoch of Batman’s storied career, director Chris McKay (“Robot Chicken”) and a crew of writers pay loving homage without taking themselves too seriously (a throwaway gag about “shark repellent” is funnier if you remember Adam West’s battle with a rubber shark while suspended from a helicopter, but the reference still pays off later in the plot) and laughingly acknowledge that both The Bat and Bruce Wayne must be around 90 years old by now. And the plot, which forces Batman to choose between working on his own to save Gotham City or team up with new son Robin, father-figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), and Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), drives home a message that’s not just family-friendly, but also offers a surprisingly fresh take on a hero who’s been already been psychoanalyzed countless times.
As with The LEGO Movie, there are moments when the action on the screen is so busy with bits of flying color and propulsive kinetics that it can feel overwhelming, but there are also slower, darker segments as befits a Batman film (yes, even a LEGO Batman film.) The PG rating is for “rude humor and some action,” not for truly adult content -- at one point, Robin rips off his pants because they’re too tight, and the password for the Batcave is “Iron Man sucks,” so if you’re a parent concerned about the rating, that’s all you’re in for.
With fans taking their superhero movies so deathly seriously, it’s marvelous to see a little fun brought back to Gotham. Even LEGO Batman acknowledges that his oeuvre’s gone a bit off the rails with a side-swipe at Suicide Squad, asking, “What am I gonna do, get a bunch of criminals together to fight criminals? That’s a stupid idea!” Indeed.
Dawn Taylor lives in Portland, where she's constantly accidentally adopting orphans.