(Sight & Sound, BFI)
The pendulum swings back. Last year’s Batman v Superman was vacantly humourless in its presentation of Batman (played by Ben Affleck) as a stubbled killer. Now The Lego Batman Movie parodies the character as a hilariously absurd manchild egomaniac who parties to his theme songs while zooming round a toytown city, but who’s pathologically scared of anything like an adult emotion.
Batman has always lived at the extremes. He’s thrived in pop-culture both as the portentously “serious” Dark Knight of Frank Miller comics and Christopher Nolan films, and as the portentously daft Adam West, wrestling a rubber puppet shark, which he defeats with shark repellent bat spray. (The scene is from the 1966 cinema Batman). The Lego Batman Movie has a prominent “shark repellent” joke, as if to stress that it’s reclaiming the daftness.
Lego Batman brings in Superman too, but it’s an “old” Superman. The references are to the Superman films of the 1970s and 1980s with Christopher Reeve, not to the current screen version who fights far more than he smiles. Lego Batman’s implicit message seems to be that the early, funny superhero films were the best, the ones with West and Reeve, and the genre went wrong when the films stopped laughing at themselves.
Lego Batman is distributed by Warner Bros., which also released Batman v Superman. As a subversive antithesis, Lego Batman feels far more dangerous than the crude anti-superhero rants in 2014’s Birdman (which felt like it was made by someone who’d never lowered himself to see a superhero film in his life).
The story in Lego Batman is winningly charming, though it’s a very familiar template; the hopeless manchild who must finally learn to grow up. Batman’s crook-catching playtime ends for the same reason that children’s playtimes end; he falls out with his playmate. Batman and the Joker are fighting a huge battle when the Joker calls himself Batman’s greatest enemy. The villain is shocked when Batman says he doesn’t rate the Joker his greatest enemy, or as much of an enemy at all. The situation turns into a break-up comedy with double entendres, such as Batman’s comment that he promiscuously “fights around” – in a U-rated film!
The Batman/Joker relationship was memorably mined for romantic comedy even in “straight” Batman. The TV Batman: The Animated Series (1992-5) had an episode called “The Man Who Killed Batman,” where the Joker is driven into paroxysms of grief when someone else whacks Batman before him. The Lego Batman Movie, though, focuses on Batman’s desolation when the Joker quits crime (“I’m off the market!”) Of course, it’s part of a set-up that will culminate in more crazy battles, though the focus is on Batman realising people are more important than fighting. Eventually he must accept his burgeoning bat-family: adopted son Robin, adopted dad Alfred the Butler, and police chief Barbara Gordon, who plays multiple roles as Batman’s rival, comrade, big sister and unrequited crush.
Directed by Chris McKay, Lego Batman follows 2014’s The Lego Movie (where the Lego Batman was a show-stealing support character). There are still charming collisions between the jerky, faux low-tech aesthetic and the overblown spectacle, full of giant tanks, planes and monsters. Lego Batman, though, has less stress on the lego nature of the world than the first film. Instead, it’s often a matter of dozens of “star” characters being wildly hurled through the air at each other, destroying cities in the cutest of ways. For instance, the guest baddies include Harry Potter’s Voldemort (voiced in lego form by Eddie Izzard), who turns Gotham City cops into flopping fish.
The result is great fun, but surprisingly unsurprising. The character mash-ups are no madder than the first Lego Movie; meta-textual superhero parodies have been done for decades; and the “treasure your family” message is as square as they come. Lego Batman is most startling as a successor to Batman v Superman which demolishes Batman, far more thoroughly than Superman ever could.