Like a naughty teenager banished to his room, Master Bruce has been sulking in his man cave for some time now. A scowling cowling in SEAL Team 6 body armour, wrapped up in martyrdom angst, terrorising Gotham’s criminal class with the try-hard rasp of man who had too many whiskeys the night before, modern cinema’s vision of The World’s Greatest Detective seems a long distance from that introduced by Bob Kane and Bill Finger nearly 80 years ago. Still, the caped crusader’s infinite wardrobe is nothing if not versatile: Bruce Wayne is tailor-made for transformation. And boy is he due one.
Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gave us Batman as hyper-realism, peacocked with trailer-friendly abstractions and on-the-nose moralising, while Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman was a howlingly adolescent self-parody of macho toughness. He brands criminals! He takes off his shirt and hits big tyres with a sledgehammer! He does things that make no sense, because nothing in the movie makes sense! Elsewhere, the Bat signal draws closet fascists, message board weirdos and twenty year-olds who think Jared Leto makes a sick Joker, brah. It’s all gotten a little bit serious.
Enter The Lego Batman Movie, spun off from 2014’s The Lego Movie, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s glorious brick-block hymn to the creative impulse. An antidote to sapia-tinted repression, The Lego Batman Movie bursts with the joys of giddy liberation, a lurid, whizzing coming-out party that throws an Acme bomb at the grimdark aesthetic. It doesn’t all work all the time, but it’s got a packed utility belt, and it hits you with everything it’s got. The sheer comic generosity is overpowering. By virtue of repetition alone, the movie can’t have the same impact as The Lego Movie‘s world-building, thrillingly tactile aesthetic, and the flush of possibility is tempered by localising to a single franchise (at least until things to a bit bananas near the end). But by going beyond the deadparentsdarkness schtick Will Arnett’s Bats debuted in the previous film, the movie delivers an affectionate and irreverent homage to the character and to his essential absurdity.
In Gotham City, a retiring Commissioner Gordon is handing over his duties, which consist primarily of flipping the Bat-switch any time there’s trouble, to his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), a “Harvard for police” graduate who brings a progressive agenda for the police force, based on co-operation, compassion and ju-jitsu. She points out, rightly, that for all his face-punching, ab-shredding adventures, Batman doesn’t actually make much of a dent in the crime stats, and maybe the citizens of Gotham need to move beyond him. Bruce’s sudden existential crisis is mirrored in that of his self-professed arch-villain, Zach Galifianakis’ Joker, shaken out of co-dependence by a Bats who “likes to fight around”, nursing his grudge like a spiteful lover. Without crime to fight or a city to protect, Bruce mopes about at home, trays of uneaten, oversized lobster thermidor piling up around him, and brews a hare-brained plan to grab headlines that naturally goes awry. His loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) encourages him to spend some time with the adorable young boy he has accidentally adopted, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a new recruit with the bulging pupils of a love-eager otter, who’s just super jazzed about having Bruce Wayne and Batman as his two new dads.
The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t have the novelty of The Lego Movie, but the animation remains impressive, and it shares its rat-a-tat comic efficiency, blasting out jokes, references and Easter eggs like Bats unloading a merch cannon at a crowd of adoring orphans. There is a freewheeling comic style here, mining laughs out of random asides that are best left for readers to see themselves. The weird dynamics of the Batverse are mocked, and the decades-long back catalogue is riffled through like a toy box ripe for play, the nothing-changes continuity of comic book narratives functioning as a handy metaphor for Bruce’s own emotional stasis. The TV background of director Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) and several of the writers is recognisable in the cutaway gags and bursts of spontaneous silliness. Undergirding all the silliness is a kid-friendly but genuine arc for Batman, a not-flippant consideration of the figure’s loneliness and dysfunction and a brand-appropriate message of connection and co-operation. Holy smokes, this stuff is fun again. Conor Smyth