If you are to believe the naysayers, and quite frankly you shouldn’t if you value any sense of fun or inner child-likeness, films like The LEGO Batman Movie are nothing but crass commercial undertakings, barely-disguised toy advertisements that somehow sully the noble art of filmmaking.
The truth is, of course, that while there are commercial considerations at play, as is the case with just about property making it merchandise-heavy way from studio to cinema these days, the latest comedy-fuelled masterpiece from Phil Lord and Christopher Miller who gave us the gem that is The LEGO Movie – they acted as producers in this instances, leaving the directing to Chris McKay and the screenplay to a talented team of writers – is far more than just an annoying interruption to Saturday morning cartoons.
What it is in fact is an outrageously, madcap meta-rich romp through not just the mythos of Batman, but superhero films as a whole and the blockbuster oeuvre they all but define these days.
In fact, so eager is the film to launch itself into its pop culture savvy parodying, which it approaches with intelligence, good humour and a knowing sense of insider knowingness, that the film opens with one of those bloated over-the-top spectacles that usually form one of the bigger set pieces well into the film, after the near-obligatory set-up has worn its ponderous way through the first act.
It is a spectacle that is as hilarious as it is illuminating about the current of blockbuster filmmaking where less is despicable, more is worshiped as a god on high, and excess is the catalyst for a whole new religion.
The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who in a running joke that undergirds the film and turns it, with unveiled glee, into a twisted bad guy/good guy rom-com, is determined to get Batman (Will Arnett in all his gravelly-voiced, over-angsty glory) to admit that he is his greatest criminal enemy, storms into Gotham, unleashing just about baddy who’s ever come against the Caped Crusader on a naturally hubris-laden plan to take over and destroy the city.
A city, it should be added, that has, in some spectacularly poor decision-making left anti-social Batman, who in his alter ego as Bruce Wayne spends his nights alone watching rom-coms like Jerry Maguire and Serendipity, and eating Lobster Thermidor with his cowl still on no less, in charge if keeping it safe from crime.
It’s not the smartest of moves, and is noted as such by the new Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) when she takes over from her father James Gordon (Héctor Elizondo) at his retirement ceremony which, naturally enough, is attacked by The Joker in yet another attempt to get Batman to say “I hate you” (the inversion of just about rom-com dialogue trope in the book verges on sheer genius at times).
The thing is Batman never really locks anyone up, or not for long, and so The Joker is able to merrily hijack a plane stacked full of explosives and munitions, which Gotham air traffic control is more than happy to admit to its skies, capture the city’s main power plant and unleash a plan, with the help of, but not limited to, Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Bane (Doug Benson), the Riddler (Conan O’Brien) and yes The Condiment King (who?!), to forever send the metropolis into the eternal abyss.
(We know that that will be the outcome because a TV talking head, who is an expert on dire consequences for Gotham, merrily lays it all out for everyone to see including the bad guys, illustrating that The LEGO Batman Movie does not restrict its merciless skewering to just the entertainment industry.)
When this is foiled by Batman – oh come on, this is not a spoiler as every Batman iteration under the sun, including the loopy ’60s version which is affectionately referenced more than once, has done this before and will do it again – who is so obsessed with the perfection of his abs and his overall greatness that he can’t conceive of something not liking or admiring him, it sets in play an even bigger scheme that, I kid you not, employs the services of the Daleks, the Wicked Witch of the West and the flying monkeys, King Kong and Godzilla, Voldemort, and just about every other pop culture baddy you can think of, and then some.
In between all the gigantic action set pieces that are delivered with gusto, fun and innate sense of their self-satirising ridiculousness, we are given Batman who, despite the best efforts of faithful servant and “substitute father figure” Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and his accidental adopted son Dick Grayson aka Robin (Michael Cera), is obsessed with his own emotional aloneness.
So grimly committed to his orphan martyrdom is he that even when he ends up with a family of sorts, he is too emotionally myopic to see it, with realisation only finally sinking in that he might seem some help, personally and professionally when Gotham is all but wiped off the map.
The LEGO Batman Movie is a delight pretty much any way you slice it (and believe me, The Joker, is his quest for Batman’s monogamous hate, gives it every shot he’s got), kicking off with cinematic observations that are bang on the craft – important movies always start with a black screen and portentous music before having an insane amount of fun parodying every pop culture staple and their various articulations over the years with goofy glee.
Far from being just another cash-in kids’ movie, it is literate, clever, crafted with an eye on the fact that the story it is telling has been told, in its boiled down form anyway, a million times before, but innately aware that there are a great many intelligent laughs to be gained from telling it with a wink, a nudge and some outright silly “dad jokes” that nevertheless land perfectly thanks primarily to Arnett and Galifinakis’s expert comic timing.
You may not want Batman to save you or your city after this romp through the silliness of superhero filmmaking but you sure as hell will want him to try in what is, in all honesty, the cleverest, funniest, most self-aware and well told Batman movie in years.