The Lego Batman Movie
Directed by Chris McKay
By Noel Vera
The first 20 minutes are best (What is it about recent pictures that the first 20 minutes are always best? Have they forgotten to teach the importance of the next 80 at script writing class?): Batman leads a spectacular public life, soaking in wave after wave of adulation with a celebrity’s limitless confidence. The joke about his private life — in his vast Batcave located deep within Wayne Island, surrounded by miles of tunnels and countless memorabilia and tons of military-style weaponry — is that he doesn’t have a life; he’s basically kidding himself saying everything is awesome when he (and we watching him) know otherwise. In short: life as someone like Trump would like it to be vs. life as it really is.
It’s a gag that deserves a bit more appreciation, considering all the worshipful ink spent analyzing the comic-book character. The official DC gospel is that Batman is driven by a sense of hurt, anger, vengeance (but is really a nice guy deep inside); that he goes vigilante for the sake of justice (no effort to reconcile act with opposing motive); that he fights tirelessly for the weak (and goes back to his billion-dollar mansion in the morning to rest). Maybe the only truly interesting subversive note anyone’s ever added is from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns: that the Caped Crusader knows he’s a criminal and gleefully acknowledges the contradiction; it’s part and parcel of his war against crime.
But forget Miller’s take on the character (megalomanic sociopath) or for that matter Christopher Nolan’s (Mephistophelean manipulator behind Gotham’s brief golden age) much less Zach Snyder’s (Miller’s version only with a lobotomy). To director Chris McKay, Bat is a self-centered jerk (“Why did you build this thing with only one seat?” “Because last I checked I only had one butt.”) who has been doing all this to win love and approval from his dead parents (“Hey Mom, hey Dad, I um, I saved the city again today, I think you would have been really proud”), so when the real thing comes along he keeps it at arm’s length (“You’re seriously saying there’s nothing special about us?” “There is no ‘us’; never will be.”). McKay working with his six writers through Will Arnett’s monotone growl understands something no one — not Miller nor Nolan nor Snyder — seems to realize: that The Batman is a monstrous overgrown child playing with oversized toys in his oversized underground playpen; that the black armor and gruff voice and pointed cowl are really his way of overcompensating; that all this is hideously funny, even if (or especially because) the character reverently depicted in comics and recent movies is so resolutely not.
Wish McKay had pushed the joke to its logical conclusion (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to see the movie!) — forced the Dark Knight to try operate in a post-supervillain world, watch him become more annoying and self-centered, dangerous even — superhero turning supervillain to fill a brutal vacuum. Instead we have this overelaborate plot where the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) has himself projected into the Phantom Zone (ostensibly for safekeeping, in reality a recruitment ploy). We have this unfunny subplot where Michael Cena as the world’s most annoying Robin (think the previous Lego movie’s insufferable Emmet only in bright green, red, yellow underwear). The Dark Knight must grapple with his responsibilities to other people, learn how to be father to Robin and (ugh) become a better person overall.
The movie doesn’t have the balls to be what I hoped it would be — what it needed to be — but what there is ain’t bad. Michael Sragow in his Film Comment review points out how Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) plays Hilary to Batman’s petulant Trump and in a more competently managed world that’s how it should turn out (unfortunately this isn’t that world). My own ideal scenario would be funnier, in a Swiftian sense: have Batrump sit in his own mess, the filth getting more rancid and unbearable until something or someone snaps — but hey, who wants psychological realism when you can just escape into that better world for a while? I doubt if my version would enjoy the same box office ($90 million worldwide on its opening weekend) but would enjoy a more interesting integrity.
Wish the Daleks had a bigger role (appreciated their presence nevertheless); wish the Klingons or Romulans played a part too. He Who Must Not Be Named (happy to oblige) I couldn’t care less — anyway all Lego characters look essentially noseless — but wasn’t there enough room for a few New Gods, or the Swamp Thing, maybe an Eternal or two?
In my list of favorite Batman movies — an important historical document I’m sure — I figure this to rank somewhere in the middle: not quite as good as Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s The Animated Series, but better than Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Snyder’s Dawn of Justice (which to be fair are better than Schumacher’s atrocities — I may be crazy but I’m not stupid). Can think of worse ways to pass a Sunday afternoon.
MTRCB Rating: PG