On revitalizing the art of the parody, the similarities of the serious and the absurd, and the symbiotic relationship between heroes and their beloved villains
The LEGO Batman Movie Warner Bros.
Director: Chris McKay
Screenplay: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Whittington
Starring: The voices of Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Zach Galifianakis, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Hector Elizondo, Ellie Kemper, Jemaine Clement and Eddie Izzard
Rated PG / 1 hour, 44 minutes / 2.35:1
February 10, 2017
(out of four)
Officially, The LEGO Batman Movie is a superhero movie; a comic-book adaptation; a tertiary appendage of the DC Universe, behind the all-important (but floundering) live-action films, and then the less-important (but much better-liked) live-action TV shows, disconnected from both but built from the same DNA.
In truth, though, the film belongs to a different tradition altogether. It is a Non-Stop Joke Factory, a descendant of the Zucker Brothers and largely simpatico with the likes of Edgar Wright and Trey Parker. (I could also include Seth MacFarlane, but c'mon, I've got standards.) It's only too fitting (and perhaps a pointed nod to the filmmakers' own influences and intentions) that halfway through the movie, a horde of Gremlins appears, given that Joe Dante's I-can't-believe-this-movie-even-exists gonzo masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch is part of the same tradition. There's a certain pacing and rhythm reminiscent of classic screwball comedy, but with a different comedic playbook. By and large these movies take the form of parody, from the full-fledged spoof of Airplane! and Top Secret! to the more hybridized satire-meets-genuine-article of Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead.
But while they're largely defined by their pop-culture specifics - their reference points and genre trademarks - their comedic virtuosity stems from something almost primordial. A good send-up like this is only good because it understands the mechanics of its targets and archetypes so thoroughly as to be intuitive. It dismantles from the inside out rather than simply finding something on the surface to make fun of. In an interview promoting Scary Movie 5 a few years back, David Zucker casually offered a damning critique of the way modern studios approached parody, which was to demand references to, and jokes about, specific pop-culture titles. The Hunger Games is new and popular? Make a Hunger Games joke. Basically the kind of forced, reverse-engineered comedy that the likes of Fr*edberg and S*ltzer turned into the world's lowest artform.
Yet on the opposite end of that spectrum there are still those who can parody with the sharpness and precision of a master surgeon. Those who can identify the most absurd tendencies and push them to a logical or literal extreme, or take throwaway norms and shine an absurdist light on them. (Think Robert Stack dramatically taking off his sunglasses in Airplane!, only to reveal another pair of sunglasses underneath.) Jake Kasdan's Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story didn't just poke fun at the streamlined template of the musical biopic, but tore apart its very motives and impulses. (Think John Michael Higgins' monologue of faux-foreshadowing during the recording-booth scene.) Walk Hard also went the extra mile by having legit musicians write legit-sounding but utterly absurd songs (aping the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and others), once again abiding by the principle that those with an innate understanding of something are the best equipped to make fun of it.
More recently, the terrific Angie Tribeca has resuscitated the deadpan Zucker/Abrahams model, to often brilliant effect. And that is where something like The LEGO Batman Movie comes in - and just at the right time, in a moment when superhero movies are at the top of the studio food chain, giving this film's creative braintrust all the research material they could ask for. Kudos go to Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who set the comedic blueprint for this movie's existence with their great The LEGO Movie three years ago. That film introduced its Batman as a memorable side character, mostly taking aim at the character's dead-parent-motivated brooding, exemplified perfectly by Will Arnett's magnificent smoky rasp.
But with a whole movie of the character's own, director Chris McKay and his writing team expand far beyond just the persona itself, building off that characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne while incorporating his entire on-screen history. The film distills the various versions of the character into its funniest composite form: a megalomaniacal crimefighter with no friends or other emotional attachments, who refuses to commit to a (devastated) Joker as his one true villain, who always wins every fight and solves every crisis while somehow managing to never drop the crime rate. An outlaw who keeps a running tally of all the good ideas he's ever had (a number that has run into the millions) vs. all the good ideas anyone else has ever had (zero). It's the kind of beautiful exaggeration that would work equally well for a brilliant vigilante cop - the intuitive genius who does as much battle with his by-the-book bosses as he does criminals. For all intents and purposes, Batman movies are vigilante cop movies - Harry Callahan with a utility belt and an unlimited budget.
All those versions of him we've seen over the years - and, as the film reminds us on multiple occasions, all of them are included, from the early comic strips to Adam West's pun-happy campness to Zack Snyder's recent incarnation - coexist as pieces of the absurd psychology and crimefighting history of the character. When the Joker hijacks a plane in the Dark Knight Rises-inspired opening setpiece, the pilot is neither scared of the man in the clown makeup nor worried about the plan he seems so excited about. "Batman will stop you?" he says, with a quizzical, matter-of-fact exasperation. "He always stops you."
Here's how you know the film is smart about its comedy: It would be very easy to have just taken potshots at the new Batman - at Affleck, at Snyder, at Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in general - but it doesn't. It's low-hanging fruit, and it's not as if LEGO Batman could do any more damage to BvS's image than BvS did to itself. This film references it and gets a few good jokes about it - mostly Batman insisting that Superman, not Joker, is his sworn enemy - but it mostly puts it to the side. Its most important influence and target is Nolan's celebrated trilogy - films far superior to any of the current DC films and yet also much more ripe for parody. From the opening moments, the film goes to town on the tendencies and aesthetics of Nolan's movies - Arnett's Batman narrates the ultra-dramatic introductions of the production-company logos, explaining in unnecessary detail just how important, serious and even manly those logos, and their accompanying musical cues, are. To his image, if nothing else.
The film is affectionate but absolutely ruthless, taking every type of plot, character detail, villainous scheme, editing device, MacGuffin and musical choice* we've seen - both in Gotham City-based films and elsewhere - used (effectively) in dramatic contexts, and reinterprets them all as the grand absurdities they are. The hijacked plane is inexplicably filled with a convenient assortment of explosives. The new chief of police is a highly decorated veteran who graduated from the prestigious training academy, Harvard For Police. The film makes constant references to the inconsequentiality of violence in the modern tentpole film, from the police snipers cheerfully celebrating their "non-lethal weapons!" to the lava that floods the city and does harm no worse than changing the color of an adorable kitten's fur.
* The film's score hits the booming operatic tone of Hans Zimmer's divisive Batman compositions, while also going for a sound reminiscent of the equally bombastic Mad Max: Fury Road score.
And it all revolves tightly around a cluster of fractured or strained relationships with Batman himself - Alfred, whom he takes for granted; Barbara Gordon, on whom he's crushing despite their opposing views of crimefighting and civil liberties; Dick Grayson, Batman's accidentally adopted son who becomes his accidental sidekick; and most importantly of all, the Joker. That is the film's most important dynamic, and one of its cleverest comedic strokes - to take the old-hat idea of heroes and their arch nemeses to a backward-logical extreme, framing their relationship in the language and schematics of romantic comedy. The Joker is heartbroken to discover that Batman doesn't see their relationship as particularly important, which leads him to his greatest scheme of all, a plot that (in another Nolan spoof) involves him getting himself captured, sent to the Phantom Zone (think Superman and Superman II), and bringing back a whole team of baddies who by no means belong in Gotham City.
One of the things that really takes the film to another level is that each voice performance - at least of every major role - really makes the character the voice actor's own. Arnett's great work goes without saying, but he's hardly alone. Zach Galifianakis is appropriately manic and faux-intimidating, but hilariously imbues the Joker with a childish pout. Rosario Dawson, who in her live-action roles always comes across as the smartest person in the room, brings the same quality to Barbara. Michael Cera, who will probably be able to voice young-ish characters well into his 50s, gives his over-optimistic orphan exactly the boyish innocence that makes his Robin a perfectly absurd foil for Batman. (Cera has a few line readings in particular that are exquisite in a way no one else could have pulled off.)
The LEGO Batman Movie works not just because it's funny, or because it's clever and even thrilling in the way it exploits the possibilities of animated visual logic. It's that it captures truths about its characters and genres - not to mention broader cinematic rules and conventions - in ways that only a truly savvy comedy can. A movie based on plastic brick toys and comic-book iconography somehow turned out to be the best commentary yet on what the modern superhero film - and the modern blockbuster in general - is, for better or worse. It's not the movie the superhero genre needs, but the one it deserves right now.