“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark gray.”
When Phil Lord and Christopher Miller unveiled their “Legoized” version of Batman in their surprise smash The Lego Movie, it was two years after Christopher Nolan’s live-action trilogy capper, The Dark Knight Rises, and two years before the Caped Crusader debuted in the DCEU with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Voiced by Will Arnett with his signature brand of haughtiness in full effect, their iteration is a sendup of the moody mythology that’s inextricably linked with the iconic superhero. His theme song is just him shouting things like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” over a crushing industrial beat. He’s a lush, a braggart and terrible at concealing his secret identity of Bruce Wayne. His character was such a hit, the spin-off The Lego Batman Movie arrived two years prior to the proper sequel for The Lego Movie itself.
Batman doesn’t even wait until after the production logos finish before starting his voiceover. Hell, he doesn’t even wait until the first of the “really long and dramatic logos” comes up to hype up his own movie. “Black. All important movies start with a black screen,” he declares as the urgent music starts to bubble up. After describing DC as “the house that Batman built” and stealing lyric credits from Michael Jackson, the film commences with a riff on the opening plane heist from The Dark Knight Rises. Lego henchmen traverse and hijack the Macguffin Airlines aircraft, led by Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) this time around instead of Bane. The pilot is more bemused than intimidated by the Clown Prince of Gotham’s presence in the cockpit because Batman has batted 1.000 when it comes to foiling Joker’s plans in the past. Another Dark Knight trilogy reference drops when Joker hotly defends his new plan: “This is better than the two boats!”
We soon find out why the pilot was right to be unconcerned. After unleashing an impressively deep roster of supervillains, including hilariously obscure DC Comics foes from Gentleman Ghost to Condiment King, Joker watches them all go down one by one once Batman hits the scene. But Batman saves his most devastating violence for last, when he refutes Joker’s claim that he’s Batman’s “greatest enemy” and says there’s “nothing special” about their relationship. While the broken-hearted Joker goes back to the drawing board yet again, Batman switches into Bruce Wayne mode for a ritzy gala, where he meets cherubic orphan Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera) and incoming police commissioner Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) as she announces new policies for the police force. As a graduate of Harvard For Police, she’s clearly qualified to make such decisions.
The Lego Batman Movie came at a time when the character desperately needed laughter and levity to be attached to his name, one way or another. The Dark Knight trilogy was a sorely needed realization of a comic-book character that the movies hadn’t quite gotten quite right up to that point. But like most of Nolan’s films, the jokes were dry and brief. Even more humorless was the DCEU version, portrayed with dead-serious conviction and no Bat nipples by Ben Affleck. 1997’s Batman & Robin was so poorly received for trying to add camp and humor to the mix that it would take a filmmaker 20 years to even attempt such a thing again in The Lego Batman Movie. The director ultimately brave enough to do so was Robot Chicken alum Chris McKay, the perfect choice for a rapid-pace, reference-heavy parody of a pop-culture icon using facsimiles of plastic toys. He and his five screenwriters pack an overwhelming amount of clever in-jokes and laugh-out-loud lines into their script but also pack some pathos that hits deeper than some of Batman’s live-action counterparts.
This isn’t the first film to bring attention to Batman and Joker’s symbiotic nature — The Dark Knight still evokes this concept the best of any Bat-tale to date — but in pushing their relationship into the realm of romance, McKay and crew illuminate new depths of meaning within these characters. Instead of making jokes, this Joker is constantly the butt of jokes due to everyone’s complete lack of fear and respect for him. It’s actually pretty easy to empathize with him, and his plan, while still diabolical, points to a void in Joker’s heart that will likely never be filled. Batman’s arc from selfishness to selflessness may be a bit more obvious from the outset, given how arrogant he is from minute one, but his transformation from unwitting adoptive parent to devoted father is powerful and sweet. Robin has appeared in live-action Batman films, before but the connection between the two characters as orphans trying to find their path has never been made more clear in the cinematic realm.
But let’s not bury the lede: This movie is very, very, very funny. I laughed so hard when Gotham’s cavalcade of villains were introduced. Doug Benson spoofs Tom Hardy’s portrayal of coat-donning Bane with dopey deliveries of lines like “Bane is feeling warm and fuzzy!” Zoë Kravitz appears as Catwoman in The Batman but she actually played the character here first, bookending all of her lines with a spirited “meow meow!” Lord Voldemort shows up later, but since Ralph Fiennes, who voiced the Harry Potter foe in the film series, was busy elsewhere in the film voicing loyal butler Alfred, Eddie Izzard takes over the vocal duties of the noseless You-Know-Who. When Joker lists a new brood of supervillains and ends on the more obscure Daleks of Doctor Who, he appeals to the uninitiated in the audience: “Ask your nerd friends.”
The Lego version of Batman appeared again in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, but that may be the last time we see him for a while since the franchise is now in the hands of Universal instead of Warner Brothers. Perhaps it’s for the best. As outstanding as The Lego Batman Movie is, maybe this sort of sendup is a lightning-in-a-bottle effort that would have been tougher to generate laughs from in future chapters. It’s comforting to know that no matter how dark (thematically or visually) future Batman films may go, we’ll always have this goofy gem as a beacon of light piercing through the night sky.