In my last post, I talked about the history of whimsical, light-hearted interpretations of Batman, from the kid-friendly adventures of the 50s and 60s to modern revivals like the Brave and the Bold animated series and the delightful Batman ’66 comic. As much as I enjoy talking about that kind of thing, though, I had an ulterior motive: I wanted to talk about this month’s strangest blockbuster, The LEGO Batman Movie.
The LEGO Batman Movie is a pretty strange creation if you think about it — a movie based on a toyline which is in turn based on a comic book, and which is also a quasi-sequel to another (surprisingly good) toy-based film. Its cast includes both Eddie Izzard doing a Ralph Fiennes impression and also Ralph Fiennes. It’s the perfect evolution of the whimsical 1960s Batman, but, unlike Brave and the Bold, it doesn’t ask you to go back in time to achieve that. Instead, it updates the gag for the modern day. What do I mean? Let’s take a look.
Both Brave and the Bold‘s Batman (Diedrich Bader) and the Batman of the 1966 TV series (Adam West) act as straight men — that is, characters who aren’t in on the joke about themselves (or are they?). These performances both work because they’re just a shade sillier than the actual Batman of the era. Post-WWII, pre-Bronze-Age Batman was in fact the kind of upright, square-jawed guardian of law and order that both the West and Bader versions lampoon. The silliness and fun come from taking that traditional version of the character and twisting it ever so slightly — not out of all recognition, but into something just a little different but a whole lot funnier.
The LEGO Batman Movie does the same thing, but not with the upright Batman of the 1960s. Instead, it takes as its starting point the brooding, darkity-dark-dark figure of the post-Dark Knight era. This Batman (Will Arnett) is a grimly macho character who nonetheless reflects the weirdness and whimsy of Batman. Adding the cheerful lunacy of the earlier character creates a perfect synthesis: a dark, moody avenger who is also very focused on the fact of his own celebrity.
Like all great parodies, The LEGO Batman Movie works on multiple levels. It’s both an affectionate mockery of a Batman story and a Batman story — well, except for the bit where it smashes together a huge number of different realities to recreate the effect of a kid pulling all the toys out of their toybox for one huge, freewheeling battle. Even then, with all the monsters and aliens and characters from other franchises in the mix, that doesn’t sound too different from something Grant Morrison might write.
I know I’ve gone on a lot about what The LEGO Batman Movie means in terms of the history of the Batman character, but rest assured it’s also just a really great movie: fast-paced, funny, and rule-breakingly weird in a way that more superhero stories should be but way too few are. It’s aimed at kids, of course, but adults will enjoy it as well (possibly more).