The most revolutionary moment in The Lego Batman Movie comes just a few minutes into the film, only lasts a few seconds, and doesn’t even involve Batman. In the first scene, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) coordinates a team of villains for an apocalyptic attack on Gotham City, and he does a little roll call for who’s on deck. We start out with obvious choices, ones we’ve seen in Batman pictures before: Two-Face, Catwoman, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, Bane, the Penguin. But then, in the same breath, the Clown Prince of Crime announces an array of C- and D-tier baddies, dudes like Crazy Quilt, the Eraser, Gentleman Ghost, Clock King, Catman, Egghead, and even someone named Condiment King.
A casual fan of Batsy might assume these folks were made up for the lighthearted film they’re about to watch. Nope, these are all characters who really exist in the world of Batman comics. They’re silly, they’re colorful, they’re obscure, but they’re just as legitimately part of the Bat-canon as the Joker himself. In that moment, Lego Batman does something no Batman film has dared to do since the start of the cinematic Superhero Boom, proudly and joyfully declaring that the Batman mythology is more than a little ridiculous. In that moment, a great leap forward for Batman movies occurs, one that has the potential to change superhero fiction’s most venerable franchise for the better.
Though the villain bit is the earliest and most baroque example of that sea change, there are a healthy number of fourth-wall breaks throughout the brief flick. Commissioner Barbara Gordon points out how weird it is that Gothamites accept “an unsupervised adult man karate-chopping poor people.” Batman (Will Arnett) at one point puts a vehicle into “overcompensation mode.” Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) runs through a visual retrospective of our hero’s past filmic interpretations, very much including ones that were intentionally or unintentionally laughable, like Lewis Wilson’s poorly tailored turn in the 1940s serials and, of course, Adam West’s performance of the bat-tusi in the 1960s.
That last moment is crucial, as Bat-directors have spent nearly 30 years trying to run away from the Adam West version of the Caped Crusader. Ever since Tim Burton took the reins of 1989’s Batman, filmmakers have fanatically struggled to make people forget that campy pop-culture landmark by getting obsessively grim and gritty. Again and again (with the exception of the derided Joel Schumacher), they’ve acted like the only valid source of inspiration from the Batman corpus is a pair of dark Frank Miller comics from the 1980s, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, both of which were largely an attempt to bury West. Those works are fantastic, but sheesh, they’re only two stories. Why limit your diet so much, when there’s an array of other stuff to draw from?
As any serious student of Batman comics can tell you, the Dark Knight hasn’t always been so dark. Indeed, as comics historian Glen Weldon pointed out in his masterful Bat-biography The Caped Crusade, for the first three decades of his history, Batman was a source of colorful detective work and camaraderie. Post-Miller (and, to a certain extent, prior, as in the 1970s work of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams), Batman comics have often been as self-serious as the Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder movies, but that’s been thankfully changing in recent years.
The Lego Batman Movie is, in many ways, Warner Bros. finally catching up to a radical set of changes that have occurred in Batman comics in the past ten years. While audiences were pondering the growls of Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, a sequence of top-tier creators have been enthusiastically exploring the crazier parts of Batman’s history. First came Scottish madman Grant Morrison, who created a head-spinning mega-arc that delved into 1950s stories about Batman’s journeys into outer space and the overall fact that, even though he ostensibly doesn’t have superpowers, the aggregate of his adventures reveal him to be a kind of undefeatable god.
The Morrison run altered the character’s course ever since. After him came earnest all-American boy Scott Snyder and his artist co-creator Greg Capullo, who — along with excellent colorists like Fco Plascencia — pointed out that the gleeful technicolor insanity of gimmicky bad guys like the Riddler is just as integral to Batman’s world as grim serial killers like Joker and Two-Face. Now we have former CIA agent Tom King, who is embracing obscure weirdo villains like Psycho Pirate and the Ventriloquist. In the same period, we also got a wonderfully fun Batman cartoon in the form of James Tucker and Michael Jelenic’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Thanks to these ambitious creators, critics generally agree that Batman comics are in an astounding renaissance — one that is decidedly not as sludge-dark as the movies we’ve seen from that same era.
Blissfully, The Lego Batman Movie is nothing like those aforementioned movies. Director Chris McKay and his screenwriters (the most important of them being Seth Grahame-Smith) chose to take a goofy and charming — but still very distinctly Batman — approach. Instead of deriving its pathos from depicting a grit-toothed loner in an unjust world, it embraces the fact that Batman’s world is actually quite fun, in its own strange way. After all, if it were just painful, why would we keep coming back to it?
The film focuses on the Dark Knight realizing he needs to build a family around himself, comprised of people who love him for the adorably self-serious cornball he is. As they hug him, so, too, do we. We’re unlikely to see a goofy live-action take on Batman anytime soon, of course, but with any luck, this flick will encourage Warner to let the guy loosen up at least a little bit. The Lego Batman Movie movie loves Batman just as much as the rest of the world does — and proves that, in his own awkward, grimacing way, he loves us right back.