Batman made his auspicious debut in 1939 on the pages of Detective Comics, and from there he has "aged phenomenally". He has had many incarnations in cinema, from the high camp of Adam West, through the warped Gothic take of the Burton years and onto the grounded Nolan approach. If there is a character ripe for parody it is a billionaire who spends his evenings dressed as a bat, cracks the skulls of criminals and take on a demonic clown. The fact that this parody comes in the form of an hour-and-a-half commercial for Lego, a sequel to the mammoth hit The Lego Movie, makes The Lego Batman Movie an even more intriguing proposition.
At the opening of this movie Batman, once again, saves Gotham from a cohort of his greatest (and not so great) villains. But with no more criminals to take on, Batman must face his greatest fear: his fear of becoming part of a family, and connecting with his newly adopted son. Meanwhile the Joker, devastated by Batman's rejection, plots his revenge that may finally destroy Gotham forever. The story is equal parts a relationship drama (between Batman and the Joker), a touching father-and-son story (between Alfred and Batman, Batman and Robin), and a deep explosion of Batman's psyche.
The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost a fabulous tribute to one of the most iconic characters in popular culture. The film is a soup of parodies and references to the near 80 years of the Caped Crusader, from its perfect take-down of Bane's voice from The Dark Knight Rises, the ribbing of Hans Zimmer's score, and the casting of Billy Dee Williams as Two Face. Williams played Harvey Dent in Batman but was recast in Batman Forever, so this almost feels a rectification of a past wrong. With a franchise of this length there have been many missteps, not least Batman & Robin, and it takes a truly iconic character to not only survive a barrage of jokes at their expense but flourish under it. This is the case for Batman; his icon status is firmly intact by the end of The Lego Batman Movie. I can't imagine Marvel would loosen their tight grip on creative control of their properties and allow Iron Man or Spiderman to be roasted on the big screen.
In fact, the movie is a much stronger inclusion in the Batman franchise then either of last year's films. The pacing is brisk, the action energetic, the understanding of the ridiculous nature of the character refreshing. After the Dark Knight trilogy found a way to make the character a serious proposition, the live action take must now find a new way to show the character, more so then the homicidal psychopath he is currently languishing as. The Lego Batman Movie helpfully reminds audiences why they have loved Batman for so long.
After stealing The Lego Movie, Will Arnett takes the spotlight here and is one of the finest incarnations of the Batman, complete with the perfect voice. The film manages to find room in the fun for the heartfelt moments that sneak up on the audience. This is probably the loneliest Batman we have seen onscreen and it is oddly affecting to watch our hero wander the mammoth Wayne Manor, microwaving his lobster thermidor and watching Jerry Maguire alone. Arnett has the range to bring these moments across, without ever dropping the parody.
Arnett's performance is so accomplished that, at times, members of the wider cast struggle to make an impact. Certainly Zach Galifianakis is one of the least interesting Jokers to date. However the film has two standout supporting performances in Ralph Fiennes' deliciously droll Alfred and Michael Cera's Robin. Robin is far from the irritating charisma vacuum of Batman & Robin and is instead utterly adorable, a ball of energy eager to receive Batman's approval. I never thought I'd love a version of Robin, but Cera is magnificent in the role.
While The Lego Batman Movie lacks the narrative innovation of the final third of The Lego Movie, it is one of the smarter family films of recent years. Packed with frantic action sequences and hilarious jokes, it has something for everyone. And, in Will Arnett's performance, a great take on an icon. Not bad for an advert for a line of Lego toys.