As I’ve written before, there is no Batman without Robin. It’s through the Boy Wonder that the Darknight Detective stepped out from under The Shadow’s influence and became a superhero comparable to the likes of Superman and Captain America rather than just another pulp-detective with a gimmick like much lesser known Green Hornet or the Spider. Robin is one of the earliest and most foundational parts of the Batman mythos, appearing before Alfred, the Batcave, the Bat-signal, and even just barely beating the Joker to print.
But going just by the theatrically-released movie adaptations of the character, it would be easy to mix-up who Batman’s closest collaborator really is.
Before this movie, the Joker has shared the silver screen with the Caped Crusader in five movies (Batman: The Movie; Batman; Batman: Mask of the Phantasm; The Dark Knight; Suicide Squad) compared to Robin’s three (Batman: The Movie; Batman Forever; Batman & Robin); and since 1997, the sidekick has been much maligned as an element that would ruin a Batman adaptation. Since The Dark Knight, there has been a lot of credence given to the idea that, more-so than Robin, Batman needs a Joker, and this is an idea that The Lego Batman Movie runs with.
The opening sequence of the movie sees Gotham City under attack. With Joker (Zach Galifianakis) in command, a cabal of seemingly every villain from Catwoman to Zebraman attempt to blow up the city, but are stopped by Batman (Will Arnett), who manages to dispatch all of them while singing about how great he his, and without admitting to a heartbroken Joker that the Clown Prince of Crime is his arch-enemy. After heroically saving the city, and basking in the adulation, Batman swiftly returns to the Batcave and reheats some lobster thermidor which he eats all by himself in-between watching Jerry McGuire alone in his home theater and staring at old family photos.
And when the Joker and all the other villains decide to turn themselves in to the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), to spite him; Batman has nothing left to do but stalk Arkham Asylum. That is, until Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) suggests actually trying to raise the orphan boy – Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) – Bruce absentmindedly adopted. Instead, Batman uses the over-eager child as part of a plan to get rid of the Joker for good by sending him into the Phantom Zone; a plan that backfires when the Joker manages to break out of the Phantom Zone alongside a handful of other supervillains owned by Warner Bros. including Sauron and Voldemort.
In order to rescue Gotham from the biggest threat it’s ever faced, Batman has to finally learn to face the one thing he’s feared since losing his parents as a child: opening himself up to, and allowing other people to help him.
A bit like last year’s Return of the Caped Crusaders, and following from how the character was set up in 2014’ The Lego Movie; The Lego Batman Movie presents a rebuttal to the past 20 years of Batman’s popular image of a lone vigilante stalking the night. Where Lego Batman was introduced in 2014 as a straight parody of the lonesome avenger, in his own movie we get a dose of pathos for the caricature. This Batman’s over-the-top gruffness and cartoon masculinity stem from a fear of emotional vulnerability; it’s a mask he puts on to prevent himself from forming attachments to anybody lest they be ripped away from him like his parents. And unlike pretty much any other popular adaptation of Batman, this means that he’s actually sympathetic. Despite being an inch-and-a-half tall and made of plastic, this is the most human Batman on film since 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm.
This adaptation’s version of Robin is also the perfect interoperation of the character for this film’s audience. This Dick Grayson is essentially the world’s biggest Batman fan. He strives to emulate his hero to the point where he willingly puts himself in danger, and is blind to Batman’s own emotional weaknesses. Like many kids (and older fans) who’ll watch this movie, he starts off wanting to be Batman because of the cool toys and smarts and other Batmaniness without realizing that actually being Batman without the rest of the Bat-family actually really sucks. It also helps that this version of Robin, in spite of his clinginess, is weapons-grade adorable and instantly endearing. He is, somehow simultaneously, everything that fans thought would make Robin a terrible addition to the movies, and exactly what every theatrical Batman movie of the past 20 years has been missing.
There isn’t a single miss in this movie’s enormous entourage of characters. Alfred has rarely been as fatherly, and this version of Barbara – while radically different from most interpretations – is exactly the sort of girl-power figure most superhero movies need more of. Lego Joker is, predictably, a more light-hearted take on the character than recent interpretations, but fits the world perfectly, presenting a comical and interesting take on the idea of defining Batman through his villains rather than his allies. And the greater cast of villains, voiced by the likes of Doug Benson, Riki Lindhome, Eddie Izzard, and Jemaine Clement each get a moment of genuine laughter and likability.
Like The Lego Movie; The Lego Batman Movie moves at a breakneck pace that throws more jokes and action-sequences at you than anybody who isn’t a kid with a sugar-rush will have a handful processing all at once. It gets to the point where, when the movie slows down a bit between acts for some straight character development, it feels like the movie itself has had to stop to catch its breath.
The variety of comedy on display is simply astounding. There are lego-based gags of course, that deal with the stiffness and stuckiness of the, uh, source material; that even translates to smaller things like characters’ hair literally popping into place at moments. There’s also some of the deepest cuts into Batman lore that reach though all 78 years of the characters’ history through page and screen. There’s an early joke referencing the climax of The Dark Knight that, as I’m remembering it to write this review, had me crack up at my keyboard. If you’ve been bemoaning the lack of great comedy in theaters recently, and are a fan of Batman, throw your money this way.
The Lego Batman Movie delivered on every expectation I had for it. It’s a Batman movie that manages to synthesize almost 80 years of history into a single 100-minute story that touches on every aspect of what makes The Dark Knight one of the most enduring characters of the century. It’s action packed, hilarious, and is actually for children. Probably more importantly, you’ll leave The Lego Batman Movie reminded that Batman isn’t just the coolest superhero, but he’s actually one of the most human.