'The Lego Batman Movie' Is Rare Batman Film About Batman
'The Lego Batman Movie' Is Rare Batman Film About Batman
The Lego Batman Movie may feature a Lego version of Batman, but it is still the latest in a string of endless Batman movies. This is the 11th film in the last 28 years to feature Batman on the big screen, counting Lego Batmans and Batman cameos, with Justice League and perhaps Wonder Woman to add to the list this year alone. As such, tired viewers may be fed up with it all, since there's pretty much nothing left to do with Batman no matter how many times they show his parents dying.
Yet for all these countless Batman movies, only a very select few actually have Batman as the main character and undisputed leading star. As such, it makes The Lego Batman Movie one of the rarest kinds of Batman movies for making that short list.
Not only does it satirize the self-important darkness of more recent live action Batmans, and rebuff the DCEU’s misery-centric heroism in general, but it has the most complete focus on Batman himself in a good long time. This is extra ironic, given that the point of The Lego Batman Movie story is to make Batman stop being a solo star and learn how to have a real family again.
Even so, this is the extra rare Batman movie where Batman has the most vivid and scene-stealing personality, which Will Arnett and the Lego team first mastered in The Lego Movie. With other characters supporting him instead of overwhelming him, and with themes and different tones that the live action versions haven’t bothered to use in a while, this ultra-exaggerated and uncharacteristically funny Batman still comes closest to showing the full spectrum of what Batman is all about than so many of his counterparts since 1989.
Until now, only two or perhaps three movies featuring Batman can unequivocally be said to be all about Batman. The tone was set all the way back in the beginning, when Batman introduced the Dark Knight to the silver screen and distanced itself from the campy 1960s TV version as much as possible. Nonetheless, it was the campy spectacle of Jack Nicholson's Joker that everyone was left talking about.
It was immediately telling that Nicholson had top billing over actual Batman Michael Keaton, although that could have been excused by Nicholson's star power. Yet it was accurate, as the Joker took the spotlight from Batman for the first and hardly the last time on the big screen. Between Nicholson, director Tim Burton, Danny Elfman's score, Prince's soundtrack and the legendary production design, the only major avenue of Batman that truly starred Batman himself was the massive merchandising campaign.
Since this was Batman's first origin story, he did have some part in his own movie, albeit a part that changed who the elder Waynes' killer was. Even so, and even with Keaton going from Beetlejuice to Batman in a more convincing way than some probably feared, Batman was really "The Joker" for all intents and purposes thanks to Nicholson.
Yet that was a mere warm up act, compared to how Batman Returns muscled the Dark Knight out of the picture three years later.
It is fairly common to have multiple and/or too many villains in superhero movies now, but those films didn't hand over most of their screen time to villains like Batman Returns did for the Penguin, Catwoman and Christopher Walken. Still, there are some who believe that since they all reflect various sides of Batman's personality and twisted mind, it is still a film about him even without showing the actual Batman that much. But even with that kind of viewpoint, it doesn't change how three villains instead of one carry much of another Batman movie.
Perhaps the greatest irony of the original Batman movie era is that Joel Schumacher made the only film which truly revolves around Batman. Like with Batman Returns, Batman Forever takes the concept of multiple characters and villains reflecting different sides of Batman, yet this one actually sticks with Batman as the real main character. In fact, it is the only 1990s Batman film to explore Bruce Wayne's damaged psyche from Bruce's direct point of view, and the only one to show him coming to terms with being Batman and with learning not to do it alone.
In that area, it outshines the Burton movies, although the bigger problem is that this is the only area where it does. In the long run, it was pure fools gold, providing a flimsy band-aid over everything else Schumacher got wrong. But there would be nothing to cover up everything that went wrong two years later.
After seeing The Lego Batman Movie, there's a case to be made that it is the apology for Batman & Robin. Exactly 20 years after Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Alfred came together as a family in live action, their Lego counterparts do so in far more superior fashion. In fact, they even do so without changing Barbara Gordon into Alfred's niece.
Batman & Robin was more of a Bat-family movie than a Batman movie, although it was a miserable failure on both counts. Batman is technically a main character, but like in the first two Batman movies, everyone else is far more memorable. Yet since Robin, Batgirl, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy are memorable for all the wrong reasons, and since Batman & Robin was a mere speed bump before George Clooney became a legitimate movie star, Batman and Clooney's actual part in it is mostly forgotten.
Regardless, Batman took the biggest hit for the end of his first franchise. However, his second franchise quickly made up for all of it, as Batman Begins is without a doubt the most complete live action character study of Batman and Bruce Wayne ever filmed. Unlike with Batman, Christopher Nolan kept the Joker in his deck for later, kept the classic Wayne origin story intact, and kept its story focused on Batman and Bruce.
But this makes it all the more ironic that when the second Batman franchise ended, it only had one true Batman-centric movie when all was said and done, just like the first one did.
No one doubts The Dark Knight was the Joker and Heath Ledger’s show, with Harvey Dent/Two-Face getting the most tragic arc. Yet it was so overwhelming and record-setting that few really minded, although The Dark Knight Rises was another matter.
The Dark Knight Rises does revolve around Batman and Bruce at first, but so much overtakes him before long. In the end, the movie is best remembered for Bane’s voice for better or worse, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Nolan’s rather mixed political messages, logical plot holes like Batman’s eight-year retirement and faked death, and the set up of a new Robin that would never be expanded on.
Regardless, the second Batman franchise went down as a big success, even though DC has taken most of the wrong lessons from it ever since. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proved it and then some, yet in an ironic twist, Batman stole a movie he was technically supposed to share with Superman, although Zack Snyder clearly didn’t want him to share.
As a result, Ben Affleck and Batman largely escaped the wreckage around them, even though reflecting the more misery-driven values of Batman helped doom the whole movie. Justice League is supposed to start cleaning up the damage later this year, as the solitary Batman recruits new partners and learns how to be a part of a team.
Funny enough, The Lego Batman Movie already set the bar for that exact basic premise. Yet Justice League will likely do more to overshadow Batman himself thanks to Wonder Woman, the arrival of The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, and the return of Superman.
The Batman will let Batman stand alone again in a few years, but after Affleck left as director, there’s no telling how it will pan out now. If things don’t come together there and if Justice League doesn’t pan out, Batman’s live-action future will be shaky all over again.
Live action Batman movies have done a mixed job at best to center on Batman, do him justice and give a more complete picture of his character, even after 28 years of practice. In contrast, The Lego Batman Movie and Lego Batman seem to have gotten it right much faster.
Regular Batman movies can’t afford to make their Batmans funny, to cast the likes of Arnett, or to make Batman films that aren’t connected to larger franchises and universes. In that context, The Lego Batman Movie is cheating, but past, present and future Batman films could have stood to use such loopholes.
Batman is among the most oversaturated characters we have, but The Lego Batman Movie is one of the few films to really dig deep into him without getting distracted. At this point, there’s no telling when we will get another Batman film like that, no matter how many Batman movies are made in the interim.