Thursday, February 16, 2017

Blockbusting Movie Reviews - The Lego Batman Movie

I have a small confession. I say small, because it ultimately is not one I'm afraid to admit, nor is it, as I'm coming to find, all that implausible.

Batman is not my favorite character. I think because of his immense popularity, I tend to scrutinize him more, I tend to be very unforgiving of when they get something wrong. And I get annoyed with people giving Batman too much credit. Yes, he's very cool, and it's very ballsy that he has no powers. But there's so many cool characters both with and without powers in just the DC universe alone. I'm fine with Batman having captured the imaginations of so many, but I think he's far from the most important character of the DC universe.

That being said, the influence and popularity of the character is impossible to deny. And on good days, in good runs, Batman becomes one of my favorites. This is the tale of one such favorite.

LEGO Batman's charm is that fine line between revering its source material and completely dismantling its source material. Only LEGOs could get away straight-faced with saying that Batman's been crimefighting for 70 odd years and proceed to show a montage of all the times he gets into a weird mood about his place in the world. Only LEGOs could provide a platform for Batman to be both the most hilarious and the most heartwarming, while acknowledging the fact that he is also one of the most tragic figures of DC canon.

LEGO manages to find a way, over and over again, to walk this fine line of reverence and irreverence and make us laugh, while also making us feel something for a character that really, by all accounts, we should be exhausted by.

The line, as I like to illustrate it, is described thusly: Batman's parents were gunned down in a random act of violence that leads to him becoming Batman. Two of his best friends in the world are a man who is bulletproof and a woman who wears bulletproof bracelets. In there, there is an ironic tragedy and poetry... and a very, very good joke.

That line though is not exclusive to LEGO, because it carries on a tradition begun with the Adam West series in the 60s. The Adam West was ridiculous, broad, and absurd. But Adam West's Batman/Bruce Wayne played it all completely straight. He took it completely seriously. The Will Arnett-voiced Lego Batman is of a similar vein, though he often finds himself the butt of the joke more often than not. In fact, his problem may be that he takes himself way too seriously. He's managed to buy into his own hype and forgotten what it truly means to be a hero, and only what it means to be Batman.

And that's Batman as we've come to define him over the years. The Nolan Trilogy not only brought Batman into a realistic and plausible universe, it made Batman no-nonsense, and incredibly brooding. Which is an amazing feat to accomplish, considering Batman's always been a pretty broody character, at least in his big screen appearances. This is taken to an extreme with Batman V. Superman, where we see a war-torn, despondent, almost psychopathic Batman with a complete disregard for human life. In this way, he's managed to make himself a legend again, but only as Batman, the symbol of fear, not as a hero.

People always seem to conflate seriousness and darkness with grim, gritty, and tragic. Granted, if you lived through the 90s, they were one and the same. And it seemed like everyone had to be angry, violent anti-heroes who had everyone around them constantly dying, and every win tempered with unbelievable loss. Like it or not, Batman had a lot to do with that, with Frank Miller's 80s Dark Knight Returns, whom many cite as the inspiration for the BVS version of the Dark Knight. What people seem to miss though, is that this was a very specific moment in Batman's time, a specific aspect of him drawn to the forefront to explain his flaws and shortcomings. It was a character study in a very specific context. People mistook it for Batman always. And important people mistook it for comics always. Suddenly everything was grim-dark.

Some things managed to balance out the darkness along the way. We got the '89 Batman from Tim Burton, which mixed the Gothic and noir style with some good campy fun. And the 90s animated Batman was the perfect mix of tragedy and light.

But you can tell how good an adaptation is at handling the light, which ultimately is a necessary part of the Batman mythos, by how well they handle what people term the Bat-Family, specifically Robin. It's important to his story and his legacy. When Nolan and the creatives behind the Dark Knight Trilogy straight up said that they would never have Robin in their story, they were admitting to the shortcomings of their particular adaptation: their story isn't about the light, and the world was too sad to handle that kind of hope.

What I do truly love about the Batman mythos is the family. It's the fact that Bruce Wayne is an orphan, the kids he ends up taking under his wing are mostly orphans. His best friend is an orphan. And yet they band together to help him. Whenever he needs them, they are there. Despite his protestation, they are his family. And that is the most beautiful part to me: that despite how much he protests, the ultimate message of Batman is that everyone deserves a family. He has people to rely on and count on despite who he is and how he is. Yes, he is so often the loner, the brooder, the keeper of shadows. But that's not all he is. To pigeonhole Batman to the darkest corners and recesses limits the amount of wonderful stories you can tell. You don't need a new hero to tell those different stories. You can have Batman do it. Batman is also a person.

It's what makes the Lego Batman Movie so incredibly good to me. At the heart of it all is a simple message: we can't do it alone. We need friends. We need friends who become our family.

Huge props to what I think is the best voice performance of the movie, Michael Cera as my favorite character, Richard Grayson, aka Dick, aka Robin. Grayson's always been the light and what keeps Batman from slipping into his real dark side. It's why (well, it's not the sole reason why) Chris O'Donnell in Batman & Robin makes next to no sense and doesn't work. They're too close in age. There's no father/son foundation that can be formed with so little an age gap. Not one that we'd buy in a movie. Of course they play it as a joke in the movie, but Wayne adopts Grayson after the latter loses his parents, that much is true. And having someone to take under his wing makes Bruce a better hero. Like I said, much of this arc is played for laughs (Grayson is accidentally adopted by a very distracted Bruce; Grayson ends up living in the mansion for a week before Bruce even knows he's there; Grayson has no idea that Bruce and Batman are the same person until the very end of the movie) but Cera, much like Adam West and that series before him, plays it all absolutely seriously. I was touched when he asks if Bruce is looking to adopt, and his restrained glee as he frolics through Wayne Manor watched on security cam by Alfred and Bruce is heartwarming. In the grander scheme of the comics, Dick Grayson really holds a lot of the universe together, because he's everything that Batman the character has gotten right over the years. And when Batman admits what he's proud of, he's proud of what he did with Dick as Robin. Grayson grew up.

And what holds Batman back so often is that he is not allowed to grow up. He is not allowed to change and evolve. He must always be the loner and what's unfortunate is that so often he's rewarded for this behavior. He ends up proving everyone else wrong, his preparedness and paranoia allow him to escape any situation, and then with his skepticism and brooding he manages to do impossible things like single-handedly defeat the entire Justice League. Doesn't that sound like he's too powerful for a human? Hell, he's too powerful for a meta. Superman is never allowed to do that, yet people complain all the time that he's way too overpowerful.

It's what makes Will Arnett's Batman so interesting. He is these incarnations of Batman: cool gadgets, limitless supply of preparedness (he even has a counter for how many good ideas he's had versus everyone else), and an answer for everything (exaggerated here, because the world is made of LEGOs, so Batman has the added ability of making whatever he needs out of whatever is lying around). But we also see how his isolation makes him not only a tragic figure, but one that logically also becomes the butt of everyone's jokes. A major scene involves Batman and Robin infiltrating the Fortress of Solitude to steal the Phantom Zone Projector. Batman has to distract Superman while Robin breaks into the vault. Fortunately, Superman is already sufficiently distracted because they're having a huge party... that Batman was never invited to.

It's rather a sad situation when you really think about it, but of course it's played for a joke here, because humor is derived from sadness. It's what made the 60's Batman work. You don't just take something that is silly and make it silly. That's ineffective. You take something inherently sad and exaggerate it to its logical endpoint. You take an orphan who tragically loses his parents and decides to fight crime as a costumed vigilante, and take that to its logical extreme: a socially awkward billionaire who dresses up as a bat at night to fight crime with a number of improbable and increasingly specific gadgets because he preaches being prepared for every situation. Here we see where Batman's isolation and brooding has gotten him: his friends don't enjoy his company.

Juxtaposed to this, is a very fun, cinematically pleasing scene (as are a lot of the scenes in this movie, but this one really stood out for me) where Robin has to acrobat his way through the vault's defenses to steal the Projector. Batman guides him all through it, and Robin deftly navigates to the goal. We get to see something we don't normally see: we get to see Batman learn and grow. He realizes he's having fun. He realizes the bright side of having a sidekick, of having someone else other than himself to rely on. And that's fun to see!

That's the main point of all this. This is what I loved about Lego Batman. As good as the Dark Knight Trilogy is, and I do love The Dark Knight, it simply doesn't showcase growth. We see a Bruce Wayne become Batman, and through it all only Alfred asks him to stop being Batman, and the solution by the end of the trilogy is to be more Batman than before.

While it's very cool to see Batman be a badass, be the hero and save the day all while looking awesome in blac, it doesn't always make for a compelling movie. It doesn't make for a good story. It's a great character on its own, sure, but we want to see our characters struggle and grow and become better for it. The Batman of the Nolan Trilogy lacks growth and therefore lacks our empathy.

Arnett's Batman goes from being the butt of jokes to being the savior of Gotham once again. Early in the movie we have everyone coming to the realization that Batman is actually not good at his job, considering every single one of his adversaries is out and wreaking havoc. By the end, the city learns to trust him, because Batman learns to trust others. He insults Alfred initially, telling him he doesn't know what it's like to have a surrogate son. Again, it's a moment played for laughs, but when you consider the history of Batman, it's a terribly sad moment; it's a boy telling essentially the only father figure he's had in his life who has looked after him every day for the past few decades, you don't know what it's like to have a son. By the end, he fights alongside his faithful butler/friend/father figure. Same with the aforementioned Robin. Initially hesitant, following that Projector heist scene, the dynamic of Robin and Batman changes. Batman sees him as a capable partner. Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner also has a rocky start with Batman. She wants to find a way to work alongside him, and he will have none of it (a not so subtle metaphor). He's also smitten with her (I hate this ship, by the way. I hate that people keep insisting on it. But that's a different discussion for another day) and so that's distracting, because he simply wants to impress her, not consider an equal.

But Barbara is more than capable. We get to see it shortly after she takes over and saves the mayor during a villain's raid (The mayor, inexplicably voiced by Mariah Carey, easily the most inconceivable voice for this movie) and all throughout when she has all the trappings of a Batgirl in the making. As a sidenote, I loved that she was a Lego-of-Color (that has to be a thing, right?) as was Two-Face! I'm one of those people who was sad that we never got to see the Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent pay off in the Burton movies, so I'm glad it had some screentime here.

Babs is also the voice of reason with Bruce, as she continually pushes him to team up. She only lets him out of jail after he agrees to team up (she incarcerates him after he breaks into Arkham and sends Joker to the Phantom Zone) and has a save the cat moment (well, save the butler moment) as they attempt to raid the Joker-occupied Wayne Manor.

The movie is absolutely hilarious. It manages to get jokes both out of the inherent absurdity of everything in Batman lore, while also pointing out absurdities (Babs catches Batman and Robin sneaking about, and asks if this is his son. Batman waffles. Babs states this whole situation is weirder if he's not) in its decades long history. Obviously, because Lego itself is a visual medium, it pulls great sight gags only achievable with Legos. Batman having a tantrum in front of Alfred comes to mind.
It's also action-packed. Along with the impressive visual style and cinematography, the movie's got a lot of action sequences. Some of them I will say are not as clean as The Lego Movie's, some of the later sequences are bit harder to track, but overall it's impressive and moves so fluidly you forget it's all animation sometimes. I mean, then something crazy happens and you're like, "Of course," but overall.
But ultimately, it's got heart. It gives these characters so much more than jokes and fun. But it also doesn't make them all sadness and grief either. It makes Joker question his purpose if Batman doesn't care about him, it gives Batman a reason outside of himself to be the hero he was meant to be.
You see, when you watch the Nolan Trilogy, when you read a lot of comics, and when you play Arkham, you see Batman's highest priority is Gotham. But ultimately, that love is something intangible and abstract and doesn't convey to an audience. What does however, is the love of a boy for his father, the love of an orphan for his parents and his surrogate father, and a person who was afraid to love find a way to accept love in his life. And learning that the ultimate goodness in the world is how you inspire others and how together people can change the world, rather than what one person does on their own, is the meaning of being a hero.