Each fresh incarnation of the Caped Crusader tries to bring something new to the party, and one of the most eye-catching debuts in the 2017 model is an addition to our hero’s multi-purpose utility belt. Early on, seconds after vanquishing another foe, the Dark Knight pulls out “the merch gun”, gleefully firing T-shirts, lunchboxes and action figures at the good folk of Gotham City.
A merger between two of the most recognisable brands on the planet was always going to be marketing wet dream, to the point where the quality of the parent product might feasibly be a secondary consideration – why break a creative sweat on something that’s more than capable of selling itself? Thankfully, however, everyone involved in The Lego Batman Movie brings their “A” game, and the result is an animated feature as rich in detail and ideas as the most lauded work of rivals Pixar, and quite possibly the best Batman film, ever.
Technically, it’s a spin-off, the diminutive brick version of the vigilante having made his bow with a scene-stealing supporting role in 2014’s first Lego movie. But in placing the crime-fighting icon front-and-centre, director Chris McKay and his team of sharp-witted writers delight in affectionately savaging the mythology of Batman and all who’ve donned the tights before, from Adam West’s camp turn on sixties television to last year’s misfiring face-off between Ben Affleck and Superman.
Batman, aka millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (voiced, with a suitable measure of gravel, by Will Arnett) is an egotistical crowd-pleaser who, when not getting the better of Zach Galifianakis’s Joker, wanders his lonely mansion, microwaving lobster thermidor and watching Tom Cruise flicks in his private cinema. Devoted butler Alfred (a brilliantly deadpan Ralph Fiennes) thinks he has the solution; Master Bruce is in need of a family.
Enter excitable orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), whom Bruce accidentally adopts (“I thought I was being sarcastic!”), soon to emerge as the boy wonder Robin and teaching his new “padre” the joys of parenthood and the value of belonging to a greater whole. That’s your Pixar parallel, right there, but as beautifully handled as this particular plotline may be, it’s inevitably trumped by the onslaught of rapid-fire gags and thrill-a-minute action sequences.
The nuts-and-bolts of Batman’s skirmishes with his enemies provide the writers with a field day for mocking all walks of fantasy fiction, from Bruce’s sneering disdain for Iron Man, to The Joker fortifying his crew of evildoers with Daleks and Hogwarts’ resident baddy Voldermort. Such cross-pollination of franchises might be described in some quarters as “post-modernism”, but McKay never lets po-faced labels get in the way of the pure, unadulterated fun.
We’re still treated to the requisite psychobabble of identity and duality familiar to almost every previous chapter in the heroes and villains saga, but the masterstroke here is the way the relationship between Batman and The Joker borrows not from the psychiatrist’s couch but from the “will-they?-won’t-they?” world of romantic comedy. The Joker’s face when Batman tells him he’s been “seeing” other nemeses is arguably one of the most powerful images in the history of film.
Lego being Lego, the character design and intricate sets are exemplary, laying a firm foundation for a laugh-out-loud script that never stops giving, and a pitch-perfect voice cast in even the smallest roles (Eddie Izzard as Voldemort! Channing Tatum as Superman! Mariah Carey as Gotham’s mayor!). This is a film made by people who clearly adore Batman, but aren’t afraid to pull at his little plastic cape.
After the critical panning and disappointing box office of 1997’s Batman And Robin, George Clooney unnecessarily fell on his sword by saying he might have “buried” the franchise. Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale may have dug it up again, but it’s McKay and the inspirational brainiacs at Lego who’ve built it back up to heights that dwarf Gotham’s tallest skyscrapers.
The Lego Batman Movie is released in cinemas on Friday 10 February
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