If I were to rate my favorite Batman actors the way fans and critics like to do with various Bonds through the years, my Top Three would be:
– Michael Keaton
– Christian Bale
– Will Arnett, As LEGO BATMAN
That’s right: Even though Arnett is voicing an animated, blocky plastic toy, I’d rank his raspy, narcissistic, brave, vulnerable, alternately heroic and ridiculous version of the Dark Knight ahead of the big-budget, live-action performances of Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Val Kilmer, among others.
The opening five minutes of “The Lego Batman Movie” are funnier and more original than most entire comedies I’ve seen over the last few months — and the superhero/supervillain dynamic explored in this film is more involving and insightful than many a comic-book movie plot of the past several years.
Not to mention the constant explosion of candy-colored visual treats; the cheerfully subversive “Simpsons” meets Mad magazine meets “Airplane!” vibe of the film; and the classic “works on two levels” dialogue that’ll keep the parents entertained while the kids marvel at all the cool action and funny stuff onscreen.
Three years after the wonderfully, surprisingly entertaining “The Lego Movie” (who saw that coming?), we get a spinoff with Batman front and center, doing his Batman/Bruce Wayne thing, rattling about the cavernous Wayne Manor with only the loyal and paternalistic Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to keep him company, brooding over the murder of his parents when he was just a boy, and caught up in a continuous loop in which he captures the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) after an exciting chase, the Joker escapes — and they do it all over again.
On the outside, Batman is all bluster. He boasts of having the coolest toys, shows off his “nine-pack” abs and laughs off the notion he needs anyone.
But in the dead of night, when the Caped Crusader cues up “Jerry Maguire” in his home theater and laughs uproariously at the “You had me at hello” scene, we can see he’s one Dark and Lonely Knight.
The Joker understands the reciprocal nature of their relationship. What’s a crime fighter without the ultimate bad guy tormenting his beloved city — and what’s a maniacal supervillain without a worthy adversary? But when the Joker tries to get Batman to voice his hatred, he’s crushed to hear the Batman thinks of him as just another weirdo bad guy in bizarre makeup who deserves to be put away for life.
So the Joker vows to get Batman to notice him and admit his true feelings.
Meanwhile, Alfred and the hilariously peppy Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera) and the fierce and fabulous Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) are also trying to get Bruce/Batman to see he can’t go through life alone and he needs to make some human connections.
All of these psychological issues are dealt with in a clever, funny and sweet manner. Director Chris McKay keeps things zipping along, alternating between smart and often hilarious rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue, and big, big, BIG action sequences that fill every inch of the screen with brightly colored, fantastically kinetic action.
(Not to mention a number of strange and crazy touches, e.g., the appearance of Lego versions of King Kong and Lord Voldemort, among other characters that you don’t usually see bouncing around the DC Universe. Also, Doug Benson’s imitation of Tom Hardy’s Bane is priceless.)
“The Lego Batman Movie” is so self-referential it practically serves as a tribute to previous “Batman” movies (and a certain and quite terrible TV show from the 1960s). The animation is deceptively sophisticated, in that the characters are of course block-shaped toys and their facial expressions aren’t exactly on the level of the latest Rotoscopian-live-performance-capture, Zemeckis-Spielbergian-whiz-bang, state-of-the-art technology — but the animated sets are vibrant and gorgeous, the direction worthy of a top-flight action-adventure and the performances …
Well. Let’s just say I’ll take Lively Plastic Animation over Wooden Live Action any day.