Batman is a character that can be anything from camp crusader in purple lycra, to a brooding misanthrope in black body armour. Conventional wisdom of late is that the latter approach is the better. Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKay and their colleagues beg to differ.
The Lego Movie was an unexpectedly brilliant family comedy, and its standout element for many was its version of Batman. Voiced by Will Arnett (possibly the best Batman since Kevin Conroy), the Lego Batman is a hilarious parody of the brooding, gravel-voiced Dark Knight. The Lego Batman Movie carries the joke as far as it can, sneaking us a look at the sulking brute behind the mask. After all, no matter how dark and hard-nosed, no one who dresses up as a bat can be a true adult. The Lego Batman keeps his mask on almost the entire run of the film, only taking it off twice, once for a gala event at the insistence of Alfred (a note-perfect Ralph Fiennes).
The script is a very family-friendly approach to Batman, and haven't we waited long enough for one of those? Grahame-Smith's story essentially takes the growling Christian Bale Batman and shows us how he might become the cute Adam West Batman, with his extended Bat-family. Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts wee Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) while besotted by the new Comissioner Gordon. That is to say, Barbara Gordon, voiced by Rosario Dawson, rapidly stacking up the comicbook character credits.
Much of the story concerns Batman's gradual acceptance of son and sidekick ("The kids at the orphanage call me Dick." "Well, children can be cruel.") into his life, and his growing respect for Barbara as a hero and crimefighter in her own right. The secondary plotline involves Batman's other great relationship, his great enmity with the Joker (Zack Galifianakis). Bats destroys the Joker by dismissing him as his archenemy ("I'm fighting lots of villains. I like to fight around."), leading the Clown Prince of Crime to go to absurd extremes to take over Gotham and prove himself. As the Joker's plans go, the one he uses here isn't the most contrived or ridiculous, and certainly one of the most successful.
The Lego Batman Movie is a Batman movie first and foremost, but it doesn't let Lego's vast franchise reach go to waste. The rest of the Justice League make an appearance, but this is wisely kept to a cameo, so that the focus is resolutely on Batman and Robin (although The Lego Justice League Movie sounds fairly inevitable at this stage). In the second half of the film, though, the plot goes nuts, bringing in villains from every corner of the Lego Dimensions. This leads to some of the funniest moments in the film, as Sauron (Jemaine Clement, wonderfully) lays waste to Gotham, along with Lord Voldemort (strangely not a dual role for Fiennes, but a guest spot by Eddie Izzard), the Gremlins and many others. Even the Daleks are involved, although, strangely, they're referred to only as "the British robots." (Clearly, they are taken from 1979's Destiny of the Daleks.)
I had hoped that a similar array of heroes would be involved in saving the day, but the script shows more restraint than that, and correctly keeps Batman at the centre of the film. There's plenty of room for his huge array of villains, one of the best, and often the most ludicrous, rogue's galleries in comics. I had to convince some very incredulous friends that Crazy Quilt, Orca and the Condiment King are genuine Batman villains. The only really crushing ommission is the Music Meister. It's a glorious film for comicbook fans in general, and Batman fans in particular. Every previous Batman film gets a nod, even the 40s serials, plus much more. To support the excellent performances there are some wonderful minor roles and cameos, such as Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face, and very oddly, Mariah Carey voicing the Mayor of Gotham.
This is an absolute joy from start to finish. Time will tell if it has the same rewatch value as The Lego Movie, but it definitely has the same wit, silliness and message of family and friendship as its predecessor. Here's looking forward to The Lego Movie Sequel (and, hopefully someday, The Lego Doctor Who Movie).
A complete list of villains featured in The Lego Batman Movie includes:
Joker, Harley Quinn, Bane, Blight, Calculator, Calendar Man, Captain Boomerang, Catman (aka gay Wolverine), Catwoman, Clayface, Clock King, Condiment King, Crazy Quilt, Egghead, Eraser, Mr. Freeze, Gentleman Ghost, Hugo Strange, the Kabuki Twins, Killer Croc, Killer Moth (a favourite), King Tut, Kite Man, Magpie, Man-Bat, March Harriet, Mime, Penguin, Dr. Phosphorus, Poison Ivy, Polka-Dot Man, the Red Hood, Riddler, Scarecrow, Tarantula, Zebra-Man, Zodiac, the Mutant Leader from The Dark Knight Returns, Sauron, Lord Voldemort, Dracula, King Kong, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the Gremlins, the Wicked Witch of the West, Agent Smith from The Matrix, the Kraken from Clash of the Titans, Medusa the Gorgon, T. rex and Velociraptors from Jurassic Park, Bruce/Jaws, and the Daleks. General Zod appears but is not invited to take part.