The first truth of Batman, the saving grace: I was never alone.”
So ended Grant Morrison’s Return of Bruce Wayne, a story which started in the final pages of Final Crisis with Batman taking a gun and shooting to death the very Platonic Idea of evil itself. The Return miniseries subsequent to such saw Batman face off against a foe almost as imposing: the entirety of human history itself, from the Paleolithic period of cave-dwelling Cro-Magnons to five minutes before the Heat Death of the Universe, a hundred-trillion years hence. Even faced with the literal and imminent End of Everything, Batman triumphs; not – as fanboy fervor and internet memes are wont to proclaim – because he’s Batman, but rather thanks to the aid of allies like Dick Grayson, Superman, and indeed the entire extended Bat-family and Justice League. Thus, the first truth of Batman, that even while he was fighting as an amnesiac across the ages, he was never truly alone.
The Lego Batman Movie marks the first time since Morrison’s seminal run that the character has been beset with a threat of similar scale to Evil Incarnate or the Arrow of Time itself aimed at him. Here the Caped Crusader confronts the combined forces of Sauron, Voldemort, the Wicked Witch of the West, King Kong, the Kraken, Jaws, a dozen or so Dalaks, and many more, led, of course, by the Clown-Prince of Crime himself, The Joker. But more than the mere enormity of the threat, The Lego Batman Movie shares with Morrison a fundamental understanding of the character.
Far too many fans fixate on the gothic elements of the Gotham Knight, imagining a dark and brooding loner who works alone. The Movie and Morrison both begin by depicting the Dark Knight as such, not in conformity to the expectations of those fans, but rather as the start of a character arc meant to give him genuine growth, (re)introducing other elements equally fundamental to the character, including parental and social sides of Batman. Both do so by taking the defining moment of Bruce Wayne’s life – his sudden and violent orphaning in a crime-ridden alleyway behind the Monarch Theater – and making it more than a mere explanation for his vocation as a vengeful vigilante. Rather, the death of Thomas and Martha becomes occasion for heroism of another kind as he fully and finally defeats the inner demons brought about by his parents’ demise by building a family of his own, starting with a son (though Lego’s doting and dutiful Dick Grayson could not be more different than Morrison’s Damien, a pompous prick who’d been raised by Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins).
Moreover, Morrison’s description of the Dick Grayson’s introduction into the Batman mythos could practically serve as the plot pitch for the Lego Batman Movie:
There was a sense that the young Bruce Wayne, who died emotionally with his parents in Crime Alley, had finally met a friend with whom he could share his strange, exciting secret life. The emotionally stunted Batman found a perfect pal in the ten-year-old orphaned acrobat. Batman was forced to grow up and develop responsibility as soon as Robin came on the scene, and the savage young Dark Knight of the original pulp-tinged adventures was replaced by a very different kind of hero: a big brother, the best friend any kid could have.”
Beyond similarly scaled threats and some of the same themes and story beats, Lego and Morrison also evidence a similar reverence and respect for every era of the character’s history. Both cut deep into obscure and otherwise rarely referenced chapters in his comic book and cinematic career, especially the more absurdist episodes that serve to undercut the scowling and self-serious Batman that many modern fans prefer. In the face of Nolan’s grim, gritty, and grounded Dark Knight, Morrison reintroduced the gaudily-garbed and utterly insane Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, with the fifth-dimensional Bat-Mite at his side. Likewise, Lego Batman has a crime-fighting career spanning seventy-eight years, incorporating every previous iteration into itself. From the televised encounters with Egghead to the Silver Age showdowns with Condiment King to his infamous (but evidently useful!) utilization of the shark repellent bat-spray, Lego Batman embraces every embarrassing event in the character’s catalogue and proudly pronounces “They’re all true.”
Tonally, The Lego Batman Movie is more lighthearted and comedic than Morrison’s epic cape opera. That this is where the comparisons between the movie and Morrison’s work end is fine by me; much as I love Morrison’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne as “Bat-god,” I have an equal fondness for Batman as comedic fodder, from Adam West’s psychedelic pop art portrayal to Robot Chicken’s irreverent sketches. Indeed, Lego is every bit as hilarious as last year’s Return of the Caped Crusaders. The grin affixed to my face throughout the entire film was so wide you’d have though Joker Gas had been pumped through the theater’s vents.
This is mostly due to its superlative script, but the delivery by its perfectly cast voice actors also played no small part in its success. While Kevin Conroy will forever be the definitive Batman, I’d not be surprised to hear Will Arnett’s voice in my head the next time I’m reading Detective Comics. Many of the musical covers are equally effective, particularly “One” and “Man in the Mirror,” though none of the original scores are quite so memorable as “Everything is Awesome” from the original Lego Movie. In fact, the first film is ever so slightly superior in most respects, given its visual originality and diversity, its metafictional storytelling, and its tighter tug on the heartstrings. That said, while it may not be the best Lego movie to date, this is arguably the best Batman film so far, giving Nolan’s sophomore effort a serious run for its money.
The Lego Batman Movie is grandiose on a scale which would have been scarcely conceivable when I was a child, or even a few short years ago, for that matter. The notion of an official Batman film in which he faces off against both Sauron and Voldemort I still find unfathomable, despite having just watched exactly that. Yet far more surprising is how little this comes across as a puerile playtime with a mishmash of minifigs, and instead as a serious (if slapstick) character study that seems to understand the core of who Batman is nearly as well as Loeb, Snyder, or even Morrison himself. Indeed, it seems to borrow from Batman’s best writer many of his best contributions to the character – the surreal scale of his struggles, the deep reverence for all his diverse depictions over the decades, and, most importantly, the first truth Batman: he was never alone.