Entertainment Movies

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Every generation needs a hero and Lego has built our Dark Knight with Batman

Every generation has its own Dark Knight. Meadhbh McGrath is confident Lego has built the hero we need right now

Shades of very, very dark grey: The Lego Batman Movie opens this weekend
Shades of very, very dark grey: The Lego Batman Movie opens this weekend
Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman

In the 1960s, there was only one Batman: the delightfully camp Adam West, kitted out in his big knickers and painted-on eyebrows. If you grew up in the late 80s, Batman was, obviously, Michael Keaton, battling it out with Jack Nicholson's Joker, the clown prince of Gotham City. The reincarnations seemed to only speed up from there, with studios firing out caped crusaders in the form of Val Kilmer ("You trying to get under my cape, doctor?"), George Clooney (the Batnipples!), Christian Bale (he of the gravelly Bat voice) and even a hormonal teen Bruce in the TV series Gotham.

Last year, there was Ben Affleck, miserably sulking his way through the critically panned Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, and soon to return in The Batman.

But now, Batfleck's got some competition. He only wears black or sometimes very, very dark grey, and today he arrives in cinemas with his very own film. Not to be dismissed as some thin, child-friendly version of the Dark Knight, Will Arnett's Lego Batman is a Batman to be reckoned with.

Fans of the DC comics will appreciate the film's understanding of the character's essential mythology - the centrality of his rivalry with the Joker (played by Zach Galifianakis as a teary-eyed jilted lover, hurt by Batman's declaration that "I don't currently have a bad guy. I am fighting a few different people. I like to fight around"), eager-to-please sidekick Robin (voiced by a hilarious Michael Cera), and Bruce Wayne's existential angst as a result of being orphaned at a young age.

Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman
Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman

But even if you're not a hardcore fan, Lego Batman is perfectly formulated for a millennial audience - gleefully self-aware, the film slyly refers to Batman's many reincarnations, with throwbacks that go all the way back to the early days. He's even got a feminist Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), who smirks at the moniker and asks: "Does this mean I get to call you Batboy?"

The issue of who was 'the greatest ever Batman' is likely to roll on for as long as Hollywood makes superhero films. And while some versions are best forgotten - even by the actors themselves (looking at you, Clooney) - it can be argued that each Batman was 'the greatest ever Batman' for his generation.

In the 1960s, the Batman comics were faltering, and readers were beginning to turn to Marvel's superheroes instead. Until, that is, Adam West's Batman and his shark repellent batspray 'KAPOW!'-ed on to screens in 1966.

Here was a Batman satirising the innocent optimism that defined 1950s America, amid the turbulence of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights battles and the aftermath of the JFK assassination. The show openly parodied the seeming moral simplicity of the previous decade: it featured absurd villains harbouring crazy plots, mocked authoritarian figures like policemen and politicians and even poked fun at its own goofy protagonist, as evinced by West's fantastically stilted delivery.

That camp silliness was dramatically overhauled in 1989, when Michael Keaton's menacing Batman captured the burgeoning distrust and fear of the city in a time of rapid suburbanisation.

Alongside Se7en, Taxi Driver and The Crow, it was one of a number of "anti-city" movies that reflected suburban paranoia about the city, depicting it as a doom-laden urban hell. Indeed, the first line of the script for Tim Burton's Batman read: "Hell has erupted through the pavements and carried on growing."

The opening shot of Gotham City shows a dark, smoggy wasteland, an oppressive space of gloom where crime festers - Gotham must cancel its 200th anniversary because the streets are not safe enough to hold it. Batman's apocalyptic vigilantism was to be celebrated.

That dark vision of Gotham City prevailed in 2005's Batman Begins, the first instalment in the excellent Dark Knight trilogy. While the Christopher Nolan-directed films delivered many thrills - from Heath Ledger's unhinged Joker to Tom Hardy's growling Bane - it also offered up the first proper origin story for Batman. Bale brought a level of depth to the character we hadn't seen before, as the film chronicled Bruce Wayne's inner turmoil, and in turn evoked the collective angst in the years post-9/11.

The poster for The Dark Knight showed a skyscraper with smoke and flames pouring from a giant hole in its side, blotting out the sun - an image that blatantly mirrored the attacks on New York. Bale's Batman presented a fantasy of conquering fear and thwarting terrorist attacks, and reflected a deep-seated cultural anxiety about the American response to terrorism.

Less than a decade later, Ben Affleck brings us a Batman for the Trump era. A loud, angry blockbuster that reflects the emotional tone of the moment, it was even produced by Steve Mnuchin, Donald Trump's pick for Treasury Secretary.

Forget Batfleck. The definitive Batman of this decade is the Lego Batman. It is, more than any other film about Batman, specifically "about" Batman, but along with that generous dose of post-modern humour, the filmmakers land some serious thematic material. Writer-director Chris McKay and his team manage to combine the ridiculous silliness of the "Biff! Bam! Pow!" 1960s version with the psychological pain of the later iterations, resulting in a joyously warm-hearted (and relentlessly funny) movie.

While it would be simple to dismiss it as escapist fare, the film manages to carry a surprising amount of emotional weight, with a mature message about what makes a "family" and the importance of working together to defeat a tyrant wreaking havoc on the disempowered. The Lego Batman Movie builds the hero we deserve.

Irish Independent

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