‘Lego Batman’ Goes Light, Superhero Genre Goes Dark

A film for the whole family? Maybe — with a few caveats

by Rick Gershman | Updated 07 Feb 2017 at 10:29 PM

With this weekend’s release of “The Lego Batman Movie,” there’s something a whole generation of kids likely will learn for the first time: Batman can actually be funny.

Sure, everyone got a little taste of that in 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” a huge critical and commercial hit film that introduced the Will Arnett-voiced version of the Caped Crusader for occasional comic relief. But this not-quite-so-Dark Knight gets the spotlight in this spinoff, which officially opens Friday.

This not-quite-so-Dark Knight gets the spotlight in this spinoff, which officially opens Friday.

The PG-rated film — directed by Chris McKay — offers a far more colorful, upbeat approach to one of the world’s most popular superheroes than recent live-action versions do, although all are produced by Warner Bros. Pictures.

It’s been almost 12 years since “Batman Begins” first hit theaters, with director Christopher Nolan introducing a tortured, grim Batman (Christian Bale) whose disposition (and gravelly growl) would only get demonstrably darker and grittier as the trilogy continued.

In last year’s “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” director Zack Snyder pushed things even further, delivering an ultraviolent, revenge-crazed Batman (Ben Affleck) largely in line with the classic 1986 Frank Miller graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns.” The feature even needed to be scaled back in order to meet the MPAA requirements for a PG-13 rating.

With that in mind, it's amusing to look back at reviews for the first blockbuster take on the character, 1989's "Batman," which starred Michael Keaton as Gotham City's protector. Critics went on about how creepy Tim Burton's film was for a superhero movie, although today much of it comes across as silly and overwrought. Sure, it was dark when compared to the intentionally campy 1960s TV show starring Adam West — but that's about it.

The last time movies tried to make Batman actually fun, the result was a disaster. It's been almost two decades since Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin," but the bitter taste of the universally loathed film still lingers, with the groaningly campy farce (starring George Clooney, who looks miserable throughout) opening the door to Nolan's dark reboot of the franchise with "Batman Begins."

But just because "Batman & Robin" was awful doesn't mean superhero movies can't be fun or family friendly. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has repeatedly proven that over the past decade, with its "Avengers" films (and the individual heroes' solo ventures) thoughtfully balancing strong characters and mature themes with fun and exciting adventures.

Related: Creepy 'Lego Batman Movie' Characters Unveiled

Still, those PG-13 adventures are largely aimed at teens and adults, not the whole family. "The Lego Batman Movie," like its predecessor, is very much a family film. Its goal is to entertain kids and adults with energetic action, tons of humor and a generous helping of satire and meta references.

It appears to have pulled that off with flying colors. "The Lego Batman Movie" was rocking a 98-percent "Fresh" score earlier this week on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates film critics' reviews. That's a better score than even Oscar nominees "La La Land" and "Hidden Figures" mustered.

Related: Will the Real Batman Please Stand Up?

It's also worth noting that while "The Lego Batman Movie" hopes to thrill the whole family, parents should remember that it does have a PG rating for "rude humor and some action." And Common Sense Media (which reviews films based on appropriate content for families) said that it is a "little darker/edgier in tone than 'The Lego Movie.'"

The trend in Hollywood seems to be moving more in the direction of adult-themed superhero films.

Some have questioned the looks of character designs for Robin (voiced by Michael Cera), who looks a little dopey — an intentional running joke in the movie — and the creepy Joker. The latter's yellow, razor-sharp teeth seem to be a nod toward the more sadistic takes on the character. Then again, he's voiced by comedic actor Zach Galifianakis, playing up the parody aspect.

As with the Joker, the film world's ultra-gritty takes on Batman in recent years inform a lot of the humor of "The Lego Batman Movie." This Caped Crusader is particularly a direct parody of Bale's Batman from the Nolan movies, with his obsession with being a fearsome, single-minded vigilante taken to absurd and non-kid friendly lengths. It's prime material to satirize, especially when the hero looks like a Lego figurine.

It's also the perfect time to undercut the super-serious superhero movie trend, which has plainly gone awry. The latest "Fantastic Four," directed by Josh Trank, was a murky, sludgy mess that drained all the color from its iconic characters both literally and figuratively.

Snyder's "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman" went so far with desaturated colors and morose leads that they were largely joyless affairs. The latter, featuring a Batman who showed no remorse about killing adversaries outright, even got an R-rated director's cut a few months after the PG-13 version was released.

There was also last year's R-rated smash hit "Deadpool," which was extremely fun but absolutely not for kids, and the upcoming "Logan," which is specifically being promoted to adults. It's been given an R-rating for language and what appears to be some pretty graphic violence. Mind you, these are characters most people were introduced to as children looking for inspiration in the splashy pages of comic books.

While adults should have their movies, not every superhero movie should effectively reject the bright, colorful adventure themes that made most comic books popular in the first place. And the trend in Hollywood seems to be moving more in the direction of adult-themed superhero films as of late.

"Lego Batman Movie" brings an adventure with enough appropriate fun and lightness for the whole family to enjoy, something too few superhero movies do today.

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