With The LEGO Ninjago Movie opening in the UK this weekend, it looks like the LEGO film franchise is building fast. Ninjago is the second spinoff this year, and two more entries are expected in 2019: The LEGO Movie Sequel and something called The Billion Brick Race. Now feels like a good time to look back at the series’ foundation block, the original LEGO Movie, and its breakout star: Will Arnett as Batman. This irreverent take on the Caped Crusader ran away with the 2014 film and launched the brand’s franchise ambitions with The LEGO Batman Movie earlier this year, earning him a spot as ORWAV’s prestigious second-ever animated Scene Stealer.
Arnett’s Batman swoops into The LEGO Movie out of nowhere, apropos of nothing except the film’s wonderfully bizarre toy-box logic. Equipped with Bat-arangs, Bat-grappling hook and a great Bat-attitude, Batman begrudgingly joins the heroes to help everyman Emmet defeat evil Lord Business. Because why not? If you have a Batman figure sitting next to all the other LEGO, you’re going to throw him in the mix, right? Not too invested in driving the plot, Batman hangs out in the background of most scenes – but when he appears, Arnett makes every line count.
The first thing you notice about this Batman is that he’s kind of a jerk. It’s a departure from the usual Bat-persona (though perhaps not much, depending on who you ask about Batfleck), but Arnett sells it with a blend of classic grizzled Bat-voice and whiny entitled rich guy. Straight away, you get the sense that this Batman completely buys his own press and utterly fails to live up to the hype. Arnett was a great choice to play this type, having perfected the form in the guise of a magician named GOB. When Batman succeeds after many, many failed attempts to hit a button and exclaims “First try!” Arrested Development fans may hear an echo of GOB trying to spin yet another disastrous trick illusion.
Crucially, Arnett’s Bat-jackass happens to be very funny. He’s not the first comedy Batman, successful or otherwise, but Arnett fine-tunes the operation. He can switch Bat-moods on a dime – from aloof to moody to outright obnoxious – and his comic timing fits right into the frenetic pace of the movie. He also has the advantage of being almost wholly a joke-machine. Nobody would argue that Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks or Morgan “God” Freeman are doing a bad job here, but Arnett steals his initial scene from all of them because he is allowed to cut loose and luxuriate in the ridiculousness of his character, free from the petty constraints of “plot” or “theme”. Plus, he gets to sing:
Arnett’s skill with voice-acting absurdity should seem inevitable to anyone who has followed his TV career. Even though Arrested Development was live-action, its cast contained a wealth of vocal talent: Jessica Walter (killing it on Archer for eight seasons and counting), Jeffrey Tambor and Tony Hale co-starred. Fellow Bluth boy Michael Cera was even reunited with Arnett in the recording booth for The LEGO Batman Movie, playing Robin. Elsewhere, BoJack Horseman – Arnett’s second big voice-acting break of 2014 – demands a lot from its star as it generates just as much giddy punning as emotional turmoil.
Arnett has certainly put in the hours. While in his twenties, a career suggestion from his agent landed him a series of jobs recording commercial voiceovers. What it may have lacked in creative satisfaction, this period seems to have made up for in training Arnett’s vocal cords to the level of mastery needed to hit a lot of specific comic beats while doing a silly Bat-voice. Although he says the impression is hard work, it pays off in the best running gag of The LEGO Movie: pointing out just how silly Batman already is.
Batman is fun. We all know this. We can debate all day about the merits of serious Batmen and silly Batmen, but at the end of the day it will still be funny to lampoon that weird growly voice Christian Bale put on and asked us to take seriously. In the context of all the colourful mayhem going on in The LEGO Movie, Arnett playing Batman with that same growl is hilarious. As a (tiny, plastic) grown man dressed as a bat, he should fit in in Cloudcuckooland – every instance of Arnett’s obstinate refusal to play along therefore makes him funnier. It works the other way around, too. Batman being Batman in otherwise mundane circumstances is a hoot. This is his introduction to everyman Emmet:
Wyldstyle: Batman, this is Emmet. Emmet, this is my boyfriend, Batman.
Batman: I’m Batman.
Even the word “Batman” becomes a gag when you hear it that many times in a row. Throw in GOB Bluth himself delivering the punchline and you already have grounds for a whole LEGO Batman cinematic universe. That might be a little excessive, but given the obnoxious weirdo charm with which he pulls off the role here, Arnett will surely be welcome to carry on stealing scenes in as many LEGO movies as he likes.