In “The LEGO Batman Movie,” fans of the Dark Knight in his minifig form will see him face one of his most interesting and long-standing personal conflicts: his unwillingness to admit he needs a team. When CBR spoke with director Chris McKay, he told us that theme was something he wanted to sneak into “The LEGO Movie” several years ago as a sight gag.
“When he and Wyldstyle break up and he says something like, ‘Well, that’s fine because I’m use to working alone,’” the director – who served as editor and creative lead on the earlier film – recalled. “And then as Batman walks off camera, we have the parade of all the people that support Batman and follow along with him. So it’d be the different versions of Robin, [like] Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, and then Barbara Gordon as Oracle and Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox and every other character.” The sight gag would have seen an “endless stream of people coming by” as LEGO Batman continued to insist that he is a one-man band.
“In a way, that was one of our inspirations for what we wanted [with ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’],” McKay continued. “I think there’s a moment in life where everybody says ‘I did this all by myself’ even if they had help.”
While the unused gag served as a starting point, the plan to spin the big screen LEGO Batman into his own feature emerged after the release of “The LEGO Movie,” in which the Will Arnett-voiced caped crusader played a supporting role to LEGO heroes Wyldstyle and Emmet. “Batman, as a character, has a good [premise] – you know immediately what Batman’s second act needs to be,” McKay explained. “He’s a fun character – a side character [in ‘The LEGO Movie’] who can actually support his own movie. Not every side character can carry their own movie. So we at least had the inklings of a film that could work and be different from the other LEGO movies and be different enough from other Batman movies and create its own niche.”
“We also love working with Will Arnett,” he added.
Curiously, Arnett’s interpretation of the character as an ultra-macho, yet super-insecure hero, made it easier to access Batman’s issues with intimacy. Though broached in films like “Batman Forever” and “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” the topic has never received a real exploration on the big screen until now. “We thought it would make the biggest difference,” McKay said. “That was one area that we could call our own and get into it on an emotional level.”
That emotional level, ironically enough, is presented via the medium of walking, talking toys. More so than even its predecessor, “The LEGO Batman Movie” represents a leap in creating a photo-realistic animated feature – provided, of course, that the realistic elements are LEGO bricks and Minifigs. “It’s meant to be this little world that we were working in, but I wanted this to feel massive,” McKay explained. “Like you’re in a real Gotham City that happens to be made of LEGO, or in a Batcave that is just massive, but you can see every little brick.
“You want everything in your environment to help the story,” he continued. “You’re being the most true and honest and revealing of the artifice to get to the theme. This is a film about authenticity, about being true to yourself, true to your emotions and not covering them up. Obviously, Batman wears a mask and tries to hide things – armors himself up – and then chooses to let people into his life after that moment.”
In fact, LEGO Batman faces a moment of self-discovery while talking to an free-floating LEGO brick voiced by “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” star Ellie Kemper. “You have Batman literally talking to a talking brick. It’s like you’re being the most sort of bald with the premise; a talking brick that’s sort of moving like it’s hand-puppeted in the air,” McKay laughed.
The scenes with the brick also offer some of the film’s strangest and funniest moments; which fits in with the LEGO humor established in the earliest LEGO video games. “I love that stuff. I love getting to play with the silliness and the absurdity of us making these movies in LEGO,” he said. “It’s a fun gear to add to this thing and we always try to add extra jokes that are LEGO-specific jokes. We’re fans of LEGO as much as we’re fans of Batman. “
As fans of Batman and his supporting cast, McKay acknowledged the film also takes a few liberties with the portrayals of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon. Both enter Batman’s life in drastically different ways from their comic book counterparts, but the director felt the thematic constraints of the story – and the comedic potential – made changing elements of their backstories worthwhile.
Instead of the circus acrobat grieving the recent death of his parents, Dick bounces into the scene as a happy-go-luck orphan Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts early in the film. In some ways, according to McKay, he's an amped up version of the 1960s Robin. “I wanted him to be a direct foil to how dark [Batman is,]” he explained. “It’s sort of like teaming up the Burt Ward Robin with the Ben Affleck or Christopher Nolan Batman. I wanted that mixture of tones, so we are drawing on things that are in the history, even if there not in the canon.”
In Barbara’s case, McKay wanted to create an equal for Batman who chose a different route – legitimate policing. “We wanted to elevate her a little bit. It seemed like a fun thing to do,” he said. “We cast Rosario [Dawson], who’s amazing . She’s got a great voice, she’s a strong actor and a strong presence. She’s an activist in real life. It just made a lot of sense that this would be the right person for this role.”
But even in their altered forms, the two characters are unmistakably part of the Batman Family and finally become vital and essential components of the Batman screen mythos. And it that family aspect McKay hopes people will take from “The Lego Batman Movie.”
“Hopefully, it is a movie that celebrates teamwork, celebrates family, and celebrates why we need each other,” he said.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” is in theaters now.