Bruce from the Block: Chris McKay helps the Caped Crusader get in touch with his inner belfry in ‘LEGO Batman Movie’

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“I only work in black. And sometimes very, very dark gray.” Two years ago, critics and moviegoers alike fell hard for The LEGO Movie, the third feature to benefit from the golden touch of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. In a movie that introduced us to Emmet Brickowski, Unikitty and a host of other new characters, it was a new take on an old classic that proved the breakout star. Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, showed off his questionable musical chops with a blaring metal tune that begins “Darkness! No parents!” and an icon was born.

Now, the icon gets his own solo outing in The LEGO Batman Movie, directed by “Robot Chicken” and “Moral Orel”’s Chris McKay. And hey, the idea of a Batman movie is nothing new. There have kind of been a lot of them. But this time around, McKay aims to serve up something a little different.

The key to that difference can be found in an oft-quoted line from Heath Ledger’s Joker: “Why so serious?” “When I was growing up, they had the Super Friends on TV,” McKay recalls, referencing the Hanna-Barbera cartoon that had Batman and his superpowered buddies saving the world every Saturday morning through much of the ’70s and ’80s. Back then, you could still catch reruns of Adam West’s “Batman,” replete with “Shark Repellent Bat Spray” and Robin exclaiming “Holy [Houdini/Venezuela/haberdashery], Batman!” The ’90s gave us “Batman: The Animated Series,” which was popular enough to lead to a whole extended universe of animated DC Comics shows. There was an easy “way in” for kids, McKay explains.

Compare that to now, where the dominant cultural portrayal of Batman is of the glowering, gritty brooder from the Christopher Nolan trilogy and, more recently, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. What’s missing from those portrayals—and what was present in The LEGO Movie’s version of the caped crusader—is a winking acknowledgement that the character of Batman is inherently ridiculous.  

FJI pop quiz time. You’re a billionaire whose beloved city is plagued by crime. Do you:

  A) Fund social-welfare institutions, like substance-abuse programs or homeless shelters?

  B) Support political causes, like prison reform?

or, to borrow McKay’s assessment, do you

  C) “Dress up like a bat and karate-chop bad guys”?

If you answered C, congratulations, you’re Batman! Also, you could probably use some therapy.

Still, if Batman doesn’t quite fit into the scowly, angst-ridden box recent film adaptations shoved him into, nor is he some light, comic character. The billionaire vigilante in a rubber suit, lest we forget—and how could we, when movies have shown it to us enough times?—was once a boy whose parents were murdered right in front of him. “You could argue his growth was stunted,” argues McKay. (Or, dare I say, his development arrested? Sorry, sorry.)

“No Batman movie has really taken on Batman’s core problem: the fact that he was hurt by this thing that happened to him when he was a kid,” McKay continues. “The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies were always about the villains. You could argue that the Christopher Nolan movies are sort of about Batman, but they’re really about Batman vis-a-vis Gotham City, and what Gotham City represents.” By contrast, McKay defines his own foray into the Batman universe as “a sort of About a Boy, Jerry Maguire-type movie, as directed by Michael Mann”—something that tackles the psychological hang-ups of Batman himself, which is something that has a tendency to get shunted to the background.

McKay labels this specific problem as a symptom of a more general one: the fact that superhero movies, which he’s careful to note he loves wholeheartedly, tend to lock their characters in loops. Endless reboots mean that Batman’s always grumping around the Batcave and Spider-Man’s stuck in perpetual adolescence; no one’s ever really allowed to grow. “Make the characters evolve into something else—let them become,” McKay argues. “That’s some of what we were thinking about while we were making this movie… Can Batman get over that same cycle and become someone else? Or at least be put on a path towards some sort of change, so he can deal with a new issue the next time around?”

If you couldn’t guess, McKay’s a longtime Batman fan—“longtime” as in “my first t-shirt that wasn’t a onesie was a Batman t-shirt.” Given that, speaking to McKay, I half expected to hear stories of begging on bended knee to be allowed to direct this movie, of elaborate yarn-wall displays labeled “LET CHRIS MCKAY DIRECT BATMAN” and expensive fruit baskets sent to WB execs. It turns out, though, that the decision was obvious for all parties.

The reason for that traces to McKay’s heavy involvement in The LEGO Movie. Though he officially served as the animation co-director and co-editor, in reality “my role on the movie was to co-direct.” (The film’s live-action component put union rules into play that prohibited him being credited as such.) McKay kept the multi-year process running smoothly whenever the perpetually busy Lord and Miller were off working on 21 and 22 Jump Street, serving as “a good general when they’re around and the commander-in-chief when they’re not around.”

The success of The LEGO Movie led to a sequel (slated for 2019) and The LEGO Batman Movie being greenlit in short order; the latter film, deemed a scrappier, more manageable project with an easier-to-market IP, would be the first up. McKay recalls the fateful meeting: “‘Great, let’s take another year for LEGO 2 and fast-track LEGO Batman. But the only problem is we don’t have a director.’ And everyone at the table turned to me. And I was like, ‘If Warner Bros. asks me to direct a Batman movie, I’m in.’ I’ve got a Catwoman tattoo on one arm, Superman tattoo on the other. I am super into making this movie.”

From there, things progressed swiftly. Arnett was already onboard as Batman, but the rest of the main cast still needed to be wrangled. “We fairly quickly got to Zach [Galifianakis]” for the Joker, McKay explains. “The main person who can bring the funny, who’s got a unique voice—both as a comedian and just his voice, himself—and who can be very vulnerable yet dangerously unpredictable, is Zach. He’s amazing.”

Michael Cera for Robin, Dick Grayson incarnation (there have been other Robins, but hey, maybe we’ll get sequels), was another easy choice, if not one that McKay was initially confident would pan out: Cera is “an artist himself, a musician, and he does a lot of these really interesting independent movies. He’s very selective. Everybody basically told us, ‘There’s no way you’re going to get him.’ I never really asked him why he ended up doing it,” McKay chuckles. “He brings so much humor, obviously, but also a lot of heart and sensitivity to Robin.”

Also on deck are Ralph Fiennes showing off his well-honed comedy skills as Batman’s butler/surrogate father Alfred and Jenny Slate as baddie Harley Quinn, a fan-favorite character first brought to the big screen in last year’s Suicide Squad. We’re also looking at “close to 30” rogues gallery characters sprinkled throughout the film: Easter egg heaven for Bat-fans.

(One particularly fun wink-wink-nudge-nudge for those in-the-know: The character of Two Face is voiced by Billy Dee Williams, thus “fulfilling the promise of the Tim Burton Batman movies.” Williams played a pre-acid-scarring Two Face, née Harvey Dent, in Batman Returns, only to be replaced by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever. Williams briefly voiced another one of his own characters, Lando Calrissian, in McKay’s Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode III.  If anyone ever wants to do a stop-motion remake of Lady Sings the Blues, you know who to call.)

Speaking of the rogues gallery, McKay may be a giant Batman nerd (if you couldn’t tell), but that doesn’t mean he’s blind to the franchise’s problems. Namely: “The cast of characters in Batman is a sausage-fest. It’s a bunch of white guys, for the most part.” McKay’s Gotham City, by contrast, “looks like a real city” in terms of diversity, like “Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. That was really important [to me], to find ways of making the world look like it looks outside and sound like it sounds outside.”

For example, he explains, “if there’s an African-American side character, but it was my voice for the longest time on the scratch [dialogue], I was like, ‘OK, before we finish this thing, we have to find somebody who’s an African-American to do that voice!’” (If that seems obvious, look at a movie like Laika’s otherwise excellent Kubo and the Two Strings, which tells a story set in ancient Japan with mostly white voice actors.)

On top of that, The LEGO Batman Movie’s version of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, is Latina, voiced by Rosario Dawson. And that leads us to one of the movie’s more eye-catching casting decisions: Mariah Carey as the Mayor of Gotham City. “She called up to say she wanted to audition for Barbara Gordon. She didn’t necessarily work for Barbara, but I thought she had such an interesting, great voice”—her singing voice, obviously, but her speaking one, too. “She’s got a little bit of New York in there. She sounds like a hard-won, battle-hardened big-city mayor. It was a lot of fun. Every day that we recorded her, she always came to play.”

For all the talk of Batman’s less-than-healthy psychology, and of how the movie’s visual style is meant to replicate the “epic” feel of its live-action brethren—the goal is that “when you cut to a wide shot, for a second you forget you’re watching a LEGO movie”—that’s the real byword for The LEGO Batman Movie: play. “It’s going to be some kid’s first Batman movie!” McKay enthuses. So don your Bat Cape and your Bat Cowl and your Bat Shark Repellent, but please: Leave dour at the door.