How Will Arnett built the character LEGO Batman: The Dark Knight
Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman.′ So runs the tagline for this week’s The LEGO Batman Movie. And, frankly, it sums up in two sentences the fourth wall-breaking, meta mentalness that the movie delivers in more than 90 minutes of demented goofiness.
Forget your typically two-dimensional cartoon narrative of a youngster on a journey of self-discovery. This is a story of a pompous, deluded billionaire with extreme views, who lives in a big house (hang on…) that works on multiple levels. It’s tons of fun, but it’s also smart. Think Pixar. In PVC.
It’s easy to forget that before its predecessor, The LEGO Movie, was released in 2014, there was a cynicism around the project that ultimately proved to be the polar opposite of the gloriously day-glo, feel-good final product.
Audiences fed up with Hollywood turning good toys into bad movies – hello, Transformers sequels, Battleship and even last year’s Angry Birds Movie – were taken aback by just what a breath of fresh air directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had delivered from an idea that the rest of the planet couldn’t even begin to get their heads around.
“That was absolutely one of the major issues,” laughs LEGO Batman himself, Will Arnett, now. “I’d seen the script, so I knew how good this thing was going to be. Everyone else was saying, ‘You’re in a movie about LEGO? Oh, that’s nice…’”
Three years later, Lord and Miller are still on board as producers but have handed the directing reins over to Chris McKay – of TV show Robot Chicken fame – so they can focus on the blockbuster they landed off the back of The Lego Movie’s success: the as-yet-untitled Star Wars anthology movie that’ll focus on a young Han Solo and be released in 2018.
(For his part, Arnett has been campaigning hard for a role in that movie on the US chat show circuit, showcasing the “droid from the Bronx” routine he has been working on. He’s still waiting for the call.)
“When we did the first LEGO film, we cultivated this character as a collaboration,” says Arnett. “It was like, ‘What if Batman sounded like this?’ We started goofing around, improvising, and then Phil and Chris would incorporate that. The story we wanted to tell was how the Dark Knight became the Dark Knight. How did he become so sad and lonely? And we did that by constantly bending the rules about what we all know about Batman so far. It’s the old comedy rule: Bend it, don’t break it.”
The result was astonishing. Not just because Arnett’s LEGO Batman was such a breakout star that he landed his own spin-off. But because of the freedom he was allowed to play with a character worth almost unquantifiable sums of money to the companies he has brought such success to: DC (the comics), Warner Bros. (the movies) and now LEGO (the toys and games).
“We’ve always been really free, and I have to give everyone credit for that,” says Arnett. “I’ve never had anyone say anything to me like, ‘Hey, look, don’t go there…’ Everyone understands on a certain level that we’re doing, you know, a LEGO Batman, not a normal Batman, so there’s a certain surreal quality to it. It kind of exists in a way outside the norm when it comes to filmmaking. The same rules don’t necessarily apply to us.” Arnett pauses and ponders that for a moment. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, but that’s certainly the impression we’re under!”
The LEGO Batman Movie is layered with lovely touches – he may be the ultimate superhero, but it turns out not even Batman can figure out how to get his smart TV to work properly – and is loaded with a knockout cast. Mariah Carey plays the Mayor. Rosario Dawson is Batgirl. And Ralph Fiennes is an absolute hoot as Alfred the Butler. But for all its strength in depth, there are two key relationships that really power the dynamic.
The first is Michael Cera’s orphan, Dick Grayson, who LEGO Batman adopts by mistake and then has to take on board as crime-fighting sidekick Robin, when he discovers his secret identity. “It’s true,” says Arnett. “Michael has gone from being my nephew [from when the two starred together in Arrested Development] to my son. For me, he is one of the all-time great talents. I remember the producer saying to me, ‘Michael is always hesitant to do stuff – would you mind emailing him on our behalf and putting in a good word for us?’” Arnett laughs at the memory. “Michael just kind of does his own thing, you know? He doesn’t necessarily just want to do stuff. So I emailed and said, ‘Hey, these guys are great. Chris McKay, you’ll love him. Please come and join us…’ It was this big, long email. He just emailed back saying, ‘Okay.’”
And then, of course, there is this movie’s incarnation of The Joker, played by long-time friend Zach Galifianakis. “We’ve always goofed around with each other,” says Arnett. “And at times, we’ve even had a faux animosity towards each other. Wherever I can in interviews, I like to make out there’s some deep problem between us, like we’re at war. An interviewer will mention his name and I’ll be like, ‘That guy…!’
“For this, we started to play around and the relationship between Batman and The Joker became almost like a couple’s quarrel at one point, and McKay encouraged us to explore that route. So when Zach said, ‘Admit it, I’m your favourite enemy,’ I was like, ‘That’s not true. You’re not my favourite enemy. I like to fight around’ – all that stuff was born out of us trying to imagine what a couple might say to each other in an argument to make the other one upset.”
It’s a brilliant conceit, and one that again marks out Arnett’s Batman from the crowd of caped crusaders that have come before. Even if people can’t help but putting him up against the other current man in the costume.
“Affleck? He’s a great guy,” says Arnett. “He’s a formidable actor, but I played the part of LEGO Batman before he started playing the part of non-LEGO-Batman. So I feel safe in that. We just did this thing on Jimmy Kimmel, for the Oscars. He came on and said, ‘I’m Batman.’ Then I came on and said, ‘I’m Batman.’ Then he said, ‘No, you’re LEGO Batman. No-one cares about LEGO Batman.’” Not that Arnett was about to be out-zingered.
“And I said, ‘Oh yeah, well why don’t we ask the box office about that?’” The LEGO Batman Movie is out in cinemas across Abu Dhabi from Thursday February 9.