Ben Affleck — here in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” — needs to look toward the inspiring light that is Will Arnett’s “Lego” performance. (courtesy of Warner Bros./DC 2016)
IT TOOK a cartoon to render a cinematic Batman at his most human.
As I continue to talk with fans of “The Lego Batman Movie,” two aspects keep coming up: How this film’s Joker engenders uncommon sympathy, and how moviegoers finally get a relatable Dark Knight. Those elements aren’t unrelated.
“Lego Batman” is the most smartly subversive superhero film since last year’s “Deadpool” and goes after more specific game. The Ryan Reynolds blockbuster cheekily pokes fun at the rehashed tropes of the superhero film; “Lego Batman” is taking a toy sledgehammer to the entire dull-gray character construction that now encases the on-screen Caped Crusader.
We get it: With a bow toward Frank Miller, Batman on film must always be dark and tortured, or yet darker and more tortured. He’s one twisted, obsessed dude — the vigilante orphan who can find no peace, only purpose. His motivational pain only gains momentary salves through the spiritual cleansing of crime-fighting. He tells himself that Gotham needs him, but just as much, he needs a Gotham.
But what if Batman was boiled down to simply your textbook narcissist with attachment issues?
What if, in other words, Batman was just kind of a self-absorbed glory hog — the kind of superhero who visits the orphanage more out of ego and guilt than good will?
For once, in “Lego Batman,” the character is made “hashtag relatable” because he isn’t some Jenga tower of psychoses. He’s perhaps not even a loner entirely out of choice, but instead because he’s just kind of a cold, smug jerk.
Who voices smug self-satisfaction better than Will Arnett? Here, he stars in “Lego Batman Movie” as one coldhearted tough guy. (courtesy of Warner Bros./DC 2017)
This new, plastic-soul Batman can’t even muster much hate for the Joker, who feels as though he’s doing all the emotional work in their one-sided relationship. Batman is positively frigid in his affections — the kind of icy fortress of perpetual solitude who watches “Jerry Maguire” and laughs at the title character’s neediness — to the point that it’s the Clown Prince of Crime who’s getting clowned.
It’s often been noted that Will Arnett has the ideal low-octave gruffness — like Cris Collinsworth recording his lines from inside a cigar humidor — to voice Batman without even need of tech modulation. But it’s not just a gravely baritone that renders Arnett right for the role.
If there’s one character type that Arnett can play like a default setting, it’s the guy who’s self-involved to the point of smugness. From “Arrested Development” to “Blades of Glory” to “BoJack Horseman,” the actor has a gift for playing the mock-worthy jerk.
And this is where Ben Affleck comes in.
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In interviews if not in his roles, Affleck has a beautiful knack for oozing smugness. And now, as DC’s multi-film Batman, it’s a gift that Affleck needs to fully own.
Please take a cue from Lego Batman, Mr. Affleck. Let your live-action Dark Knight wear his self-satisfied smugness as snug as his scowling cowl.
Because with that, the dark bite rises.