Earlier this week, the Paley Center for Media in New York City hosted the world premiere of Warner Bros. and DC Animation's "LEGO Batman: The Movie - DC Heroes Unite." Directed and produced by Jon Burton, with Director of Photography Jeremy Pardon, the film features a team-up of LEGO-ized versions of Batman, Robin and Superman along with the rest of the Justice League, as Lex Luthor and the Joker join forces to swing the Presidential election in their favor. Along with Burton and Pardon, the event was attended by Batman/Two-Face actor Troy Baker ("BioShock Infinite," "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes"), Superman actor Travis Willingham ("Ultimate Spider-Man," "Halo 4"), and Clancy Brown, who reprises the role of Lex Luthor from "Superman: The Animated Series," "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited."
"The movie was conceived before anything else," Burton told CBR News. "We wrote the story for the movie and then did the video games. For Batman, the movies got so dark that we wanted to make our own movie that would be as broad-based as it could be, including elements that we thought everyone would be familiar with. And for this movie, we brought in David Goodman, who also wrote the 'Futurama' 'Star Trek' episode 'Where No Fan Has Gone Before.' He's great, a brilliant writer."
"The animation took, from start to end, probably about eleven months," Pardon added. "The whole project took about two years."
"We love references that will make fans smile and laugh, but LEGO works by parodying and you can only really parody when someone has a familiarity with the material," Burton said, elaborating on the desire to create a movie which appeals to a wide variety of Batman fans rather than adopting the atmosphere of any one interpretation of the Dark Knight. "I wanted to get kids and their parents, with elements that most people would know, even a lot of kids. That meant Joker and Luthor in broad strokes, that meant Superman is a boy scout, because that's what the general public thinks he is. You just enhance that and make it endearing and funny."
"Christopher Nolan's films are great, but his Gotham looks a bit like modern-day Chicago," Pardon added. "We took more notes from the way Tim Burton gave us this strange Gotham that seemed to just build new buildings over and around older buildings. And that Danny Elfman music is so iconic, you play off that. Arkham Asylum doesn't look like a realistic asylum -- it's something strange and fun."
While the visuals are all clearly LEGO, naturally engendering a sense of fun, that doesn't mean the characters themselves are going out of their way to be funny. "You play it straight," Pardon said. "The LEGO atmosphere and look will already give the story its charm, so you let the characters take themselves seriously. LEGO Batman doesn't intentionally act silly because he thinks, 'I am LEGO Batman.' In his universe, he is Batman. He is the only Batman. This is his mission, it's dangerous and he plays it straight. The comedy comes out of that. You make him a little grumpier and have some things not work out as well as they should, surround him with a Robin who screws up and a Superman who's annoyingly optimistic, and it's funny. Or, you have him do something that, of course, Batman would do, but the fact that he's using a LEGO method makes it funny."
"I think this film is a good variation to have," Travis Willingham said. "The content they're producing now is getting so gritty and graphic, it's nice to have a movie that's not just for fans who've been following it for years but is also for kids, too. It's a good introduction to the archetypes of these heroes and villains, what they're about, the feuds and relationships. I like that LEGO is branching out into things like DC and Marvel."
Willingham and Baker were no strangers to the characters they portrayed in the film with the former happy to discuss his long love of Superman.
"DC Comics were my mainstay comics all the way up until middle school or high school," the actor said. "I tied the cape around the neck and ran around in the front yard. I loved the Christopher Reeve movies, anytime DC did a direct-to-DVD release. Gary was really good about getting us any Superman animated film we hadn't seen, like 'Superman Vs. the Elite' and 'Justice League: Doom.' In this movie, he's the ultimate boy scout who's annoyingly helpful. He's just a ray of sunshine all the time! He doesn't quite understand how annoying that might be for grumpy Batman."
After playing Two-Face in "Batman: Arkham City," a role he reprised for this film, Baker was excited to also play the Dark Knight himself. "It's pretty awesome. I'm a comic book nerd and a gamer, and I grew up watching the animated series. Kevin Conroy is my Batman, so walking into that audition, it's a big deal. You want to kick off your shoes, because this is hallowed ground. I think what's great is they didn't scale it down or talk down to kids because it's LEGO; they just presented a straight Batman story in a different medium. There are moments that actually have kind of dark jokes, if you know what it's referencing, but it comes off great."
Clancy Brown was happy to return to his role as Lex Luthor, remarking that he didn't have to alter the character at all from what he had done before. "Lex is the one percent metaphor, the evil Bruce Wayne," Brown said. "For this movie, I played it pretty straight, like back in 'Superman: The Animated Series.' I just had a few more one-liners. The script is pretty clever and they didn't violate the core of the character. There's some great interplay between Lex and the Joker that you don't normally get. It calls back to the Superman/Batman crossover years ago where Mark Hamill and I got to play together. I think one of the great things about the DC Universe is you can reinterpret it at any time. Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill are both the Joker. In one version, Lex and Superman know each other as kids, in another, they only meet when Superman moves to Metropolis. Both work -- it just depends on the story."
Asked about the possibility of a sequel, Burton indicated he's hopeful and already has some ideas of where he'd like to take Batman, Superman and the rest. "I'd like to explore more of the characters we only see for a little bit in this movie. Maybe play with some people who are bad becoming good and good becoming bad. We also have a cliffhanger that should get people excited for a sequel."
This is a film which openly shows its love for Batman across media from the very first minute, recreating in LEGO Tim Burton's opening from his 1989 movie, with a camera darting around the inside of a large, carved bat-symbol. Following that, the audience is presented with a meeting between Superman and Batman that immediately illustrates their relationship. Batman is ready to storm into a building for a confrontation and is quickly frustrated when Superman ruins the atmosphere by opening the door for him, happily saying, "After you."
After a few more comedic moments and some action, the film jumps back a few days to show us how the story truly began. Luthor wants to be President of the U.S. but can't even beat Bruce Wayne for a "Man of the Year" award. Convinced that the Joker's chemical weapons can help him in his Presidential bid, Luthor suggests a team-up. In return, he'll give the Clown Prince of Crime a deconstructor ray that will destroy even Batman's "unbreakable toys." The Joker is happy to help, suggesting he would also make a decent Vice President, and chaos ensues.
Throughout the film, we see Batman's rogues gallery in all its bricked-glory, a massive version of Arkham Asylum and a Batcave clearly inspired by Tim Burton, but filled with more comic book elements (look for the giant penny). This is a full-blown superhero universe, with Martian Manhunter stationed in the Justice League Watchtower and Luthor's computers keeping track of which superheroes are temporarily away on other planets.
The story is straightforward but clever, featuring numerous nods to superhero media from many generations. There's a reference to a famous scene from Adam West's film, a parody of one of Heath Ledger's Joker moments, Superman calling Luthor a "diseased maniac" and some of the buildings look like they were lifted from the recent Rocksteady video games. In fact, DC Comics could take a few notes from this film. The LEGO version of LexCorp Tower is quite impressive.
As promised, this movie is not dumbed-down for kids, and even includes jokes aimed at more recent comic book events. When the Joker suddenly wonders what he would do if Batman were dead, Luthor dismisses this and says that Robin would probably just put on the costume and say he was the new Batman. Speaking of the Boy Wonder, he is a major scene-stealer. Throughout the film, Robin tries his hardest to impress Batman, never quite succeeding in his goals. The iconic sidekick also admires how nice and police Superman is, which just gets on Batman's nerves, a quirk that leads to a hilarious payoff.
However, viewers who played "LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes" will likely get very little out of this film, as it follows an identical story and features many of the same cinematic sequences contained in the cross-platform video game released in 2012.
"LEGO Batman: The Movie - DC Heroes Unite" is a great film, whether you've been a fan for twenty years or you're a kid new to this world. It is scheduled for release in May, on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.