It is said that the mantra of Seinfeld was, “No learning, no hugs”. The LEGO Batman Movie has little in common with Seinfeld, but the filmmakers may have taken a page from Larry David’s playbook, or at least dog-eared it. Like The LEGO Movie before it, the film is a manically delightful locomotive that stops dead in its tracks to wring its hands over the importance of family and understanding your feelings. It’s not an unforgivable sin, but it’s hard to forget about it.
Oddly enough, one of the breakout characters from The LEGO Movie was its blowhard version of Batman, played by Will Arnett as a vocal reprisal of Arrested Development‘s G.O.B Bluth. That earlier film was such a massive critical and financial success that Warner Bros. would have been foolish not to give the plasticized Caped Crusader his own movie. Fortunately for us, the film gestated for three years, resulting in a polished, side-splitting product that not only goofs on the history of Batman at the movies, but also on much of Warner Bros. own existing vault of cinematic characters. It’s a welcome and surprising decision on the part of the studio, an opening up of the LEGO-verse that recalls the first movie’s evocation of a child dumping out her box of LEGOs onto the carpet and smashing together whichever characters happened to land closest to each other. The movie is vibrantly colorful, wittily animated, and fast-paced enough to keep the kids happy, while the script has plenty of smart-stupid jokes to help the parents forget that they blew most of their paycheck at the movies.
Batman is blithely living it up as the sole defender of Gotham City, dispatching with ease the enormous rogue’s gallery that has built up over the comic’s nearly 80-year history (a group that’s grown large enough to accommodate scrubs like Calendar Man and Eraserhead, on top of the pros we all know and love). His bluster compensates in part for the fact that his existence is a lonely one – he returns home at 2 a.m. to eat warmed-over lobster thermidor and rewatch Jerry Maguire – something that is not lost on his loyal butler, Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), who urges Batman to be more social. While attending the retirement party of Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), which is also the inauguration of his daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson), Batman is so distracted by Barbara’s beauty that he agrees to adopt over-enthusiastic orphan, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), without realizing it.
The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) crashes the party, along with a massive posse of supervillains, only to turn themselves in to the police, which thrusts Batman into an existential crisis now that he is no longer needed by his city. Smelling a rat, Batman and Dick – now in a trial period as Batman’s sidekick – embark upon Superman’s (Channing Tatum) Fortress of Solitude so they can steal the ray gun that will allow Batman to blast the Joker into the Phantom Zone, the final destination of all the worst criminals in the DC Universe. As it turns out, it’s also where the direst villains in the Warner Bros. canon dwell, whom Batman accidentally unleashes onto Gotham City. Only by trusting Dick, Barbara, and Alfred can Batman save his city.
The LEGO Batman Movie has an overly complicated plot, an issue that the film acknowledges almost immediately. Like its predecessor, this movie is aware that it is a movie. From sly details like “MacGuffin Airlines” and characters singing to themselves about how nothing bad happens to them seconds before calamity strikes, to commingling baddies as diverse as Voldemort, King Kong, and Sauron, to say nothing of the legions of Batman ne’er-do-wells who crowd the frame. It’s a construction that rings strikingly of South Park‘s ambitious “Imaginationland” arc, in which terrorists enlist the help of popular culture’s most vile creations. Despite the surplus personalities on display, director Chris McKay and his army of screenwriters effectively blend a gentle satire of the self-seriousness of latter-day Batman with a madcap mashup of movie references. It has less on its mind than The LEGO Movie, into which Phil Lord and Chris Miller snuck a critique of conformity amid the wackiness, but it is just as clever and exciting.
The movie wouldn’t be an expensive Hollywood production if it didn’t grind to a halt to lecture to its audience. Sing it with me: Batman’s parents were gunned down when he was a boy, a trauma that has since sublimated itself as a fear of intimacy. The third act, when it isn’t dazzling you with breakneck action and mayhem, has the other characters haranguing Batman that they need to be a team, that he can’t work on his own, that blahblahfamilyblahblah. You’d be forgiven for thinking you stumbled into a Fast & Furious film with this movie’s obsession with togetherness. It’s a distracting and tiresome flaw that is too prevalent to ignore, one that stinks of the studio notes that the movie likes to poke fun at.
It’s a miracle that The LEGO Batman Movie is as good as it is, despite the fact that lightning of the first film doesn’t quite strike again here. Let’s hope the slightly diminishing returns here don’t dip further with The LEGO Ninjago Movie, due later this year. Batman needs no introduction, but what the hell is a ninjago?
Animation | Warner Bros.