As Batman tells us, all important movies begin with a black screen. In spite of its opening blackness, “The Lego Batman Movie” doesn’t strive to be an “important” movie, and for that we can all be thankful. Instead it’s good-natured, silly fun that will appeal to both kids and adults.
Director Chris McKay exhibits impeccable comic timing. Frenetic scenes of humorous action are shot through with rapid-fire dialogue that pokes fun at the Batman franchise. (Could there really be a villain named Polka-Dot Man?) These scenes are punctuated by the sort of uncomfortably long, quiet shots that made “The Office” famous. The results made me laugh out loud in the theater more than once. The entire movie holds together tighter than a pair of 1X2 Lego plates.
Not as Good as the First Lego Movie
Is “The Lego Batman Movie” as good as the first Lego movie? Not really. “The Lego Movie” skewered our culture of consumerism, with a hero who drinks expensive coffee and likes pop music because he’s told to. In “The Lego Batman Movie,” Batman brags that he’s a billionaire who doesn’t pay taxes, and when trouble starts in Gotham, someone in the crowd announces he’s going to start looting. That’s the extent of cultural critique.
The original movie also posed interesting philosophical questions. Where does genius come from? Do those geniuses have the right to make and remake the world however they see fit? How can we navigate the competing ideals of being an individual and working with others toward a common goal? To what extent do we have free will, or are we all just playthings in the hand of God? The original Lego movie addressed these kinds of questions through the Lego-ness of the world. The fact that their universe was made up of little plastic bricks was an integral aspect of the storyline and its themes.
Lego Batman pays a bit of lip service to this original concept. He mentions a couple of times that he’s a “master builder” and that Lego Gotham City is built on flimsy plastic plates, but for the most part the Lego-ness of the movie is nonessential. It adds a bit of color (although we all know Batman only works in black, and sometimes very, very dark gray) to a standard animated superhero movie for kids.
Putting the Dueling Batmans Together
This Lego movie is about clicking together the two Batmans who exist in the DC mythos. On the one hand, we have Batman the Dark Knight. He’s a loner vigilante who lurks in shadows and beats bad guys to a bloody pulp. His Gotham is gritty and evil, and always on the verge of descending into utter chaos.
On the other hand, we have Batman the Caped Crusader, who leads a loyal “family” of bat-themed superheroes against a clownish rogues’ gallery of supervillains who are more interested in fighting Batman than in committing crimes.
Batman’s dissociative disorder isn’t entirely the fault of DC Comics. We can blame government interference, too. In the 1940s, both Batman and Joker were dark characters involved in violent stories. By the 1950s, Congress had become concerned about the children, so the industry created the “Comics Code Authority” to ban darkness, violence, and horror from comic books. This forced Batman to lighten up in the 1950s and ‘60s, culminating in Adam West’s campy TV series. With the loosening of regulations in the ‘70s, Batman began his return to a darker shade of black.
In the original Lego movie, Will Arnett’s Batman perfectly satirized this darker version of Batman, and in this movie, he picks up where he left off. After the black opening, the movie launches into “edgy music” that Batman’s voiceover tells us “makes studio executives and parents nervous.” Quick! Someone resurrect the Comics Code! Batman is the Dark Knight, a brooding loner who tells people he doesn’t do relationships.
Unfortunately for him, he’s the Dark Knight living in the Caped Crusader’s Gotham City. Everyone wants to have a relationship with him. Barbara Gordon, the new police commissioner and soon-to-be Batgirl, wants to cooperate. Dick Grayson, who will become Robin, wants Batman to be his father. The Joker needs Batman to admit that their battles are special to him. These emotional demands prove too much for someone with intimacy issues who doesn’t play well with others.
This plot isn’t particularly original. The loner learns to trust other people and teaches us that if we all work together we can build something special. In this case, it’s literally build something—it is a Lego movie, after all.
Yet It’s All Still Fun
While the original Lego movie satirized our lifestyles, this movie good-naturedly pokes fun at all the superhero tropes. “The Lego Batman Movie” might have been a slightly more interesting movie if it had used humor to critique our current glut of superhero films. Instead, this animated parody whimsically and joyfully embraces the superhero phenomenon.
Measuring “The Lego Batman Movie” against “The Lego Movie” is probably an unfair comparison. The only things this movie has in common with the original are Arnett and colorful bricks. A better comparison would be to measure this movie against the other recent DC superhero movies from Warner Bros. Is this movie as good as those?
“The Lego Batman Movie” buries every film in Warner Brothers’ “DC Extended Universe.” I don’t know if it’s the superhero movie I deserve, but it’s certainly the one I needed after sitting through the tedious “Man of Steel,” the suffocating “Batman V Superman,” and the joyless “Suicide Squad.”
I hope Zack Snyder, the “creative” force behind DC’s plodding films, learns some lessons from Lego Batman. There’s no need to try to make your superhero film “important.” We don’t want “important” superhero movies; we want entertaining superhero movies. Stop signaling “importance” and build us a movie worth watching.