The Lego Batman Movie is more or less the sort of movie I had originally expected The Lego Movie to be, which is fine, but not very surprising.
The movie opens in fully self-aware, smart-aleck mode, with the voice of Will Arnett as Lego Batman knowingly commenting on cinematic conventions (“All important movies start with a black screen”).
The first act makes a joke of Batman’s aura of invincibility by having him easily defeat all his enemies at once — not only heavy hitters like the Joker, the Riddler, Catwoman, Bane, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Clayface and Mr. Freeze, but obscure figures like Crazy Quilt, the Calculator, the Eraser, Killer Moth, Gentleman Ghost, even the Condiment King.
“They’re just making some of these up,” my 8-year-old daughter whispers to me. Before I can tell her that they’re all real characters, an onscreen character asks, “Okay, are you making some of these up?”
“Nope, they’re all real,” smirks the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). “Probably worth a Google.”
Despite the villainous full-court press, Batman’s victory is so assured that no one is even worried about it. Clearly, something subversive has to happen to kick things out of superhero-movie business as usual and challenge Batman to his core.
Would you believe…a giant swirling energy portal in the sky?
I am not kidding. And it’s not a Lego portal either, or a gateway to the non-Lego world like the swirly-energy frontier in The Lego Movie. Just a standard-issue computer-generated swirly energy portal to another in-universe dimension (the Negative Zone) like practically every superhero movie these days.
This has become such a cliché that last year an article written in the voice of a literally self-aware “giant beam of light shooting into the sky in every superhero movie” ran at Observer.com, with the energy beam smugly remarking “I am a portal to another dimension, probably” and offering observations like:
Traffic reports in superhero movies are like, “looks like there’s another Giant Sky Beam, so plan for some congestion around the middle of our New York-type city.”
Yet by this point all the self-awareness has drained out of The Lego Batman Movie, and nobody even comments on the sky-portal cliché. It’s like spoofing or subverting movie tropes was too hard, so director Chris McKay and the long, long list of writers ultimately decided to settle for making a plain old superhero movie — just, you know, with Legos and jokes. Lots of jokes.
There are pointed jokes about Batman as a character that stick, but no pointed jokes about the audience for Batman movies or for superhero movies generally — nothing that feels like the filmmakers are willing to take even a nip at the hand that feeds them, either consumer-wise or corporate-wise.
When The Lego Movie gave us a protagonist whose favorite restaurant was any chain restaurant and who happily drank overpriced coffee because he just wanted to fit in and be accepted, it was slyly making fun of the consumerist culture that produces movies like The Lego Movie. If any phenomenon in contemporary popular culture deserves to be made fun of, it’s superhero movie culture — but The Lego Batman Movie just wants to fit in and be accepted. Like The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie shares modern Hollywood animation’s relentless freneticism, but The Lego Movie’s subversive wit is missing here.
The movie’s best idea, almost its only idea, is that Batman’s super-cool aura of awesomeness, toughness and invincibility masks an underlying social isolation and fear of emotional connection and vulnerability. In spite of his reputation as the greatest superhero of all, he’s actually so cluelessly self-absorbed and lacking in empathy that he’s not a full-fledged good guy at all.
Apparently because of the trauma of losing his parents at a young age, Batman is afraid to let anyone else get close. This includes his fellow Justice Leaguers, whom he assumes are as lonely and brooding as he is, but aren’t. It includes young Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who’s star-struck by both of Batman’s identities. And it includes the Joker, who wants the validation of being acknowledged as Batman’s archnemesis. Remember when Heath Ledger’s Joker said to Batman “You complete me”? The Lego Batman Movie has Batman repeatedly watching the original “You complete me” scene from Jerry Maguire and laughing uproariously every time.
Linking his social isolation to his above-the-law tactics, the movie pits Batman against the successor to retiring Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), Gordon’s daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), who is not yet but will be Batgirl.
For no good reason at all, Barbara is given the same kind of swoony, time-stopping, male-gazey glamour intro as Wyldstyle in the original Lego Movie. There it kind of made sense, because Emmet was a quintessentially ordinary, inside-the-box guy and Wyldstyle was an exotic herald of a mysterious larger world.
Batman has been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wonder Woman, Catwoman and Poison Ivy for — well, decades, really, as The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t mind jokingly noting. Why would Barbara Gordon rock Batbro’s world like this? There doesn’t seem to be anything here beyond the generic joke about the effect of a beautiful woman on the male brain.
Barbara threatens to introduce a second idea as she argues that lawless, unaccountable vigilantism is unacceptable and Batman will have to work within the rules. Of course this idea is quickly lost in the chaos of the final act, in which Batman actually recruits all of his normal enemies to defeat the extracanonical villains arrayed against him (Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong, etc.), all conveniently stored in the Phantom Zone.
The Phantom Zone is introduced by the revelation that Lego Superman recently dispatched Lego General Zod there, I guess because someone involved in this movie realized that snapping a bad guy’s neck is something no Superman worth his salt would do — but of course there can’t be a joke about how Superman would never do such a thing. There can be 10,000 jokes about past franchises, from the Christopher Reeve Superman films to the old 1940s Batman serials, but the new DC movie universe is still being built, so there can’t be a jab at that. That would be biting the hand that feeds.
There’s the same sort of group-hug ending as The Lego Movie, with Batman learning a valuable lesson, like Mr. Incredible over a dozen years ago, about how people need each other and you can’t just work alone because you’re afraid of losing people. Yet even as he acknowledges that he needs the Joker as much as the Joker needs him, his old narcissism is still in play: “You are the reason,” he tells the Joker, “that I get up at 4 P.M. and work out until my chest is positively sick.” Batman’s made progress, I guess, but the franchise hasn’t.
Caveat Spectator: Animated violence and mayhem; some rude humor. Older kids and up.