Director: Chris McKay
Three years after emerging as the break-out character of the break-out hit The LEGO Movie, the egotistical, comically brooding, rap-freestyling LEGO iteration of Batman now has his own spin-off film. The LEGO Batman Movie continues the stylistic precedent set by the first film, taking off from 0 to 100 at the first frame and barely slowing down throughout its runtime. Jokes are set up, given a punchline, and cut away from within the space of a second. (Example: A cat is toasted by lava, then cries out “I’m okay!”) The action is hummingbird-rapid, the characters moving barely south of too fast to see. The camera jets through cityscapes crammed with details that will only be possible to appreciate via freeze frame at home — a theater viewer can discern select Easter eggs almost subliminally.
The LEGO cinematic brand has been established as the height of excess. Various corporate brands (here we have LEGO, DC, and Warner Brothers) are distilled into an overwhelming charm offensive. As with The LEGO Movie, most of the jokes feel aimed more at adults than kids. What kid grasps all the references to Batman history, or understands how Batman’s hero-villain relationship with the Joker is played here as an analog to a troubled romantic relationship? Still, kids will like pretty much anything colorful and flashy enough, so they can still gape even at the jokes that fly over their heads.
Batman (Will Arnett) faces a crisis when new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) announces that she wants him to work with the system to better fight crime, instead of taking care of everything for the cops by himself whenever a supervillain shows up. At the same time, he accidentally adopts orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and has to face his fear of having a family again. Meanwhile, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), stung by Batman’s assertion that he means nothing to him as a villain (again, relationship metaphor), plots to take over Gotham City by releasing the criminals trapped in the Phantom Zone.
One leg up that LEGO Batman has on The LEGO Movie is a coherent central message. It’s extraordinarily basic “You need friends to be happy and other people’s help to succeed,” but The LEGO Movie managed to make a similarly basic “You’re special!” message ridiculously convoluted with multilayered folds of irony and faux-subversion, so this is refreshing in comparison. It especially helps that the emotional beats feel honest, as opposed to The LEGO Movie’s frantic need to reassure audiences that it was never getting too sincere.
Crucially, the emotional scenes are some of the ones in which the film lets off the throttle for a bit. Indeed, every striking moment in LEGO Batman stops the breakneck run to look around. These range from A Town Called Panic-like bit of physical comedy by a tantrum-throwing Batman, to a sad climactic exchange between him and Robin, to a simple wide shot of Gotham in the midst of a lava-filled crisis. The LEGO figures and environs are beautifully rendered, so it’s always preferable to be able to see them in full.
The LEGO aspect aside, there’s also the consideration of how well this works as a Batman movie, which we now have enough of to consider its own genre. Certainly, it’s the least angsty Batfilm (besides the Adam West one), with what angst there is mainly played for laughs. Many will likely find that refreshing after the Nolan trilogy and Batman v. Superman. The corporate aspect brought on by the LEGO brand and the movie’s meta jokes also add an interesting wrinkle: this Gotham City exists in a sort of hyper-moment in which the past and future are one. Batman is simultaneously an entity nearly 80 years old with a storied history and here encountering Robin and Batgirl for the first time. Everything has happened to Batman, but, true to the ethos of both LEGO and superhero comics, everything can still happen to him. Grant Morrison would be proud.
The LEGO Batman Movie opens nationwide on Friday, February 10.
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