We’re currently at peak levels of superhero saturation (and exhaustion), and after last year’s truly abysmal attempt to forcibly have hero turn on hero, the WB/DC crew have yet another Batman film readying itself for critical dissection.
So how does The Lego Batman Movie, the spin-off to 2014’s wildly irreverent and subversive The Lego Movie, fare?
Sorry Zack Snyder. This one is better. And judging by the newly released trailers for Justice League, The Lego Batman Movie looks to be the only caped crusader film worthy of your viewing attention and dollars in 2017.
Everything is (still) awesome (for the most part).
Just remember: Marvel/Disney are paying me to say this.
Director Chris McKay has crafted a playful, exuberant movie experience, filled with beautiful animation, dizzying colour, self-referential digs and charming spectacle. It also presents one of the best Bruce Wayne/Batman performances in unleashing Arrested Development’s Will Arnett.
Reprising his cameo role from the first film, Arnett’s over confidence and raspy vocals make him the perfect voice actor to highlight the inherent silliness of the character with jabs and in-jokes that only long-term fans can truly appreciate and giggle over.
Arnett’s emo man-child stole the show three years previously, but his inclusions were expertly plotted, ensuring that the jokes never outstayed their welcome. There was always the risk that protracting this version of Bats and his screen time to 90 minutes would wear thin on audiences. Thankfully, the filmmakers have raided the Bat-vault, bursting with almost 80 years of Bat-history, to make sure DC fans, families and little ones all have an enjoyable time out at the movies.
The film opens in hysterical fashion, with Arnett meta-commenting on opening a film in blackness, epic music and production logos. Soon enough we’re back in the land of bricks, watching Batman spending his days fighting crime and his nights alone eating lobster thermidor that’s slowly warmed in the microwave. Unlike Batman v. Superman, this film cares about the complex mental state of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the difficulties of living a dual existence, devoid of emotional connection and relationships.
Channelling his most beloved character, Job, Arnett’s Batman is completely unable to understand the watery substance that protrudes from his eyes and that horrible sinking motion in his chest. Batman can’t even refer to the Joker (a strangely subdued Zach Galifianakis) as his arch nemesis, because that would infer that he’s capable of possessing feelings. Batman fights around. He doesn’t just fight one dude.
His world slowly implodes when Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon, the newly appointed Commissioner of Gotham, announces that the city would need to intervene and work alongside the Bat. At the same time, Bruce accidentally reunites with his Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera, when he adopts Dick Grayson, the wide-eyed orphan who will become Robin.
Suddenly, a hero who willingly chooses to distance himself from the world to reinforce his isolation, must quickly learn how to embrace the kind and caring people who are offering their help.
Does the film achieve the same quality as the first? Not quite.
While the ingenuous animation and exceptional voice acting easily match the original, you can’t make the same argument about the consistency of its laughs, the cleverness of its subversions or the overall emotional resonance. There is a sudden drop in energy around the 2nd act, and while things happen with a brisk pace, it’s clear that the script ran a little short on creative ideas. The screen is busy, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying as the opening and closing 30 minutes.
The film’s greatest strength is the self-awareness and overindulgent adoration for the legacy of the Bat. The Lego Batman Movie has clearly been made by someone who loves the character and relishes in both the silly and the serious. It understands the satirical elements and spoofs them with reckless glee.
If only all filmmakers of Batman films could understand the razor thin line between self-seriousness and parody.