From a distance, “The Lego Movie” looked like it could be the worst kind of modern studio filmmaking: literally an adaptation of Danish plastic bricks, sold on name recognition and not much else, and packed with corporate synergy for other Warner Bros. properties. But in the hands of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, it became a surprise joy: a playful, inventive, often hilarious, frequently surprising film that’s as good as any studio animated effort in recent years.
The film’s status as a smash hit created a new franchise for the studio: We won’t just see a sequel to the movie in the coming years, but also a martial-arts take with “The Lego Ninjago Movie” later in the year, and a “Cannonball Run” riff with Drew Pearce and Jason Segel’s “The Billion Brick Race.” But first up is a spin-off focused on one of the break-out characters of the first movie, Will Arnett’s douchey, bro-tastic version of Batman, with “The Lego Batman Movie.” Lord knows the superhero genre could use some fun poked at it and we were psyched to see the film, but while there’s some fun to be had, it can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity.
With almost no connection to the previous movie beyond its title character and everyone and everything being made of bricks, “The Lego Batman Movie” opens with The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), desperate to be acknowledged as the arch-nemesis of Batman, teaming with the entire rogue’s gallery of Batman villains (including obscure faces like Egghead and The Condiment King) to destroy Gotham City, which, in one of the film’s best jokes, is built on two planks above an infinite abyss. But once again, Batman saves the day, though the villains get away.
He returns home to butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), but is otherwise a committed lone wolf, afraid to get close to anyone after losing his parents as a child. But soon, his world turns upside down: New police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) wants the costumed vigilante to team up with the cops, The Joker and the other villains turn themselves in, and our hero accidentally adopts a wide-eyed orphan boy, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera).
The film’s opening suggests that we’re going to get a worthy successor to “The Lego Movie,” with Arnett’s gruff voice delivering a sort of director’s commentary over the studio logos and scene-setting in the kind of self-centered, would-be-gritty manner that we fell in love with the iteration of the character before. Indeed, the opening is generally fun, a frantic action sequence showing the hero at the top of his powers against his entire rogues’ gallery, with lots of good jokes thrown in.
A switch into showing the lonely personal life of the hero works well, too, with a long unbroken shot of Batman reheating some lobster thermidor pushing the film hilariously into almost-slow-cinema territory. At its best moments, like this one, the film serves as a truly interesting deconstruction of the iconography and persona of the character, with references and jokes about the character’s 70-odd year history dotted throughout.
But unfortunately, while “The Lego Batman Movie” has elements of that, it is not that movie. Indeed, it’s less a superhero parody than a plain old superhero movie for probably two-thirds of its running time, becoming increasingly conventional and rather less funny as it goes on. For instance, some might try and explain away the film’s reliance, yet-fucking-again, on a portal in the sky for its third-act climax as a joke at the trope in the genre, but for it to be a parody, it would have to, in some way, use it for the purpose of a joke, which it really doesn’t do.
Attempts to turn Batman and Joker’s relationship into a sort of anti-rom-com mostly fall flat, in part because the version of the villain here is a rather uninspired one — say what you like about Jared Leto’s juggalo-school-shooter version (like, for instance, that it is very bad), but it was at least distinctive. And though there are a few fun surprises in store, with the villain’s main plan and some of the less-than-canonical characters that enter the proceedings as a result, the film generally lacks the subversiveness and giddy sense of invention of “The Lego Movie,” despite the five screenwriters who aided director Chris McKay (who co-directed the original with Lord & Miller).
In some cases, it even doubles down on the flaws of that film — if you found the action there to be frenetic, overly busy and hard to follow, it’s even more true this time out. And while obviously “The Lego Movie” was explicitly designed to sell toys, it felt less craven there than it does here, where Batman has a million vehicles and bad guys for you to collect.
The cast has fun — Arnett’s as good as ever, and Cera is a real joy as the boy who will become Robin — but the talent on board feels a little wasted, with no supporting characters stealing the show in the way that, say, Unikitty did in “The Lego Movie.” And the jokes, which skew, on the whole, much younger than the last film did (no bad thing, given that this is a movie about a Batman made of Lego), sort of run out in the second half, replaced by some unearned sentiment and familiar action-movie beats.
“The Lego Batman Movie” is still roughly four hundred million times more enjoyable than “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice,” and hardcore Bat-fans will probably find it an absolute joy. But those of us who were hoping for the film to be something of an antidote to superhero formula will unfortunately find it adhering much too closely to the playbook. [C+]