The LEGO Batman Movie February 17, 2017
As the ending credits rolled and I discovered that The LEGO Batman Movie, the highly anticipated sequel to 2014’s near perfect The LEGO Movie, was written by no less than five screenwriters, I found myself distinctly unsurprised. Carrying its predecessor’s clever self-referentiality but not its effortless ability to induce wheezing, oftentimes tearful laughter, it’s more manufactured product than blockbusting comic masterpiece. Smartly manufactured product, mind you, but manufactured product all the same. And nothing pieced together on an assembly line ever really satisfies.
Stuffed wall to wall with both sight and verbal gags, self-effacing cracks, and sniggering one-liners, The LEGO Batman Movie makes for an odd case. It’s in on the joke that it exists purely to lift the money lining the pockets of parents around the world, but it also can’t help but resist eventually trading its barbed knowingness for the formulaic middle and final acts to have similarly characterized other films resting in the Batman cannon. Consider it intelligent and hackneyed, like an Avengers movie that still manages to get trapped in a finale that we’ve indefinitely seen before.
But the film isn’t without its charms, and its comic sophistication gets it mostly far, if not as luminously so as the 2014 masterstroke that came before it. The LEGO Batman Movie, as its title suggests, gives The LEGO Movie side character Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) his own movie. With direct references to every single undertaking within the Batman world (there are even jabs aimed directly at the Adam West starring series of the 1960s), it’s simultaneously a spoof and a universe expansion.
Here, all the action’s centered around Batman’s attempts to steal Superman’s (Channing Tatum) Phantom Zone Projector (a machine able to transport baddies into a high in the sky, inescapable prison) to finally defeat his arch-nemesis, The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), and around the arrival of Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the new police chief who threatens Batman’s standing as Gotham’s greatest hero.
But the storyline’s mostly a mechanism to keep all the jokes from getting whisked away into self-pleasuring aimlessness. What the film’s really about is Batman’s determination to stay an antisocial loner for the rest of his life, and the in-the-making deconstruction of his inability to form meaningful relationships. Much of The LEGO Batman Movie’s comic output spotlights the humorous juxtaposition between Batman’s unyielding habit of taking himself much too seriously and the theatrical — almost slapstick — cheeriness of the people trying to insinuate themselves into his life. Even The Joker wants his greatest combatant to admit that he needs him.
Yet only the film’s first act matches The LEGO Movie’s awe-inspiring ability to make absurd, noticeably juvenile comedy radiant. It inspires more giggles than guffaws. And in comparison to the way the first The LEGO Movie had countless moments that evoked the stomach aches felt after seeing Lucy and Ethel’s chocolate factory mishap for the first time, The LEGO Batman Movie is merely canny. It knows exactly what it is, aware of its limitations and its capacity to get away with flavorsome silliness. But it’s also too dependent on predicability to allow for its wisecracks to really stick, and so we’re left smiling when our knees should be red from all the slaps that should have made way. Here’s to hoping another sequel is kept on the shelf to curb further loss of freshness. C+