'The Lego Batman Movie' Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

The Lego Batman Movie technically serves as the first superhero movie of 2017, and the first of what may be three that include Batman. Justice League stands to finally teach the new live action Batman to be part of a team again, and to hopefully teach the DCEU in general to move beyond all consuming darkness. But if Zack Snyder and his human WB/DCEU partners still can’t get that through their heads, at least one 2017 Batman movie does know how to shine a light.

The Lego Batman of The Lego Movie is back in Lego Gotham, reveling in being a solo piece of resistance against evil. But Batman’s constant loner act is itself met with resistance, as butler Alfred is at his wits end, new police commissioner Barbara Gordon aims to have the police fight by Batman’s side for once, and even the Joker feels neglected and underappreciated. In the middle of all this, an overeager orphan named Dick Grayson gets himself accidentally adopted by Bruce Wayne, then becomes an expendable pawn for Batman in a particularly ill-advised takedown of the Joker, unleashing a threat that even Batman can’t fight alone no matter how hard he tries to.

The Lego Movie was actually ahead of its time when it introduced Lego Batman, deflating his darkness-centric brand of superheroism two years before the DCEU unfortunately built it back up. In fact, Batman’s “Darkness! No Parents!” theme song now pretty much looks like the early mission statement of live action Batman and DC in general. As such, the timing of The Lego Batman Movie is even more on point, as it doubles down in satirizing the self-important dark Batman persona before the Warner Bros studio logo even shows up.

This second Lego movie doesn’t have Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in charge to make bad ideas look brilliant, since they’re now doing it for next year’s young Han Solo movie. Nonetheless, new director Chris McKay and five writers waste no time in recapturing The Lego Movie’s rapid fire brand of satire, inside jokes and meta commentary. They even stumble into some accidental irony, since co-writer Seth Grahame-Smith got story credit before he became the first director to leave The Flash live-action movie.

The DCEU and The Lego Batman Movie traffic in chaos, but the chaos of the latter is at least intentionally amusing. Like its Lego predecessor, things go fast enough that there are surely dozens more Easter Eggs and hidden references to find in future viewings as well. As for the ones laid out clearly for the first viewing, the more one knows about Batman, the better, and not just when it comes to all the movies and TV shows.

Perhaps that approach may not play as well to the less obsessive Batman experts. Still, the references and guest stars aren’t just limited to the Batman universe, since the Joker eventually goes outside the usual Batman rogues gallery for help. By sheer coincidence, most of his new evil partners come from movies and properties owned by Warner Brothers too.

But the Batman mythology and characterizations remain the main target, and not just as a response to the DCEU. All the Batman eras get poked at in one way or another at some point, from the 60s to Batman v Superman and so on. Whether with obscure references and characters, with more recognizable lines and bits from past movies, or with nitpicks like how Batman has actually been poor at stopping crime and criminals for good for over 70 years, this is one big Bat-smorgasbord of nostalgia and satire.

Yet the building block of it all is the already established Lego Batman version, who not only goes from scene-stealing supporting character to lead without a hitch, but may be one of the few movie Batmans since 1989 that genuinely carries his own Batman film, which is actually quite ironic for such an anti-loner Batman story. It is far less rare to hear Will Arnett master the voice of such a character, however.

This expansion of Lego Batman really combines the original Lego Movie version and Arnett’s even more egotistical, satirical yet deeply alone animated character Bojack Horseman on Netflix. And as if combining Arnett’s recent vocal magic wasn’t enough, he is also reunited with live action Arrested Development nephew Michael Cera, whose Robin bounces off the walls to hilarious effects that Chris O’Donnell and Joseph Gordon-Levitt never got to reach.

Batman isn’t the only DC character to get some necessary comedic rehab, as the Joker needed it much more urgently after the on and off-screen ugliness of Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. It is also somewhat ironic that Lego Joker is distressed over having such a one-sided, unrequited connection with Batman, given that he usually makes Harley Quinn feel that way with even harsher methods. In added irony, the Lego Harley voiced by Jenny Slate instead of Margot Robbie gets to encourage Joker to move on a few times, and in more traditional Harley garb than in Suicide Squad.

After decades of obsessive and brutal Batman/Joker stories, this is another element of Batman mythology that gets skewered at just the right time. If anything else, Zach Galifianakis is a far better example of a usually comedic actor getting intentional laughs as a leading DC villain than Jesse Eisenberg was as Lex Luthor.

Rounding out the new Bat-family along with Ralph Fiennes’ Alfred is Rosario Dawson’s Barbara/Batgirl, who is technically the first ever big screen version of Barbara Gordon, since the Batman & Robin version was remade as Alfred’s niece. Nevertheless, it is a fitting bit of redemption that this attempt at making Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Alfred into a unit comes exactly 20 years after Batman & Robin failed so miserably at it.

Of course, improving on Batman & Robin is really one of the least difficult feats imaginable. For that matter, exceeding the humorless DCEU isn’t that hard either, so clearing such low bars may not be the biggest accomplishments The Lego Batman Movie could have made. In fact, Lego Gotham falls into such destructive chaos in the second half, the lack of collateral damage and the larger number of jokes are some of the only differences from the average live action superhero spectacle.

Between that and a lack of reality-redefining third act twists, The Lego Batman Movie falls somewhat short of The Lego Movie’s high bar, even while going over much lower ones. Perhaps not having Lord and Miller’s vision, far more writers and a lack of The Lego Movie’s element of surprise makes a bigger difference than intended, which may be something to watch out for when The Lego Movie sequel comes in two years.

Yet if The Lego Batman Movie isn’t the very best example of Lego movie magic, it is still one of the better ones for Batman, and not just by the DCEU standards. Instead of being overshadowed by villains like in 1989, 1992 and 2008, by Joel Schumacher’s incompetence like in 1995 and 1997, or by Snyder’s incompetence in 2016, this Batman actually gets to show more of what has made him endure for over 70 years than many past Batmans have in the last 30.

The hard core Batman faithful likely know that it isn’t just darkness, brooding, over-the-top loner tactics and misery which define the Dark Knight, since avenues other than movies have had freedom to explore more of it. In its own weird, madcap fashion, The Lego Batman Movie reclaims Batman as a more complete symbol than what Snyder, the current DCEU regime and even Christopher Nolan have made him into lately.

In deflating that image, taking it down a few very necessary pegs, and dragging Lego Batman kicking and screaming towards lessons that even past Batmans managed to learn, it becomes just the medicine that the Batman and DC faithful probably needed these days.

Whether or not it really requires that much effort, or displays as much innovation and brilliance as The Lego Movie did, it still gives us a Batman and a Batman universe that viewers can laugh with instead of at, and without needing antidepressants afterwards. When it comes to Batman, that’s a rarer combination in the last 25 years than it probably should be.

For pulling that feat off, and setting the early bar for 2017’s live action heroes and batmen, The Lego Batman Movie really earns a 7.5 score despite rounding to a 7 on the official TMN.com scale. Others can make their own rating starting on Feb. 10.