The LEGO Batman Movie trumps expectations
When, during an early scene of The LEGO Batman Movie, my opening-weekend audience was surprised by a Jerry Maguire joke and laughed appreciatively, a little girl sitting next to me — she might have been six years old — scowled, shook her head, stood up, and announced to her mother, “This isn’t funny at all. It’s a joke about a grown-ups’ movie!”
I felt as if I was present at the birth of a film critic. And I was more than a little tempted to lean over and say, “Kid, I hate to break it to you, but this is a grown-ups’ movie.”
The LEGO Batman Movie is many things. I expected some of them: It’s a rowdy, relentless, visually busy LEGO-stravaganza, bursting with references to every previous manifestation of the Caped Crusader. It’s a chance to turn loose the mad genius of Will Arnett, who made this masked interlocked-blockman the funniest thing about The LEGO Movie. It’s an advertisement for a dozen or more Batman-specific LEGO sets. It’s a massive commercial entertainment that makes fun of massive commercial entertainment. It’s more proof that LEGO prioritizes writing: This time, the comedy supergroup includes Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, and John Whittington. Under the direction of Robot Chicken veteran Chris McKay, it consistently serves up about 10-20 good laughs per minute for a generous 105 minutes. Holy joke-density, Batman!
But the movie is also something I didn’t expect. It was the master storyteller Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, who said that, when pondering a narrative that will illustrate complex and challenging concepts, “[I]f the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” And that is what The LEGO Batman Movie does. Whether this is intentional or not (and it’s hard to believe that it isn’t), this massive blast of hilarity acts like a stealth bomber running an urgent raid on the American conscience, trying to blast us into seeing the foolishness of looking to one egomaniac to save the day, and coaxing us to realize that the only way to hold the world together is to reach out, interlock with one another, work together, and be a community.
Sure, it’s simplistic. It’s for kids! It’s about colorful toy building blocks!
But it’s also — how I hate this phrase — “timely and relevant.” How do I say this, except to tell you how much cathartic pleasure I found in the nature of this movie’s comedy?
First of all, I have an allergy to comic book superhero movies that suggest we should look to celebrity-status, super-powered man-splainers to save the world. These writers see the problem and skewer it.
Second, I cringe at movies that suggest that those super-men will repair our broken societies through the efficiency of their coercive violence. These writers see that problem too, and skewer it.
Third, and most importantly, this grownup found particular pleasure in hearing a packed theater laugh at the childish lunacy of a billionaire who
- thinks that he alone can solve problems;
- brags about the greatness of his brain;
- thinks that he is the best at everything;
- wants his name and logo on everything;
- thinks it’s all about him;
- doesn’t pay his taxes and boasts about it;
- laughs at the new commissioner’s emphasis on laws, ethics, and accountability; and
- throws tantrums like a spoiled child when he doesn’t get his way.
Sound familiar? If a whole audience can laugh at this, maybe a whole country can too.
Well, it feels good to think so for a few moments, anyway.
There are, I admit, a few things in The LEGO Batman Movie that have me scratching my head.
Sure, it’s packed with superhero movie cliches, like the hero being haunted by his self-imposed loneliness, and the danger to Gotham City manifesting as a whirlpool of evil in the sky. For some reason, this didn’t bother me the way it usually does — perhaps because I tend to imagine that LEGO stories are supposed to be built from the standard genre building-block sets. That’s kind of the fundamental joke that makes the series work. I expect familiar tropes in this franchise, and I’m pleased with how imaginatively they’re realized. (Look at how The LEGO Movie used a standard Western Genre Saloon Scene as a portal to a typical Hero’s Mentor Training Site a la The Empire Strikes Back and The Matrix. The building blocks are familiar — it’s all in how those standard-issue storytelling sets are inventively locked together.)
But, without spoiling too much about the movie’s narrative — in which the primary conflict is between Batman and his favorite nemesis, The Joker — let me say that the storytellers run into some strange complications when they start building up a team of classic villains to carry out the Joker’s plans.
Just as The LEGO Movie surprised us with characters from across the world of franchises, The LEGO Batman Movie is surprisingly uninterested in limiting its cast to characters from comic books. I’m fine with the absurdity of this — but do the storytellers really understand the characters they’re drafting for the opposing team?
Since when is King Kong a “classic villain”? I always thought he was a sympathetic, misunderstood innocent.
And Sauron? Sure, he’s the ultimate fantasy villain, but anybody who has read The Lord of the Rings will call out this unblinking eye as a fraud.
Anyway – I’m nit-picking when I should be celebrating. While I agree with Decent Films’ review that this film doesn’t have that take-it-to-another-level greatness of The LEGO Movie — which remains, in my opinion, the single most expectation-busting, hope-surpassing success in animation history — I do think that this sequel succeeds brilliantly at undermining, exposing, and laughing at the worst instincts of the superhero genre… even as it manages to celebrate what real society-saving super-heroism might look like: cooperation over individualism, family over patriarchy, creativity over smashing things.
Another plus: The voice casting, which is full of surprises. Any Batman movie with the good taste to cast Rosario Dawson as “the girl” — and then make her the smartest hero in the film — is a good one. And while it was smart to cast Zach Galifianakis as The Joker, and inspired to cast Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Ellie Kemper as a Very Important talking LEGO block, it’s absolutely brilliant to cast Conan O’Brien as The Riddler — a choice that makes me wish we could see such this perfect actor/character match in a live-action Batman film.
And speaking of creativity: As I mentioned earlier, the joke density of this film holds up The LEGO Movie‘s astonishing standards. It’s going to reward repeated viewings, because everything happens so fast that you’re just getting one clever reference to Christopher Nolan’s bat-franchise when references to Tim Burton’s and Zack Snyder’s zoom past your head like Batman’s throwing stars. It goes a little too quickly for crass, sophomoric humor (there is a Family Guy writer on the team); we get the Joker declaring “Hey Batman! I’m rubbing my butt all over your stuff! Gonna have to rename this the ‘Buttmobile.'” But for every easy joke there’s another one that’s both brilliantly conceived and effortlessly delivered.
At times, the frantic pace of the humor threatens to become frustrating, and it’s worth noting that the movie’s funniest bit is also its quietest and most patient (it involves a microwave oven and a lobster— you’ll know it when you see it). But I can only marvel at a comedy with such a successful hit-to-miss joke ratio.
It’s a rare thing to see a movie that spoofs all of the others in its genre while beating them at their own game. No disrespect to Heath Ledger and the writers of The Dark Knight, one of those rare superhero movies that deserves to be treated as a substantial work of art — but this might be the first Batman movie that I find satisfying as a narrative, beginning to end.
Finally, a Batman movie in which the filmmakers seem to perceive Bruce Wayne/Batman as a problem to be solved, not a hero to be exalted. They hold him accountable for his fundamental character flaws, refusing to ever let him off the hook for his arrogance. Silly as it all is, this movie refuses to glorify the egomaniac, and sticks to its convictions all the way to the end, cutting the Caped Crusader down to size in a way neither Burton, nor Nolan, nor Snyder have ever dared.
The first official 2017 feature film I’ve seen is satisfying enough that I’ll go see it again. This franchise is two for two.