By Noah Gittell
Leave it to Hollywood to mess up a good thing. 2014’s “The Lego Movie” was one of the smartest and riskiest commercial movies in years, much to everyone’s surprise. Where we were expecting a two-hour toy advertisement, instead we got a self-aware and hilarious comic masterpiece with a third-act twice for the ages. A sequel was inevitable, and, in keeping with the first film’s subversive ethos, the producers of “The Lego Batman Movie” took things in a different direction. Instead of a straight sequel, they made a spin-off, building a whole movie around the first film’s breakout character – the brooding, immature Batman voiced by Will Arnett. How could it go wrong?
Lots of ways, in fact, and one fundamental one. Batman was essentially a cameo in the original movie and wasn’t required to have any depth. It was a one-note performance and a pretty good one, subverting the super-serious “Dark Knight” trilogy and other DC superhero films by depicting Batman as a sullen jock teenager who never grew up. For the first third of “Lego Batman,” the filmmakers follow that formula. After Batman saves the day in an opening face-off against The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), he returns to Wayne Manor to engage in what we assume is a typical evening for the billionaire bachelor. He cooks dinner for one in his microwave, watches “Jerry Maguire” alone in his private movie theater, jams on the electric guitar (without a back-up band, of course), and does lots of push-ups.
To depict Batman’s existence as comically lonely is a neat, refreshing twist after seeing his dysfunctional genius revered so much in previous superhero films. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to build an entire film around, and as “Lego Batman” goes on, it has to become the very thing that it intends to satirize. The plot concerns an evil plan hatched by The Joker to unleash an army of super-villains onto Gotham City, the transformation of orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) into legendary sidekick Robin, attempts from fatherly butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to help Bruce Wayne heal from his childhood trauma, and a will-they-or-won’t-they affair with the new Commissioner Gordon, Jim’s daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson).
In other words, this is a typical superhero movie. Even if its irreverence is a welcome change-of-pace from “Batman v. Superman” and other self-serious DC Comics fare, it’s no more subversive than anything in the “Iron Man” films. The notion that Batman is a spoiled, immature loner is a decent joke, but the film ultimately decides to take that joke seriously when it devotes the second half of the film to his efforts to overcoming childhood trauma and finding a proper family.
That’s not to say “Lego Batman” isn’t occasionally funny. It subscribes to the quantity strategy of comedy by offering up so many jokes, and in such rapid-fire succession, that some of them are sure to land. The voice performances are strong throughout, with Cera nailing the film’s loopy frequency as Robin and Galifianakis capturing the pathos of The Joker, a character no other actor ever bothered to play as anything but a monster. Arnett does his usual insecure macho thing (he’s been doing it since “Arrested Development”), and it’s fine, but he fails to provide any new layers to the character. There’s a reason he has never anchored a live-action feature film, or even had a successful TV show in which he was the star. Depth is not his strong suit.
Despite some creative performances and a high joke-per-minute average, “Lego Batman” provokes more knowing chuckles than outright laughs. The script (accredited to five writers, never a good sign) never gets any laughs through the characters, instead relying on self-referential jokes about past iterations of Batman. “We’re going to punch those guys so hard,” he growls, “words describing their impact are going to spontaneously materialize.” In another scene, Alfred worries that Bruce Wayne is going through one of “those phases” again, “the kind you experienced in 2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997,” etc.
In tone, “Lego Batman” is probably most similar to the original Batman TV series starring Adam West, but the irreverence that once came off as camp now reads as corporate shilling. That’s what happens when you aim to subvert one of the most beloved myths of our time but don’t have the focus to follow through. It’s not a good look in any era.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue