Three years ago, a small movie miracle occurred. A branding exercise egregious even by the standards of such things somehow turned out to be one of the liveliest, funniest, most original filmgoing experiences of the year. This was The Lego Movie, a for-the-whole-family flick set in a world of interlocking Danish blocks that managed to be a successful genre pastiche, a political-religious allegory of uncertain (and therefore interesting) valence, and a joke-a-minute comedy.
One of the funniest notes in that movie was the way it used its superhero characters, and particularly Lego Batman, who was voiced by Will Arnett as a growling, preening narcissist — not the hero of the story but the real hero’s romantic rival and insufferable foil. Which is why we now have a sequel, of sorts, to that lightning-in-a-bottle original: The Lego Batman Movie, with Arnett’s caped crusader as its antihero.
As a superhero-movie skeptic who’s been exhausted by the genre for a decade, I wanted to believe that this could work out as brilliantly as the Lego original. The superhero flick has been given various wiseacre twists in such films as Kick-Ass and Deadpool, but it has not been brilliantly, devastatingly parodied during its long years of cultural dominance. And as the richest superhero story, the one that’s produced the genre’s high points (Nolan’s trilogy, Burton’s Batman Returns) and its lowest lows (the Schumacher movies, Batman v Superman), the Batman mythos is an inviting target, a natural place to start.
But the Lego approach isn’t really right for the task. The setup is promising: Arnett’s voice introduces us to a Gotham under siege by dozens upon dozens of yellow-faced villains, from the Joker (the voice of Zach Galifianakis) down through familiars such as Bane and the Riddler to such ridiculous obscurities as the Condiment King. (I thought the Condiment King was a parody devised for the movie, but no: He’s actually lifted from Batman: The Animated Series.) The Lego-Bat disposes of them all, zips around Gotham soaking in the cheers, and then retreats to his Batcave, where he wanders around in an abs-showcasing bathrobe, heats Lobster Thermidor in the microwave, and watches Jerry Maguire in his private movie theater.
But having wrung a few laughs out of Batman-being-insufferable, the movie doesn’t know where to go next. So it ends up sending its antihero off on a predictable journey of self-discovery, which is joke-studded but essentially sentimental rather than parodic.
Batman acquires a love interest when Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) takes over for her father as commissioner, gains a ward in the form of Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and encounters a mission — when the Joker frees a cavalcade of even bigger villains (Sauron, Voldemort, etc.) from Superman’s Phantom Zone — that for once he can’t quite handle all alone. “It takes a village to save Gotham City” is basically the motto of The Lego Batman Movie and the lesson that its hero needs to learn . . . which means that what ultimately distinguishes this superhero movie from the flesh-and-blood, non-Lego variety is that it’s a little bit more saccharine.
I suppose I should have expected as much, since a Lego movie by definition (and corporate imperative) has to be a kids’ movie, and there are hard limits to just how savage a parody for kids can be. Thus the digs at superhero conventions are frequent but always gentle (the absurdity of nobody noticing Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person is made a little more absurd, etc.), the movie is constantly reverting to those conventions after mocking them, and often its humor is stuck betwixt and between — for instance, with nods to the latent homoeroticism of the Bat–Robin bond that are uncomfortably overt for pre-teen entertainment but not nearly overt enough to raise more than a chuckle.
There are also too many jokes in general that raise a chuckle rather than a belly laugh. The first Lego movie was scripted by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, two genius joke-writers (their 21 Jump Street is also riotously funny), whereas this one has a committee of five names listed in its credits and delivers what you’d expect a committee to produce.
Probably the best way to experience Lego Batman is to treat it as an homage to the pow-bam antics of the Adam West show, except with the self-serious Batman of the Nolan movies dropped into the lead and irritated by the silliness around him. If you go in hoping for a superhero Spaceballs or Blazing Saddles, or for the strange perfection of the first Lego Movie, you’ll be disappointed. But this is a fine little silly kid-friendly Batman movie for those who aren’t tired of Batman movies — which is to say, it might be for you (or for your kids), even if it’s definitely not for me.