The Lego Batman Movie is a Lego, Batman Movie

Movies now-a-days have some weird categorizations, and The Lego Batman Movie falls into a number of bizarre genres. It’s a family film, meant to be watched with kids and their parents. It’s a superhero movie (which isn’t really a genre unto itself), and more specifically, a Batman movie. It is also a “Lego” Movie, and being the second of that genre, it is forced to begin to define what the hell that means.

The Lego Batman Movie kicks off as the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and the entirety of Batman’s villains gallery (from iconic villains such as The Riddler and The Penguin to less iconic villains such as Calendar Man, Egghead, and Eraser) assault Gotham City. The sequence is a kinetic action piece, and introduces us to the main theme of the movie. As Batman (Will Arnett) mops the floor with his foes the Joker suggests he and Batman are each other’s main antagonists, which Batman refuses to admit, because no one matters to him because he is Batman. He lets the Joker go and saves the city. Arriving home, Batman finds the house empty. He has no friends, no family, only Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) who thinks it’s maybe time for his young ward to start a family of his own. Enter a Batman loving orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and the new Commissioner Gordon (Rosario Dawson, flopping over from the Marvel Television Universe where she reigns supreme).

Looking at it as a kids movie, it’s pretty standard fare. The lesson is laid out obviously for us at the beginning of the movie in a quote attributed to Ghandi (though Batman insists that he himself originated the quote). Essentially, Batman is a self-centered jerk, and he needs to change to allow people in. But that’s tough, because he lost his parents and is now defensive about opening up. The opening quote says it, Alfred says it (many times, many ways), and a 2×4 Lego brick in the “Phantom Zone” says it. Letting people in is tough, but those people will be your family. It’s obviously a good message, but it’s not an overly complicated one. Maybe it was watching the trailer for Smurfs: The Lost Village before the flick led me to this more than the movie itself, but I feel like our kids movies are too simple recently, or at least too overt with their message and world view? The Lego Batman Movie at least offers some nuance in the justifying its main character, allowing the audience to recognize why he needs to grow while also allowing them to recognize why it is so difficult for him. And as far as entertainment value for kids and parents go, it’s jokes and gags are strong throughout, and the action sequences are wildly exciting while still being appropriate for children. So as a kid’s movie, I give it a “solid”.

As a “Batman” movie, is does surprisingly well. Superbly, really, until it minorly abandons the concept in the third act to go more “lego movie”. Like the Muppets Batman leans heavily on its audience’s assumed foreknowledge of its lore. The film thankfully doesn’t kill the Waynes again, but between them and the villains you’d be hard pressed to step into the film without knowing Batman lore. This is fine. Batman, like the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, is melted into our culture enough that we don’t need to meet him each time. Like heroes and gods of ancient myth, he can be manipulated to different incarnations to explore different parts of his character. The Lego Batman Movie relies on our knowledge of the previous Batmans to strong affect, and the many references feel like they are exploring a man who has been stuck in Arrested Development for many years (lol Will Arnett get it?). Alfred says he is worried about Bruce Wayne because he has gone through “phases like this” in 2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997, ‘95, ‘92, ‘89… it’s a funny joke, but it gives pathos and depth to Alfred’s concern, and shows us how much pain Batman has carried, and for how long. When Alfred says it’s time to move forward, he’s right. The Lego Batman Movie is consistently funny, pulling a lot of zaniness and joy from its Adam West predecessor, and while Batman as a character dispenses as many or more jokes than any other character his pain is taken seriously. This is always what Batman has been. He is a fragile adult with immense grief and a strong sense of morals who dresses up as a bat to fight a woman in a cat suit. Batman has always been serious and ridiculous at once, and this movie walks the line as well as any movie since Batman Returns. His deeply explored relationship with the Joker, their yin and yang well developed (particularly in The Dark Knight) is twisted here to explore what a long term relationship is like when one person can’t fess up to their feelings. All in all a smart use of Batman mythos, and a smart exploration of the character.

Assessing it as a Lego Movie is tough, because the “genre” has yet to be defined. The animation, like the 2014 release, looks stop motion while obviously being an animated movie. The set design and lighting are gorgeous too, and the fact that they are all built out of Lego, even if it’s 3D animated Lego, add an extra level of impressive. Some great gags arise from the “Lego-ness” of it all as well: Gotham City, for example, is built on two giant plates balanced over an abyss, which is why a single bomb that would split the two plates apart could plunge the whole city down over the edge. But unlike the third act twist of The Lego Movie, there’s no real reason for this film to be a Lego Movie. It is still alluded to that these are kids playing with toys, but only in passing, and if anything that robs the film of some of it’s emotional depth because Batman’s evolution feels like a parallel journey for someone we never meet or see. Also like it’s predecessor, this movie exists within a larger universe of mashed up genres (I guess Lego’s rights for certain franchises extend to film because Sauran, King Kong, Voldemort, the Justice League, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Kraken, Jaws, and Daleks all make an significant appearance). With another spin-off Lego Movie premiering surprisingly soon, this genre has a lot of work to do defining itself if it wants to justify itself… which who knows if it needs to do that. It just feels bizarre to have a Lego Movie that is just a Lego Movie because… well, it was.

The Lego Batman Movie built seven out of ten bat signals.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

-Batman’s primary mode of transportation in this film is “The Scuttler”, a mecha bat. I don’t know if it’s from something, or a new invention, but it’s by far the coolest transport I’ve ever seen Batman use.

-The cast of the film all delivered fine work, but for such a stacked cast I feel that most everyone ended up being slightly underused (especially Ralph Fiennes). Props for using Siri as the voice of a relatively main character, though, and props for allowing Billy Dee Williams to finally be Two-Face as he should have always been.

Batman Returns is still unequivocally the best Batman movie, but I was excited to hear this quote explicitly in the film, as Keaton is my favorite Batman and this is one of my favorite lines by him.

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