Sometimes you don’t know how bad you need a certain kind of movie until you’re plunked down in front of it. Less than a minute into the hilarious, razor-sharp and action-packed Lego Batman Movie, you might find yourself grateful to be breathing deeply. Even better, you might start laughing again, out loud and consistently, for almost every one of the movie’s 104 minutes. This is a kid’s movie, sure, but it’s so damn good at mocking the world of grownups that it’s irresistible—especially when it takes on earlier Batman TV shows and movies, practically kicking them to the curb by being so much better than them, especially the most recent Ben Affleck incarnation.
Directed by Chris McKay (Robot Chicken) and set in a LEGO-centric Gotham, the mirth lifts off from the first moment Will Arnett voices Batman with that requisite gravel-voiced pseudo Christian Bale-meets-Clint Eastwood b.s. Arnett riffs over the production company logos on how vital it is for a movie these days to kick off with a black screen and apocalyptic music cues. We’re off and running. This movie knows what’s up.
As portrayed in the screenplay credited to Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, as well as Jared Stern and John Whittington, our paranoid vigilante billionaire loner hero has begun to find his outer and inner Bat-world increasingly cold and barren. His life consists of brooding, holding philosophical chats with his butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), suiting up and battling weird megalomaniacs like the Joker (Zack Galifianakis). This Bruce Wayne/Batman mopes at home watching Jerry Maguire and dining on microwaved lobster. But meanwhile, despite Batman’s endless interventions, Gotham remains a crime-ridden hellhole, a reality that hasn’t been lost on the newly appointed and progressive-minded police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson, right on the money) who, we’re told, is a prestigious graduate of “Harvard for Police.” During a big celebratory bash to welcome her to the job, the Joker and all the other Batman baddies surrender peacefully, with the Joker signing himself up for an extended rest in Arkham Asylum. Is he for real? After all, unlike Batman, he knows that his sense of identity and self-worth requires an arch enemy. Or is the Joker hatching yet another diabolical plot for world domination?
While the Joker comes off as almost pitiable, Batman emerges as an angry, isolated, macho-obsessed dude, a silver-spoon monster who doesn’t play or work well with others. Sound like any so-called presidents you know? Into Batman’s orbit at just the right point of crisis comes young, orphaned Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, perfectly cast) who, depending on your mood, is appealingly needy, tiresome or both.
The movie hits a bit too hard on the need-for-family theme, but it doesn’t topple. The visual razzle dazzle never lets up, the cameos (no spoilers here) are great and the jokes come thick and fast, especially with all the shade thrown at the work of Suicide Squad director Zack Snyder. The Batman Lego Movie actually points a way forward for the caped crusader, and it’s way more emotionally satisfying and clever than anything Warner Bros. has done yet with the DC Extended Universe.
Although the second Lego movie doesn’t deliver the surprisingly deep emotion or high-wire brilliance of the Phil Lord and Chris Miller-directed first—let alone the relentless earworm “Everything Is Awesome”—it will do very nicely.