Bat Bad Is… The Lego Batman Movie?
It’s been over 4 years since we last messed with a Lego Movie. The Lego Batman Movie reminds us why.
The last time we tackled a Lego project, we found it to be a nonsensical mish-mash of cultural references. While it had some charming moments, the scattershot approach of storytelling, jokes, and action sequences left us exhausted. The Lego Batman Movie, dear readers, is a whole lot more of the same. The only real change is that most of the references are DC/Batman-centric, whereas our caped crusader was just one of the many pop-culture gags in the first Lego Movie. The Lego Batman movie feels like a friar’s club roast of The Dark Knight. A roast conducted by C-list comedians; every once in a while you get a real zinger, but the movie misfires more often than it hits.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
The Batman (VO: Will Arnett) is soaring high on a wave of public sentiment. He always saves the day, the police have all but abdicated the protection of Gotham City to him, and everyone wants to be the bat. Despite the success, Bruce Wayne is on the run; his alter ego allows the man-child to avoid dealing with the trauma of his parent’s death. He constantly keeps everyone at arm’s length, both friend and foe.
When the Joker (VO: Zach Galifinakis) decides that he’s had enough of the one way relationship he and Batman share, he concocts a plan to steal the one thing Batman cares about. By turning himself and the entire rogue’s gallery in, he has taken Batman’s all-consuming purpose away. Combined with a new police commisioner (VO: Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon) who wants to rein in vigilantism and a young orphan (VO: Micheal Cera as Dick Grayson) who manages to trick Bruce Wayne into adopting him, The Caped Crusader must finally confront his most powerful foe: himself.
What Went Wrong?
- The film is an assault on the senses. The Lego Batman movie follows the Lego formula of shoving everything, all at once, into your eyes. From the jump we get every single bat-villain (and I mean EVERY), every single Bat-movie reference, and every joke they can possibly think up blasted at us. The “Master Builder” mechanic returns in this movie, and it adds to the confusion. Finally, The Lego Batman movie nonsensically throws in every single movie villain that Warner Brothers has the rights to…. for no good reason (other than “MORE SPECTACLE!”).
Everything whips past you at a speed that makes recognition nearly impossible. The only time it slows down is when the movie thinks it has a joke so funny that it needs to beat you over the head with it. This leaves the audience with an incomprehensible mess. Just like The Lego Movie, it feels like a kid dropped a tab of acid and then started throwing all his blocks at each other. This time around, the blocks have a Batman logo on them.
- The DC animated universe can’t stop being super creepy with Batgirl. I have no clue what WB big-shot wants to ship Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon, but fire that freak. The Batman Movie can’t play the “it’s an alternate universe so just accept that we aged-up Babs so that it isn’t (as) creepy” card. This film is a walking, talking, stalking reference to Bat-canon. The movie references all the other movies. It references the Animated Series. It even references the old black and white TV show (as well as the Adam West Batman ’66 show). This movie is for fans of Batman. And those fans (by and large) seriously want nothing to do with a Batman/Batgirl romance. It’s even more galling when the Robin they use in this movie is Dick Grayson, the guy who actually has a canonical relationship with Gordon.
Even if you want to give it a pass, it’s a movie that is going to attract kids. Do you really want them seeing a Batman that is awkward and creepy around the only female character that gets any speaking lines?
The voice acting/characterization is hit or miss. I actually didn’t mind Will Arnett as Batman as much as I thought I would. The Joker, however, was a non-starter. Even discounting my bias against any Joker not voiced by Mark Hamill, Zach Galifinakis really doesn’t do anything to make the clown prince of crime unique or memorable. The only unique thing they did with him is give him shark teeth for some stupid reason.
The same is true with Harley Quinn: Jenny Slate gives a fairly lifeless performance. While I did like some of the cast (I’ll touch on that a little later), having your two main villains be so forgettable is a waste. It combines with all the visual and verbal gobbledy-gook to detract from the real story.
What Went Right?
- The movie has a solid ratio of goofy to heartfelt moments. While The Lego Batman Movie is way too hectic, the film does have a decent pacing to the tone of the movie. It’s silly until it wants to be touching, which them gets leavened with more silliness. It’s effective, and more importantly, it’s disarming. I was exhausted watching this movie, but I never hated it. It has enough charm to keep it on the “I wish it were better” column, rather than “I wish it had never been made”.
And while Micheal Cera’s turn as The Boy Wonder gets an honorable mention, the MVP of this Bat-film is Alfred. He’s the backbone of the bat-family: a surrogate father as well as the moral compass for Bruce. We’ve gotten a who’s who of British talent playing notable butlers throughout Batman’s time on the big screen, and Ralph Fiennes can add his name to the list of superlative Pennyworths.
- The film takes the piss out of Batman; it also finally deals with his trauma. Nonsensical WB baddies aside, the real conflict is between Batman and the scared child who lost his parents to gun violence in a deserted alley. Most Batman movies don’t have the luxury of being a meta-critique of Batman. They want action, they want cool, and they want a driven, brooding vigilante. Being a comedy, and a 4th wall breaking one at that, The Lego Batman Movie can examine what makes Batman tick. Both for a laugh (more below), and as a commentary on what the mask is actually hiding. It once again plays into the strength of this movie: the juxtaposition of silliness and heart. Alfred’s been begging Bruce to examine his life ever since The Dark Knight moved into celluloid; here we finally have him (grudgingly) take that advice.
When the meta-humor lands, it lands really well. It’s faint praise, as the ratio of hit to miss is 1:10, but when The Lego Batman Movie gets it right, it’s hilarious. From trotting out villains you forgot actually existed (they did miss the chance for a good “Kite Man, Hell Yeah!” joke), to paying off old tropes, there are some genuine laughs in the film. That most of them come at the expense of Arnett’s “Too Cool for School” version of Batman is once again a smart move.
It also rarely feels mean spirited in it’s mocking, something director Chris McKay has shown a proclivity for with his Robot Chicken show.
How Bad Is It?
I already stated it earlier, but it bears repeating: The Lego Batman Movie is a film that should have been better rather than a film that shouldn’t exist. The tone is good, the premise at the heart of the film has merit, and some of the characters are really good. It’s just has way too much sugar-fueled nonsense bogging it down. Just like The Lego Movie, when the film stays in it’s lane it is a solid comedy. When it leans on pop-culture and spectacle, the movie becomes tedious.
The Lego Batman Movie should have starred Two Face, as that sums up the execution. Tell a worthwhile Bat-story to children, but assume they are mindless fools that need explosions and “did you see that?” moments to engage with it. Having a good time with The Lego Batman Movie isn’t back-breaking labor, but it does take a lot of work.