Sometime between my ’80s childhood and the 2014 Lego Movie, the little Danish bricks got an attitude. It may have been a matter of self-defense after the once-pure yellowheads signed licensing deals with every franchise from the Simpsons to Star Wars, but the movie crystallized an endlessly fruitful comic direction for the toys: poking fun at sacred pop-culture canons.
In the movie, Gandalf broed down with Dumbledore and Billy Dee Williams showed up to lampoon the randy Lando, but Will Arnett stole the show as a Lego Batman who’s constantly appalled by the happy-go-lucky attitude of the goofy characters surrounding him. A sequel was inevitable, and it was inevitable that sequel would star Batman.
Thus it is that we have The Lego Batman Movie, which finds a similar tone but can’t exploit it as fruitfully, bound as it is to a single cinematic universe. (Okay, Sauron and Voldemort have supporting roles.)
The new movie is an origin story of sorts, explaining how Robin (Michael Cera, of course) and Batgirl (Rosario Dawson) came to join the Wayne family. Happily, though, it breaks ground as the first Batman film to openly acknowledge that reboots are a thing — meaning that, yes, the original TV Batman theme is heard in a Batman movie for the first time in over half a century. There’s even a scene where a fistfight is accompanied by the splashy sound-effect bubbles that were a trademark of the campy ’60s series.
It’s also a love story, or more precisely a love-hate story. Not between Batman and Batgirl, but between Batman and Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who yearns for acknowledgement that the rivalry he shares with the Caped Crusader is special. Batman swears he doesn’t require a signature supervillain for validation, and plans to consign Joker and the rest of the baddies to the Phantom Zone while Superman is hosting a Justice League dance party.
Director Chris McKay takes over from Lego Movie co-directors and co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and while he and the film’s five screenwriters are faithful to the postmodern goofiness of the previous film, Lego Batman doesn’t have the extra layer that helped make that movie resonant: the existential mystery that made a case for creativity.
By its conclusion, Lego Batman has largely settled into a superhero movie that takes itself a little less seriously than most — and, granted, a lot less seriously than the fraught, dyspeptic Batman v Superman. The Lego Batman Movie capably continues the Lego Movie franchise, but it also recognizes that it was high time for this most famously dark of superheroes to climb out of his cave and get a little vitamin D.
The real darkness in this film comes from the fact that its caricature hits a little close too home: an angry man who lives alone in a mansion, pathologically averse to cooperation and self-important to the point of self-sabotage. In a presidential election, he’d never have a shot against Superman — at least, that’s what most models predict.