3 stars (out of 4)
Everything is still awesome in the Lego Movie universe!!!
All right, maybe not everything.
But enough things. And in a young movie year when the biggest box office hit showcases a deranged man mutilating teen girls for kicks (for shame, Split, for shame), let’s cheer an ultra-accessible blockbuster that packs in clever laughs, not to mention fun pows! and bams! to please the Batman faithful. Indeed, if any character from the marvelous 2014 hit The Lego Movie warranted a spinoff, it’s Will Arnett’s why-so-serious Caped Crusader.
“Black screen.” “Really long dramatic production logos.” “Animal Logic animation studio.” Batman himself narrates the opening seconds in his deep growl. He then attributes an earnest lyric from Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” to himself. Oh, yes, this is an irreverent toy story coming to play.
Life is pretty damn sweet for Batman these days. The good people of Gotham City like him. They know that as soon as the Bat Signal goes up, he’s going to rescue them from those pesky bad guys. Not even the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) can beat him. Off-hours, Batman takes off the codpiece and transforms back into billionaire bachelor Bruce Wayne. Wanna know what really transpires inside his lair? The guy microwaves lobster for precisely two minutes and watches Jerry Maguire in his private screening room. Solitude completes him.
But the Joker is nothing if not persistent. So when Batman — his archrival for 78 years! — has the gall to dismiss his antics by exclaiming “Batman and Joker are not a thing,” the villain plots his most intricate hostile takeover plan yet. This time, Batman and his wonderful toys can’t defeat him. He needs to ditch the brooding loner thing and (gasp) seek assistance. Enter a motley crew of eager crime fighters: wide-eyed Boy Wonder Robin (Michael Cera), the new Commissioner Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and trusty butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes).
There’s delicious irony in noting the action and entertainment value here far exceeds that of 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Granted, it’s faint praise. That dud nabbed Razzie nods for a reason. Changing a light bulb in the bat cave is more thrilling.) The fact is, Lego Batman owes a major debt of gratitude to Ben Affleck’s incarnation. The latter portrayed the iconic superhero as a humorless, tortured soul seemingly impervious to warmth. All that darkness was ripe for the picking. And, holy wow, does this film pick with glee. And the winking jokes come at breakneck pace.
For starters, Mr. Grumpy Vigilante is the only superhero not invited to Superman’s rager in the Fortress of Solitude. And his patience with golly-gee Robin — who never realizes that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person, despite their similarities — wears thin in hilarious ways. (Shout-out to whoever thought to cast two Arrested Development vets in these roles.) This Batman can also can sing and dance about his greatness (sample lyric in his signature tune: “It’s OK if you stare/I’m a billionaire!”).
We laugh because we love. At heart, the film is an homage to the superhero’s deep roots in pop culture. Listen closely for familiar references to everything from a Gotham parade set to Prince music (1989’s Batman) to “the two boats” in the river (2008’s The Dark Knight). Every single old foe lines up to torment him, including the Riddler, Two-Face, the Penguin and the Wicked Witch of the West. Check that. Every single villain appears, period.
Like nearly every spinoff and sequel, this doesn’t recapture the magic of the original. A straight superhero tale, even a sublime one, can’t compare with the joyous story of Chris Pratt’s smiling everyman Emmet learning how to save the day. And that movie’s inventive live-action twist just can’t be topped. See what happens when the bar is built too high?
(The Lego Batman Movie opens Friday, February 10.)
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