Of all of DC's superheroes Batman is the one toughest to get exactly right, and easiest to get wrong. Zack Snyder took Bats too far in one direction and what we got was a violent, borderline psychopathic vigilante with no moral code. Go too far in the other direction and you get...well, you get Adam West fighting his way out of cotton candy traps. A couple of years ago The LEGO Movie showed us there was a wealth of hilarious potential somewhere right smack in the middle, with Will Arnett's douche self-involved Batman a highlight of that surprise hit film. And for at least half of the inevitable spinoff The LEGO Batman Movie those notes are hit on with the precision of a well-thrown Batarang, but you still walk away feeling less "Everything is Awesome!!" and more "Everything is Just Alright!"
Batman is the ultimate conundrum. He's a guy who is essentially the boogeyman to Gotham City criminals everywhere, this lone wolf of justice. But in the comics he surrounds himself with a close-knit family that, frankly, he pushes away as often as he embraces. The LEGO Batman Movie is, basically, about him opening up emotionally to the point where he can let people into his life. It's funnier than it sounds because the LEGO-bricked Batman doesn't care about anybody but himself, and he's all too happy to show it. In fact, it begins right off the bat (pun not intended) as he narrates through the production credits, making every studio logo all about himself and definitely not that other guy, what's his name....oh yeah, Superman.
The film continues on a high note as Batman battles literally his entire Rogue's Gallery (Bane's pseudo Tom Hardy voice is great. And look out for Catman and The Condiment King in there, too.) without missing a beat. The brickwork doesn't look quite as crisp this time and the action is messy and tough to track, but you'll be having too much fun watching the Batmobile literally explode onto the scene to care. But the best part of the early going is the way Batman's rather silly 75-year past is so effortlessly skewered. From 'Batman v Superman' to Super Friends to Batman Forever, all the way back to the 1960s live-action show, every iteration of the hero is made the butt of jokes. Somehow, all of these totally incompatible versions of Batman are the same guy?
Zach Galifianakis voices a forgettable version The Joker, and his whole thing is needing to be recognized as Batman's greatest enemy. But Batman won't give him that kind of acknowledgement. He doesn't do "ships", as in relationships, and a frequent riff trying to play them as romantic counterparts is funny at first, but wears out its welcome pretty quick. After defeating Joker, Batman returns home to his gigantic, empty Batcave where he heats up leftover lobster thermidore (in a unbroken sequence that's like something out of an indie movie) and watches Jerry Maguire. He's lonely, and Alfred (voiced perfectly by Ralph Fiennes) suggests it's time to start building a life. But first there's a new plot by the Joker, and a new Gotham City commissioner in Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) who wants to force a partnership with Batman, against his wishes, of course. Oh, and there's that kid he accidentally adopted, Dick Grayson aka the future Robin (Michael Cera), running around without pants and looking for a father figure. "It's even weirder if he's not your son", says Barbara at one particularly awkward point, and she's totally right.
At its best, The LEGO Batman Movie uses humor to get down at what makes Batman tick, and it can be argued that they have a better handle on the character than some who have written him for years. However, once the plot kicks into gear too much of that gets lost in what is a basic, familiar superhero movie that doesn't offer much in the way of surprises. There's even a giant portal in the sky for like the umpteenth time. The jokes don't come as fast during this stretch, and when they do they aren't really Batman specific. I would have been happy if we could have just watched Batman loaf around his mansion for two hours, rather than watching him jump from vehicle to vehicle in Warner Bros.' bloated attempt to sell merchandise. Yes, the commercialization and product placement are as atrocious as ever, expected for a LEGO movie, but it's more egregious this time. Batman has maybe two dozen vehicles, all which are probably for sale at Target right now so bring the kiddies! Speaking of which, the humor has been toned down to appeal to kids, as well, while I think there's a touch of mature sophistication to the earlier Bat-deconstruction.
The greatest tool in The LEGO Batman Movie's utility belt is doing crazy things to Batman's mixed-up legacy. You'll laugh more in the first 30 seconds than during the entire director's cut of 'Batman v Superman', but that's an incredibly low bar. For those who were expecting a greater teardown of the superhero genre, I'm afraid that's not in this toybox.
Rating: 3 out of 5