As meta-mashup spin-offs go, The Lego Batman Movie is about as gleeful and bombastic as they come. Remarkable that a cinematic enterprise solely based on nothing thinner than a lucrative brand of children’s toys could result in such savvy explorations of pop culture irony. That’s precisely what Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s gonzo 2014 The Lego Movie pulled off, and this Dark Knight-centered follow-up recaptures the same self-parodying anarchy, adds a thick layer of comic book-deprecating mayhem, and still creates an energetic charm all its own.
That’s due in large part to the creation of the Batman character itself, which, in spite of its endless franchise reference points – incessantly mined by the film to effects ranging from whip-smart to gut-busting – is unique unto itself. Sure, the surface story remains the same: the Caped Crusader broods his way through crime-infested Gotham City as a willful reaction against the pain of his murdered parents. Only in this world, our hero suffers from a streak of over-obvious hubris, provides a running commentary on his blatant tendencies and is constantly congratulating himself on his sterling heroism and rock-hard abs. The vision for this character, voiced perfectly by Will Arnett, is like if Gob Bluth donned the Batsuit – and if that doesn’t sound like cinema gold to you, maybe you have your own dark issues to work out.
One of animation’s greatest joys is its boundlessness; anything becomes possible when it removes the handcuffs of reality. These Lego movies up the ante by also untethering from traditional story constructs, abandoning notions of a self-contained narrative and bleeding over into the broader pop culture sphere. As a result, anything is fair game, including its own awareness of its existence as a movie. So we get self-referential puns as the opening studio logos display, and the fourth-wall-breaking persists for the film’s duration. The Lego Batman Movie is well aware of its titular character’s long, storied history – from the action bubbles of Adam West to the bright-colored kitsch of Joel Schumacher to the dark ennui of Zack Snyder – even as it tells its own story of the Bat’s self-actualization.
See, The Bat and The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) have a thang goin’ on. Their episodic back-and-forth is its own form of love. They need each other. But only Joker will admit it – Batman is too blinded by his own darkness, too shielded by the wall he erected long ago, when his parents were murdered. He’s too isolated and too proud, which is why he recoils when new Gotham Commissioner Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) assumes office with the slogan “It Takes a Village – Not a Batman.” And also why he is reticent to accept the help of Dick Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera), the young orphan Bruce Wayne unintentionally adopts (don’t ask). And so The Lego Batman Movie, in its blistering comic way, becomes the story about the formation of a new family. If it seems ironic that the most willfully ridiculous of the Batman films is also the most emotionally honest, it really shouldn’t be; after all, the cornerstone of this fourth-wall-breaking bonanza is self-awareness.