The Lego Batman Movie may not be, as some critics have asserted, the best Batman movie ever made, but it is possibly the most all-encompassing. None of the other films dealing with DC’s Dark Knight have boasted the same level of self-referential awareness of the source material, and none have taken the meta-textual approach incorporating as many prior films and comics dealing with the character in the same way that this one has. Director Chris McKay’s kitchen sink approach is one uniquely suited to the subject, as Lego Batman is able to incorporate a more complete depiction of its protagonist’s 80 years of varied incarnations than any previous interpretation, and it manages to have more fun with its premise than any Bat-related property I’ve ever seen.
As was the case with 2014’s The Lego Movie, this is clearly a film designed by adults with kids, for adults with kids. With the novelty of its predecessor’s concept wearing thin, and much of the incisive satirical wit that made The Lego Movie such a surprise hit absent, Lego Batman favors an overstuffed collection of in-jokes that land more often than not, but can feel claustrophobic at times. In place of the previous film’s social commentary, we find the same open-world toy box aesthetic and anarchic comedic sensibility growing slightly more subdued — it’s as though, now beholden to two distinctly venerated source properties, the army of writers (five credited) decided that the only way to succeed was through excess. The resultant film feels a bit disjointed at times, but its rapid-fire joke delivery smooths out most of the script’s rough patches.
Will Arnett’s Batman, still the self-obsessed egoist of The Lego Movie, is a clear highlight of the film, although the one-note-joke of his narcissistic portrayal wears thin as the movie lingers too long on the device. An all-star ensemble picks up some of the slack, but even this proves to be somewhat problematic — Zach Galifianakis and Jenny Slate fall flat in principal roles as The Joker and Harley Quinn, while cameos such as Conan O’Brien as The Riddler and Billy Dee Williams (finally) playing Two-Face are so brief that you’d be excused for missing them entirely. Thankfully some of the film’s tertiary voice performances are featured prominently enough to contribute to the humor, such as Doug Benson’s Bane or Jemaine Clement as Sauron — but on the whole, Lego Batman’s casting feels like a collection of missed opportunities.
Where Lego Batman works best is with the jokes that will go over younger viewers’ heads — Batman microwaving leftover Lobster Thermidor, cackling over the inanity of Jerry Maguire, referencing Christian Slater skateboarding movie Gleaming the Cube or naming a clawed bat-costume after Claude Raines — these are the moments where the excessively polished script actually begins to shine, and such moments are profuse. For those with a well-developed knowledge of pop cultural trivia or an encyclopedic familiarity with the Batman mythos, the easter egg hunt alone is worth the price of admission. And speaking eggs — while I can’t say that this is the first time this year that I wished Vincent Price were still around, I can say that when Egghead showed up among the C and D-List rogues gallery, my desire to revisit Price’s ova-centric pun delivery could accurately be described as egg-cessive.
If it doesn’t quite live up to The Lego Movie’s heights of inventiveness, The Lego Batman Movie certainly carves out its own niche by reclaiming some of the humor absent from Christopher Nolan’s unremittingly grim Dark Knight Trilogy in particular, and the DC Cinematic Universe in general. As Rosario Dawson’s Barbara Gordon points out, there’s something inherently ridiculous about a grown man in a Halloween costume trying to solve a city’s problems by karate-chopping strangers — and by acknowledging that the concept behind Batman is a little silly when you think about it, McKay and his team of writers have breathed new life into a beloved property in danger of stagnation. Rated PG for rude humor and some action.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville, The Strand Waynesville.