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biast | by maryann johanson

The Lego Batman Movie review: give a minifig

The Lego Batman Movie green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
A great Batman movie, a great superhero movie, and a gloriously bonkers expression of the sublime silliness of crime fighters in capes, and our love of them.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): really liked The Lego Movie
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

He’s Batman. (Say it in a low growl for best effect.) The little Lego minifig in black actually works as a superhero. Of course he appeared in The Lego Movie a couple years back, but he was a joke, a sideshow, a parody of the Dark Knight. Would spinning him off into his own movie work as anything other than a caricature, and wouldn’t he be just one joke stretched too thin across a full movie? Wouldn’t the few things that made The Lego Movie stand apart from all the many movies it was aping — The Matrix, Star Wars, every hero’s journey story ever — get lost when it embraced full on an already well-known story? Wouldn’t its plastic-brick-based metaphysical take on the precariousness of our understanding of the nature of reality get lost in the snarking?

Just what are the Joker’s true feelings for Batman, anyway?

Just what are the Joker’s true feelings for Batman, anyway?tweet

Well. All of that could have happened, I suppose, but it didn’t. The Lego Batman Movie is a great Batman movie. Maybe the best one yet. It’s a great superhero movie… definitely among the best ones ever. And that’s not in spite of the fact that, yes, it is a parody of Batman, but because of that. Making fun of all the ridiculous clichés and motifs of superhero stories allows Lego Batman to transcend them even as it celebrates them. This is the most gloriously bonkers expression ever of the sublime silliness of crime fighters in capes and tights, and the outrageously over-the-top supervillains they love to hate, and our worship of tales of their exploits.

Look: Lego Batman opens with 15 minutes of all-in, all-out action smash-up spectacular, the sort of thing typically considered suitable these days to serve as the climax of a superhero flick: the ending of the film, not the beginning. But this opening sequence goes beyond even that: it brings together just about every bad guy Batman has ever battled — well, the Joker (the voice of Zach Galifianakis: Keeping Up with the Joneses, Birdman) brings them together — in a mad plot to bring an ultimate destruction to Gotham City. Of course Batman (the voice of Will Arnett: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Men in Black III) stops them. It’s all done in Lego bricks and minifigs, true — oh, the clarity of the plastic in 3D IMAX!tweet — and it hilariously sends up every trope of the dramatic and critical superhero battle. I was breathless with laughter and nerd joy by the end of it.

I was breathless with laughter and nerd joy…
tweet

But where the heck can a movie possibly go from there? I was afraid I had just seen my worst fears realized: there wasn’t much more to say, and Lego Batman was going to pad out another 90 minutes not saying it.

I was wrong. Lego Batman keeps finding an ante to up in a way that I never could have expected. There is awareness among the characters here that they are living in a world of interchangeable bricks: Batman is a Master Builder who can make new Bat vehicles on the fly, which is a clever way for the script* to deal with the urban destruction left behind when metahumans fight; the bricks can get reused right away. But if Lego Batman doesn’t quite get into metaphysics of awareness like its progenitor did, it does get into the metaphysics of pop culture. Best to know as little as possible going into this movie, so I’d never spoil it for you. But I can say that Lego Batman is one of the most beautiful and outrageously funny expressions yet of the mashup, fan-fiction fan culturetweet that has developed around geek memes and the merry playfulness of geeks. Lego Batman’s kiddie-level but still very insightful comic psychoanalysis of Bruce Wayne is barely the beginning of it. Its spot-on snarky confrontations with superhero rivalry and the bromance between heroes and villainstweet isn’t quite yet the beginning of it. Its references to every other Batman movie (and the TV show!) is still barely the beginning of it. Reaching out across the fourth wall to deal a smack to Marvel superheroes is starting to be the beginning of it. But it still has a very long way to go before it is done.

“Must. Not. Push. Big. Red. Button. Must. Not. Push. Big. Red. Button.”

“Must. Not. Push. Big. Red. Button. Must. Not. Push. Big. Red. Button.”tweet

(*The script? I’d actually have been quite worried if I’d known, before I saw the film, that it was written by a couple of TV guys, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, among whose biggest credits are the dumb show American Dad; another dude, Jared Stern, who admits to writing The Internship; and Seth Grahame-Smith, creator of the terrible Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, though his Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is much better. [A fifth writer, John Whittington, is a newbie.] Somehow, it turned out okay.)

I laughed out loud so hard at this movie because I saw my own geeky inclinations reflected in it. In Michael Cera’s (This Is the End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) voice performance as Batman’s new sidekick Robin as a sunny, exuberant nerd overexcited to find himself in the presence of the Dark Knight. In the whipsmart references to so many things that I, as a fairly ecumenical fantasy and science fiction fan, love — and which I never expected to see turning up in a Batman cartoon — that kept whizzing by at faster-than-dork speed. First-time feature director Chris McKay is a veteran of Robot Chicken, the bizarre stop-motion TV cartoon for grownups that is little more than stream-of-consciousness geek mashups. And Lego Batman owes at least as much to that show as it does to The Lego Movie.

Everything is awesome.tweet


green light 5 stars

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The Lego Batman Movie (2017) | directed by Chris McKay
US/Can release: Feb 10 2017
UK/Ire release: Feb 10 2017

MPAA: rated PG for rude humor and some action
BBFC: rated U (mild comic violence, rude humour, very mild bad language)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

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  • Jonathan Roth

    Ok, definately gotta go see this.

    I’m a little curious now about the “multiple credited writers” effect now. In animation, collaborative writing has been the norm since the Disney days, and Zootopia benefited greatly from this process. In live action, it’s usually a death knell for quality. Is it because live action studios tend to pass their scripts from individual to individual without any collaboration?

  • Gina Martin

    wow…

  • dionwr

    Damn you, devil woman!
    You’ve got That Song imprinted in my brain again!
    (Everything is–oh shit.)

  • Danielm80

    That’s a fascinating question, and I don’t know the answer. I suspect collaboration is part of it. It also helps if everyone is working toward the same goal, and knows what that goal is.

    William Goldman wrote a wonderful, frightening essay about his screenplay for Absolutely Power. Everyone involved with the project loved David Baldacci’s novel. Goldman loved it. Clint Eastwood loved it. The studio heads loved it, because it was a huge bestseller.

    As soon as they hired Goldman, the studio heads said: This book has an ensemble cast. We need a lead character, so we can hire a big star to play him.

    Clint Eastwood said: I’d love to play the thief. Can you make him more heroic?

    William Goldman said: The thief can’t be the hero unless he violates the principles he follows in the book.

    So all of them, together, destroyed a book that they adored.

    I suspect that something similar happens when there are multiple screenwriters. Each of them may have different goals, and each of them may be hired for a different reason. One person may be hired to “punch up” the dialogue so the star is funnier. One person may be hired to add romantic scenes, or action sequences.

    Animators, on the other hand, are used to working as a team, because an animated movie can’t be made any other way. Also, if they work for Pixar (or Disney, now that John Lasseter is there), they have a set of guiding principles to follow:

    http://pixar-animation.weebly.com/pixars-rules.html

    But I’m not sure that any of that really explains it. Mostly, I think, it’s luck and statistics. There are fewer animated movies, and they take longer to make, so when a really good cartoon comes to theatres, it stands out against the hundreds of live action films that are released each year. And, as an animation fan, I’d like to believe that the cartoons are made with greater love and care, but I’m biased by the sense of magic I feel whenever I see animated figures moving on a screen.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I’m not even sure it’s “Animation is made with greater love and care”. There’s a lot of real stinkers in he animation world too. But I do wonder if it’s more common to see multiple scriptwriters on a bad film because they work serially, compared to multiple writers on a good film working in parallel.

  • Jurgan

    Of course, the best thing is that Billy Dee Williams finally gets to play Two-Face, something he’s been wanting to do since 1989.

  • I wish I knew what was going on. Sometimes writing credits don’t represent a whole lot of input. But that would be true of live-action films as well. I still think it works as a general rule that the more writers who are credited, the worse the film is likely to be. But there are always exceptions to rules. :-)

  • Wait till you hear “Friends Are Family,” the deathly catchy tune over the end credits here!

  • IntrepidNormal

    Batman fits multiple tones, not sure why every director who’s tackled him recently immediately goes to dark and brooding, so I’m quite excited fort this.

  • jjstarA113

    Hey, so how did you get to see this in IMAX 3D? All I can find is IMAX 2D showings, which is really weird. If it’s in 3D, then usually IMAX is guaranteed to have the 3D version.

    I saw it last night on a fairly-large screen, and the 3D looked great! What gives, IMAX!?

  • jjstarA113

    Perhaps it’s because you’re in the UK…

  • I didn’t realize IMAX 3D was so hard to find!

  • RogerBW

    Multiple credited screenwriters for a live-action film often means “A and B wrote the first draft; then a few years later when the script actually sold C and D rewrote it and finally E was brought in to fix up the gaping holes found during shooting”. (The word “and”, as distinction from an ampersand, indicates multiple individuals or teams working separately – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WGA_screenwriting_credit_system .) Zootopia has seven “story by” and two screenwriter credits, but six of those story-bys are part of the same team, and the two screenwriters worked together.

    In this case there are three separate credited groups: Grahame-Smith solo, McKenna & Sommers, and Stern & Whittington. Usually that would be a pretty bad sign.

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  • jjstarA113

    For this movie it is!

  • Danielm80

    I enjoyed seeing all the racebending in this movie. A disconcerting number of the characters who are white are played by actors who are distinctly not.

    http://scriptscribbles.tumblr.com/post/158011699196/the-lego-batman-movie-racebending-characters

    And Clayface is played by Kate Micucci, who is definitely not a large, scary man.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I’m guessing the studio execs put it off so long before they were afraid of all the unintended opportunities for social commentary casting a black actor in that role would provide. Which might explain why we haven’t seen another Latino actor play the Joker despite all the affection old-school fans had for Cesar Romero when he played that part in the original TV show.

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