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?
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! — 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.
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 culture 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 villains 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.
(*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.