The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

02/12/2017  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

As a critic, it never stops feeling weird to review movies like The Lego Batman Movie. Anyone who will watch it knows the story already: Batman (Will Arnett, playing to type), the loner Dark Knight, adopts youthful ward Dick Grayson (Michael Cera, playing to type), who teaches him that he doesn’t have to fight crime alone; he learns this lesson in time to defeat the Joker (Zachary Galifinakis, going against type inasmuch as he lacks a beard). We know the movie will contain ass-kicking and snappy dialog and a rated-PG fascist making the city safe. Even in the form of hyper-stylized plastic bricks, the story doesn’t change. So the question becomes less, “Is it a good film?,” than, “Do I feel like watching it?”

It contains Gremlins chewing on the Batwing, so.…

By my own metrics, I should consider Lego Batman the perfect superhero movie. I’ve always believed that an individual superhero movie should contain the entire rogues gallery, so that we see the franchise’s entire world and its possibilities. (This must have stemmed from me seeing Dick Tracy at the formative age when most American kids first see Star Wars.) Lego Batman has dozens of villains spanning Batman’s entire history, from Egghead to Bane to the Polka-Dot Man to the Condiment King, then the film branches out into pop-culture villains, Wreck-It Ralph style. The film makes many, many references to Batman ‘66, my favorite incarnation of the franchise. A good action film requires good character development, and Lego Batman has the most clear, categorical development of Batman from loner to family man in the franchise’s history. A good superhero film needs superhero action, and this film feels like a constant all-out barrage of superhero action. I mean this film comes on strong, an unrelenting assault of spectacle from start to finish. It makes Koike’s Redline look like an Antonioni film!

So. Many. Villains.

So why do I feel so underwhelmed?

It might have something to do with director Chris McKay’s pacing. I can’t say how kids will respond, but any adult would feel blown away by the onslaught of… stuff. Bricks fly everywhere. Exposition splurts out by the second. Sight gags fill every frame. In a tradition dating back to Fleischer Studios (whose Superman shorts became the primary inspiration for Batman: The Animated Series), every shot has a gag, and each shot lasts a handful of seconds or less. References to the Bat-franchise and pop culture in general abound. For instance, the villains include the gremlins from, well, Gremlins, and they chew on the Batwing in a Twilight Zone reference. These clever references make the film interesting, but this movie has so many of them that saccadic eye movement accelerates to breakneck speed. The characters speak with such speed and spontaneous pithiness that even the Gilmore Girls would suspect they have a cocaine problem. By the end, I felt drained from what I just watched… and I have ADHD.

The entire movie feels like this cockpit.

Stripping away the constant visual spectacle, the film has no new dimensions to add to the Bat-franchise. Jesse, one of my closest friends and the author of Life and How to Live It, describes Batman as “a fascist who uses his privilege to punch the poor and neurodivergent,” an opinion I share. To its credit, this film categorically calls Batman out on his fascism. But this still makes Batman’s umpteenth “no man is an island” story and the zillionth children’s animated superhero movie about the power of friendship. (I find this ironic, since adults have a harder time than children maintaining friendships.) From every angle, the themes seem old hat by this point. There exist so many other ethical dilemmas out there. “Do I maintain a relationship with toxic friends?” “How can I make amends for past mistakes without letting them consume me?” “Do I have enough time to rub one out before I have to go to work?”

It feels strange to criticize Lego Batman for these intangible issues, both because it’s technically a video game movie (and therefore well under par for its genre), and because the tangible stuff works. The voice actors do a great job embodying their yellow plastic counterparts, even though the lion’s share of the dialogue has that corny children’s film veneer. Every line in the film could exist as a tweet or a Facebook meme. (Half of them already did.) The creators know what the fans want and gave them ten of it. The climax involves every character in the narrative and escalates into a supernova of fan-service. The music opens with Batman’s cringe-worthy self-promotion rap, but the rest of the sound design buttress the character development. (Of all things, the film makes repeated references to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”) Lego Batman also does a good job making Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) a hero who can stand on her own. Her intelligence and backbone make her a worthy role model for young girls in the audience.

I’m starting with the man in the mirror / I’m asking if he’ll change his ways / And no mustache painted on Andy Griffith
(I don’t know the words.)

Lego Batman makes me feel like J.J. Abrams makes me feel. The movies thrill me and get my blood pumping in the theater, then I step away and realize I didn’t enjoy them as much as I thought, and I have no real desire to see them again. Your kids will undoubtedly enjoy Lego Batman, and it contains nothing that will leave them the worse for watching it. Its animated, low-stakes action makes it great entertainment for kids—although you won’t want to use it as their first exposure to the franchise, as the surfeit of characters and references will confuse the hell out of them. Children’s entertainment should and must amount to more than shutting a kid up for 90 minutes; in that sense, Lego Batman succeeds. But unless you want a headache of your own, drink lots of coffee before it starts. Or snort a bat-sized line and hope Barbara Gordon doesn’t see.

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About Jordan Saïd


Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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