The Best Superhero Film In Years. Seriously.
I had high expectations for The Lego Batman Movie, mainly because its 2014 predecessor, The Lego Movie, came out of nowhere to become one of my absolute favorite films of all time. Well, not entirely out of nowhere – I’d been keeping a close eye on Phil Lord and Chris Miller ever since Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and between that, the original Lego, and last year’s criminally underappreciated Storks, I’ve become a big believer in the newly-formed Warner Animation Group and their propensity for films that are, if not consistently great, at least consistently hilarious. Still, despite a couple of impressive trailers, I had my doubts about whether or not a film that seemed to exist solely to cynically profit off of the most popular character in The Lego Movie could really reach the same dizzying heights as its predecessor.
I needn’t have worried. The Lego Batman Movie met my high expectations and surpassed them. If you liked The Lego Movie, you need to see it. If you like Batman, you NEED to see it. If you like having fun in general, you should go see it. The Lego Batman Movie is – and I say this without exaggeration or irony – the best superhero film in years. At the very least, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t turn out to be the funniest film of 2017.
What are you doing sitting here reading this? Go. Watch. It. But just in case you need something to do while you’re sitting in the theater waiting for the trailers to start, fear not – this review is spoiler-free.
Okay, first things first. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but The Lego Batman Movie is funny. Really funny. It has the same distinctive rapid-fire comedy found in all those films I mentioned in my first paragraph, leaving you breathless with laughter in the best possible way. In fact, I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of the jokes either as a result of my laughing over them or because they were sight gags hiding in the background, waiting for a pause-able DVD release or a second (third, fourth, so on) trip to the theater to be discovered. The film will have you laughing before the logos even appear and will continue to do so well into the credits.
And yet, perhaps even moreso than the original Lego Movie (blasphemy, I know), Lego Batman knows when to slow down, too. Not only to make sure the pace of the humor never becomes overwhelming, as in a hilariously over-extended scene showing Batman’s dull-as-ditchwater daily routine in the Bat Cave, but also to tell a surprisingly smart, deeply emotional story. The following sentence is something I’m still having a hard time processing myself: The Lego Batman Movie is, at heart, a story about Bruce Wayne’s crippling fear of emotional intimacy, exploring the ramifications of his childhood trauma more deeply and more intelligently than probably any film since Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. It also manages to add a new dimension to his ongoing struggle with the Joker (exploring the relationship established in the Killing Joke without straight-up copying it in the manner of The Killing Joke) and questions whether or not the Dark Knight’s “gray morality” can really be called moral at all. That last point comes up in a scene that honestly shook my understanding of the Batman character, and though the problems that scene presents will be resolved in a manner fairly predictable to adults in the audience, it still packs a serious punch the first time you see it.
That a movie that could have easily been little more than a 90-minute toy commercial would dare to explore these themes is bold. That it does such a good job doing so is amazing. That The Lego Batman Movie can deal with these themes while still being gut-bustingly hilarious? That feels like nothing short of a minor miracle.
And a big part of that is thanks to the all-star cast. Obviously, the star attraction here is Will Arnett, whose performance somehow manages to bring sympathetic, emotional delivery to a character who furiously growls every line. The Lego incarnation of Batman even growls as Bruce Wayne, which is hilarious, but also emphasizes that, as he puts it, Batman doesn’t live in Bruce Wayne’s basement – “Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic.” Without Arnett, the growling would quickly grow infuriating, and lines like that would lose their dual meaning – funny, yes, but also a reflection of a deeply broken man. Who, I must remind you, is also made of Lego. Because what even is this movie.
However, the rest of the cast puts in fine performances as well. Rosario Dawson, the best part of every Marvel Netflix series, does a phenomenal job as Commissioner Barbara Gordon, as does Ralph Fiennes as Alfred – a role you almost feel he was born to play. I particularly enjoyed Michael Cera as Batman’s unflappable orphan sidekick, a performance that I hope will land him more voice acting in the future (so long as it’s all as good as this.) Even the side characters have great actors behind them, or at least great cameos. Like Billy Dee Williams finally getting the chance to play Two-Face, or Eddie Izzard and Jemaine Clement as…well, I shouldn’t say (and you shouldn’t look it up.)
The one disappointment is Zach Galifianakis as the Joker. I mean, sure, not everyone can be Mark Hamill (though while we’re at it, why didn’t they just get him?) But, typically, the voice of the Joker has been something voice actors approach with a deep respect, and while Hamill will always be the king, actors like John Dimaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, and Troy Baker have all brought something unique and interesting to the role. But Galifianakis’ performance is so by-the-book that I couldn’t even tell who it was until the credits rolled – far from being the maniacal Clown Prince of Crime, he sounds like he could be any white guy who just wandered into the studio and is reading these lines cold. He’s not scary. He’s not funny. And he’s meant to be the foil to Will Arnett. I wasn’t buying it.
Still, one tepid performance isn’t nearly enough to ruin such a fantastic film. This is the kind of superhero movie I miss. There’s drama, and even some poignant moments, but it’s not depressing like Man of Steel. It doesn’t waste our time with a boring origin story like Deadpool, Batman v Superman, or every single Marvel movie. Oh, and speaking of Dawn of Justice, the movie not only references that and the rest of the recent DC Universe (and isn’t above taking potshots at the things that made those films so disappointing), it also references every other piece of Batman media ever produced. Yes, even the DC Batman and Robin. Yes, even the 1949 Robert Lowery serial. Yes, even the Adam West TV show. Especially the Adam West TV show. And these films aren’t just referenced – they’re tied into the story, as much of the plot revolves around the fact that Batman’s been having the exact same fights with the exact same villains the exact same way for over 70 years.
That, in the end, is what really sets The Lego Batman Movie apart. Unlike the gray, dreary cynicism of the awful Batman v Superman or the cookie-cutter Marvel origin stories, it feels like a superhero movie made by people who love superheroes. It’s a parody of Batman, sure, in that it looks at the character in a humorous and often satirical light, but it’s also one of the best Batman movies ever, with a climax that has to be seen to be believed. This is comedy that could only come from people who have a deep understanding of the character and what makes him so iconic and enduring. It’s action-packed, well-written, and (mostly) elegantly performed. And best of all, it’s just a damn good time at the movies.
What more is there to say? Go see The Lego Batman Movie. I promise you’ll be glad that you did.
Final Verdict: 5/5
The Lego Batman Movie, directed by Chris McKay, Starring Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, and Ralph Fiennes. Released February 9, 2017.