Box Office Democracy: The Lego Batman Movie

I wonder if there’s a pop culture franchise I wouldn’t be excited to see turned in to a Lego production at this point.  The Lego Batman Movie could have so easily been an uninspired cash-in to take advantage of how profitable Batman is as a character and the good will we all still feel from The Lego Movie but instead we have a movie chock full of funny jokes, intriguing themes, and most importantly a monumental amount of effort.  This is such a strong children’s movie that I saw it in a packed house on a Saturday night with basically no children, and it was the most boisterous crowd I’ve been a part of in recent memory.  Lego Batman is a triumph, a shining beacon, that every other DC movie should be trying to reach the same level of competence or at least figuring out how to fake it to the studio executives.  Perhaps Ben Affleck is not actually trying to get out if his obligation to play Batman not because of creative differences but because he’s worried about being overshadowed by Will Arnett.

There’s nothing to the plot of The Lego Batman Movie that you haven’t seen elsewhere— it’s just kind of unique to see these elements in a superhero story and, perhaps more importantly, in a movie about a hero so associated with hypermasculinity.  This is a story about Batman needing to connect with people, to construct a family out of the people in his life to replace the one he lost.  Interestingly, instead of making this a source of external conflict, it’s only a source of internal conflict; almost every important supporting character is falling over themselves to become an essential part of Batman’s life, from the obvious examples of Alfred and Robin to the quasi-adversarial Barbara Gordon who might not approve of Batman’s methods but wants to be close to him, and even the Joker wants to destroy all of Gotham City but more than that he wants Batman to acknowledge that he’s important in his life.  The actual plot elements are a little thin, many elements of the evil plot seem designed to shoehorn in as many other licensed characters as possible, and while those are some fun cameos it doesn’t make for a complex story.

One thing that kind of bugged me about The Lego Batman Movie is that it doesn’t play with the idea of being toys the way The Lego Movie did.  It’s clearly supposed to be the same world and all the weapons make “pew pew” sounds like a child is making them, but it never pulls back to the “real world” layer to see Will Farrell’s kid.  I’m not sure what it would have been— the obvious answer seems to be about the death of a parent and that may have been a little dark, perhaps giving this story a chance to reflect a slightly more real situation would have helped it land a little harder.  As it is we get a great movie, but one that fails to land with quite the same impact as The Lego Movie.  Not that “slightly worse than The Lego Movie” is a particularly stern critique; I just wanted a bit more depth.

Will Arnett is an absolute treasure as Batman.  I’m not entirely sure how strong any of the material he was given was in an objective sense because it feels like he could reenact the end of Old Yeller in that voice and it would get huge laughs.  I would watch a live action Batman movie starring Arnett and I would promise to ignore the fact that he would never be in the kind of shape you expect to see The Caped Crusader in.  Rosario Dawson is a pleasant surprise as Barbara Gordon making a deep character at what could have been a thankless role.  Michael Cera is great at awestruck and overly affectionate, I wonder if we couldn’t have seen a little more range from him as that bit can wear a little thin.  It’s so thrilling to hear Billy Dee Williams voice Two Face that you can easily overlook that the part has fewer than five lines.

It is so refreshing to get a DC Comics movie that isn’t taking itself so seriously.  The Lego Batman Movie is fun before it’s anything else.  It isn’t obsessed with continuity (although it does reference in some way almost every other on-screen depiction of Batman to date), or with having a dark tone, or with proving the comics are for grown-ups.  This is a movie that just wants to be fun— and that’s so refreshing after two Superman movies that seemed fixated on generating the biggest body counts.  I need some childlike wonder in my superhero movies; I can get gritty nihilism from the real world.