Welcome to the age of the Comic Book Movie, an era in which no child (or adult) is at risk of being shoved into a locker for knowing the backstories and minutiae of even the lowest-ranking superhero from the respective Marvel and DC pantheons; if anything, we as parents are morally obligated to keep our kids hip and current so they won’t suffer schoolyard taunting. Now, thanks to “The LEGO Batman Movie,” indoctrination into the Church of 20th Century American Mythology can start early.
That sounds kind of absurd, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t long-underwear heroes the stuff of cartoons, cereal boxes, and, of course, those long-gone comic book spinner-racks? There was a time when the origin stories of each member of the Justice League were known to nearly every kid (and by “kid,” I mean “male child”) under the age of ten; but comic books are big business now, guys. Adults can get away with watching them – out in the open, no less! – and what’s more, girls watch them too! The characters are grown up and perfectly suited to our turbulent times, allegorically tackling weighty socio-political issues like gun control (“Captain America: Civil War”) and…um, magic (“Doctor Strange”). It’s 2017, folks: superheroes aren’t just for kids anymore!
But what makes “The LEGO Batman Movie” work is that it remembers that superheroes don’t have to be childish for children to enjoy them, nor does it have to be po-faced and dour for adults to find substance. It succeeds in the way of the best “family films” (see: the original “Star Wars” trilogy) in that a parent can watch it with their kid without either one eagerly scanning the room to identify possible exits. Finally, a Batman movie that doesn’t require a heart-to-heart with your kid on the moral and ethical justification for trying to murder Superman — an illegal alien who’s blamed for the actions of a radical splinter group from his planetary nation.
Both a spinoff of “The LEGO Movie,” and the latest in a series bizarre marriages of franchise properties and expensive toy building blocks, “The LEGO Batman Movie” chronicles the ongoing adventures of Gotham’s perpetually step-throated Caped Crusader (Will Arnett), depicted here as an egomaniac whose vigilante lifestyle has left him friendless and somewhat pathetic. Sure, he wins the applause of his city’s denizens after putting away an onslaught of villainous nutjobs led by the Joker (a wasted Zach Galifinakas); but as Bruce Wayne, there’s little to go home to except to microwave his leftover lobster dinner and watch “Jerry Maguire.” Even the Justice League shuns him from their annual disco parties because, let’s face it, Batman’s a drag. He stares at portraits of his dead parents and wears his mask around the house. There’s a reason he’s the number one most-featured character on Hot Topic merchandise.
It isn’t until the Joker infiltrates the interdimensional prison of Phantom Zone and frees its villainous inmates – a literal Who’s Who of both licensed and public domain monsters and assorted pop culture icons – that Batman is forced to embrace a surrogate family made up of teen sidekick Robin (Michael Cera), faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes), and Gotham’s newest commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson). Will Batman defeat his rogues gallery? Will he come to appreciate teamwork and abandon his obsessive solitary lifestyle? Will there be at least two more “LEGO Batman” sequels to guarantee multiple Warner Brothers releases on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, both in standard and steelbook variants? SPOILER ALERT: the answer to each of these questions is “duh.”
And that’s not a bad thing. Really. “The LEGO Batman Movie” is exactly the sort of antidote to the increasingly highbrow and “important” takes on four-color heroes, chiefly in regards to its treatment of the source material. It’s unflinchingly irreverent in a way its live-action DC counterparts are not. The entire movie is one long series of Easter egg-style references to Batman movies (and comics) all the way back to 1939. You get nods to the Burton and Schumacher entries, the groundbreaking Frank Miller graphic novels, Detective Comics #27, and even the (very racist) Columbia serials from the 40s. You get literally dozens of opportunities to explain to your date the history and significance of throwaway gags like Shark Repellant Bat-Spray, Billy Dee Williams’ long-overdue appearance as Two-Face, and all sorts of other trivia that will ensure uncomfortable side-eye and forced abstinence at the end of the night. And that’s what this film really is: a celebration of Batman and his many interpretations.
If “The LEGO Batman Movie” has a weakness, it’s the precipitous plunge in quality that occurs during its second half. Once the Phantom Zone storyline is introduced, things take a sharp decline as the best Batman parody to date becomes an almost baffling commercial for completely unrelated Warner Brothers-owned franchises (“The Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” and even “Gremlins”). When Voldemort has more dialogue than Two-Face, the Riddler, Catwoman and the Penguin combined, the stench of corporate synergy begins to fill the theater. Nonetheless, if you’re sitting there complaining to yourself that combining Batman and King Kong makes no sense whatsoever, then you’re overlooking the cinematic Stockholm Syndrome that made you forget you were watching these characters as depicted by LEGO iconography. It’s enough to make your virginity grow back in equal proportion to the Nerd Rage your limit break unleashes on the movie.
But in the end, who cares? “The LEGO Batman Movie” doesn’t take itself seriously, and neither should you. It’s evaporation entertainment of the best sort, as it charms you in the moment, promises to return, and then gets offstage before it can wear out its welcome. Best of all? No parent-teacher conferences to discuss Junior’s daily locker-stuffing. Such is the world we now share.
Rated PG for “rude humor and some action.”
Running time: 92 minutes