The Lego Movie was one of my favorite films of 2014. I enjoyed how it was written like a film written by an eight year old playing with Legos in his basement. It was energetic and hilarious. Even if the plot was a lift from Joseph Campbell, it never felt pedantic. And it appealed to adults without relying on double entendres.
Now comes The Lego Batman film, a movie I looked forward to. Will Arnett’s portrayal of The Dark Knight in The Lego Movie was a standout. If Batman really existed, surely he would be the selfish braggart that was seen in that movie. And the Batman mythology is already known enough to create the pop culture gags that The Lego Movie depended on.
But something feels off about The Lego Batman Movie. It’s still funny and includes a lot of in-jokes that only Batman fans would get. (Did anyone else notice the Blight cameo or the Batman Beyond costume in the Batcave?) But the script doesn’t feel like it was written by a child playing with Legos. It plays like an adult who is imagining that he or she is a child playing with Legos. The film is ultimately about how it’s important to have friends and only teamwork will save the day. That sounds like something that’s better learned on Sesame Street. Again, The Lego Movie was childish, but it had earned the right to be. The Lego Batman Movie never earns that right.
The plot is the Batman plot. The Joker is up to something, Batman tries to stop him, finds he can’t do it alone, so must rely on help from his Bat-family. In this film, Batman wants to get rid of the Joker by banishing him to the Phantom Zone, while the Joker wants to recruit some of the biggest villains (like Voldemort and the Daleks, labeled as “British robots” in the movie) from there to prove he is truly Batman’s greatest enemy.
I enjoyed how many Batman Easter eggs were scattered throughout the film. The Lego Batman Movie is sure to remind the audience of Batman’s grittier films – and then points out how ridiculous some of those gritty moments are.Batman, if he existed in real life, would not be the tortured soul that exists in the Christopher Nolan movies. He would be the narcissistic man who exists in the Lego universe. He wouldn’t live in the dark, but in the camera flash as he’s mocking the garish criminals he fights. He wouldn’t love Gotham, he’d barely take notice of it as he admires himself in the mirror.
Batman would not have lasted 78 years if he’d been consistently portrayed this way. But for a ninety minute satire, it’s perfect. I was concerned this film would be an overexposure of the character. The Lego Movie was right to only feature Batman in small doses. Yet Will Arnett and the filmmakers find the perfect balance between funny and grating. One scene I really enjoyed was the scene in which Batman visits an orphanage and makes sure to bring along a cannon to fire t-shirts at the orphans.
Bateman’s supporting characters also work well in this spoof. I liked Zach Galifinakis’ lovesick Joker, who only wants Batman to hate him more than anyone else. Michael Cera is an amusing Dick Grayson. Far removed from the child acrobat of the comics, this Grayson is a hopeless nerd who views the Batcave as a comic convention vendor hall. Ralph Fiennes is a great Alfred Pennyworth who fills the “father role” in a way live action Alfreds have not. And Barbara Gordon…well she’s a reprise of Lucy from The Lego Movie. It still works because Barbara tries so hard to be the voice of reason in the comics like she is here.
So far, it sounds like the perfect Batman riff with some great casting. So what’s the problem?
The Lego Batman Movie doesn’t capture the same tone that The Lego Movie did. That film had a very childish and dumb plot. But it worked because it felt like the sort of plot that a child would create while playing with his toys.
The Lego Batman Movie feels like the sort of cartoon pitched at eight year old children. Ultimately the film is about the importance of friendship and how Batman can’t save the day by himself. To be fair, several famous comics have addressed that theme. (Check out Bruce Wayne: Murderer for an example.) But it’s not a lot of fun seeing it done here. I felt like I was being talked down to throughout the film.
This is also bad because the film is full of gags that are not likely to appeal to children. All of the jokes about the shark repellent and references to the Joker on a parade float “while Prince songs play” are going to go over the heads of children. So why insult the adult audience with such prof themes after doing so much to ensure your film appeals to them?
I don’t hate The Lego Batman Movie. As a Spaceballs-esque spoof of the Batman mythology, I can imagine a far worse film. The creators of the film love the character while also recognizing the cracks in Batman’s armor. But it’s too childish and doesn’t have the same sense of fun The Lego Movie had. As a result, instead of being the joy The Lego Movie was, it feels more like a cartoon cable series that wouldn’t have much crossover appeal.