A virtually critic-proof three-ring circus of toy-based programming and winking self-reference guaranteed to give even the most devoted admirer whiplash, “The Lego Batman Movie” duplicates some of the charm of its 2014 Phil Lord and Christopher Miller-directed predecessor.
Led by Chris McKay, the “new” adventure is pure postmodern pastiche: a feature-length fantasia of Easter eggs, throwbacks, inside jokes, and mock lessons fully trading on the Dark Knight’s most commonly mined thematic territory.
At the center is the age-old question asking whether the Batman is better off as a solo act. The answer, supplied in the wide-eyed minifigure of Michael Cera’s eager Dick Grayson, is an emphatic no.
Last year, Glen Weldon summarized the value of Robin as “half the story,” a presence that “serves to define and delineate Batman.” Weldon argued that “Batman's status as the ultimate mentor is a base principle, inasmuch as it speaks directly to who he is: he saves others because, on one terrible night long ago, there was no one to save him.”
In “The Lego Batman Movie,” the orphan status of both Bruce and Dick is a punchline, as are multiple nods to the unorthodox partnership of a single, adult socialite and a teenage boy. But make no mistake: “The Lego Batman Movie” recognizes that Batman can be so much more engaging with Robin around.
The retirement of reliable police commissioner James Gordon is a nice touch made nicer by the promotion of daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson) to the post. Ms. Gordon’s inaugural address, in which she points out the obvious by reminding the assembled citizens that the decades-long effort of Batman to reduce crime in Gotham City hasn’t moved the needle, is another reminder that the Caped Crusader is nothing without the recidivists who pass through the revolving doors of Arkham Asylum.
In one funny exchange, Batman denies nemesis exclusivity to the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), insisting that he likes to “fight around.” Frequent Wayne Manor screenings of “Jerry Maguire” provide another opportunity to skewer the “You complete me” ethos forever coupling the World’s Greatest Detective to the Clown Prince of Crime.
Unfortunately, the capable Batgirl (who wonders aloud whether her own moniker should allow her to rechristen Batman as Batboy) is punished with second-class status. So are the other females. Zoe Kravitz’s nearly mute Catwoman is deprived of her claws and her purr. Harley Quinn, voiced by Jenny Slate, is a non-starter. And notwithstanding the inspired casting of Kate Micucci as Clayface and Riki Lindhome as Poison Ivy, this version of Gotham, like so many others, is a place where the majority of the talking is done by men to other men, and women speak very little with women.
Like “The Lego Movie,” the brick Batman iteration subscribes to more-is-more in the category of franchise crossovers. By the end, the promise of a deep-bench rogues gallery melee featuring classic DC villains has been expanded to a wild tossed salad calling on Gremlins, King Kong, Voldemort, Sauron, and the Wicked Witch of the West and her winged monkeys.
The whole shebang works well enough if you don’t think too hard about it, especially since the inherent construction/deconstruction motif in the Lego landscape so perfectly suits the more outre and psychedelic chapters in Batman’s storied chronology.
As Grant Morrison put it, “Batman knew what it was like to trip balls without seriously losing his shit,” and McKay slices off a thick slab of nostalgia, including plenty of love for the landmark 1966 series.
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