Moviegoers’ first look at the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s 1992 gothic masterpiece Batman Returns was a peculiar one. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) sits in his desk chair, brooding silently in a giant, dark office, with seemingly nothing to do. Suddenly, the Bat-signal flashes into the sky; Bruce’s head jerks up, and he leaps into action, energized by the grim purpose of his secret crime-fighting identity. It’s a brilliant gag on Burton and Keaton’s part—a sly nod to the reality that, when he’s not cleaning up the streets of Gotham, Batman is a sad, lonely man, a billionaire unfulfilled by anything except putting on the mask.
The Lego Batman Movie is, on one level, a work of crass commercialism, just like its predecessor The Lego Movie. It is also, however, a terrific adaptation of Tim Burton’s gag—a take on Batman that sees the sitcom humor in his absurd lifestyle, brutalizing criminals by night and wasting his days in a cavernous mansion with only an elderly butler to talk to. It’s a one-joke movie that’s based on a really funny joke. As such, it’s a wry piece of meta-commentary that deconstructs (no pun intended) everyone’s favorite moody hero using the anarchic animated style of the Lego world.
As the film begins, Batman (given the same gravelly voice that Will Arnett ably provided in The Lego Movie) is the hero of Gotham—always handily defeating a familiar list of supervillains led by the demented Joker (a gleeful Zach Galifianakis). When he’s not out in Gotham, though, he’s whiling away the time in the gilded cage that is his mansion, watching romantic comedies alone (Jerry Maguire is a perpetual favorite), warming up lobster thermidor in the microwave, and barking at his butler Alfred, waiting desperately for that Bat-signal to show up in the sky again.
Moviegoers have been besieged with Bat-content in recent years. There was Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight (Christian Bale), a practical, grounded, yet still undeniably unhinged vigilante far removed from Burton’s pulpier excesses—who starred in three films. Last year, we saw Zack Snyder somehow attempt to combine Nolan’s forbidding darkness and Burton’s cartoonishness into one hero (played by Ben Affleck) in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. How much more Batman could anyone possibly stand? But The Lego Batman Movie works precisely because it knows audiences are sick of its hero. It’s a reassessment, an intervention, an effort to try and remember what’s fun about him and what maybe needs to remain on the cutting-room floor.
The film’s story, such as it is, is rooted in Batman’s obsessive desire to be left alone. When the Joker proclaims himself Batman’s arch-nemesis, the hero blanches, not willing to commit to such a label. When the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) suggests that the Gotham cops partner with Batman, rather than simply turning on the Bat-signal whenever they need him to deal with a supervillain, he scoffs. And when young orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) ends up in his care, it takes Batman a week to even notice he’s living in the mansion.
So Batman, over about an hour and 45 minutes, has to learn to let people in, even the villains who clearly bring him great joy. Somehow, the film (credited to a horde of writers including Community’s Chris McKenna and the novelist Seth Grahame-Smith) stretches this into a feature-length story, though it feels a little thin at times. The film works best when it’s furiously lobbing jokes at the screen, à la Airplane!, rather than trying to construct a meaningful action-movie narrative. The expected happy ending feels a bit more pat than The Lego Movie’s radical meta-twist, but it’s largely earned (partly because Cera’s voice work as young Robin is surprisingly, and hilariously, heartfelt).
The director Chris McKay, the animation supervisor on The Lego Movie, retains that film’s look and feel. Every action sequence crackles with childlike energy, making viewers feel as if they’re in the hands of a kid playing with his toys. That rebellious delight is somewhat counterbalanced by the extreme, and somewhat disturbing, brand management on display—the studio, Warner Bros., finds a way to cram all of its big-name titles, from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings, into the film. But The Lego Batman Movie is so eager to pop its egotistical hero’s bubble that it’s easy to be won over. I’ll save my revulsion for whenever the Lego brand wears out its welcome—as of right now, there’s still plenty to love about it.