Throwing the notion of a quick-witted, self-aware superhero into the mainstream long before a Deadpool movie was even thought possible, Will Arnett’s supremely snarky Batman cameo was one of The Lego Movie’s many unexpected pleasures. That the becowled anti-hero is to be unleashed in his very own spin-off movie is not quite as surprising but no less challenging.
But while The Lego Batman Movie is clearly no match for its predecessor in novelty and emotional bite, it’s still a relentlessly witty, fitfully imaginative adventure that puts Zack Snyder’s recent attempts to revive the Caped Crusader’s more fleshy incarnation to shame.
Batman might be approaching his 78th birthday this year, but that hasn’t prevented director Chris McKay and his team of writers from finding a fresh take on the vigilante’s bruised backstory.
We kick things off with Arnett’s gravely-voiced crime fighter milking all the adulation for once again saving Gotham City from one of The Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) needlessly convoluted crime sprees. But when he returns to his ‘puterised’ Batcave beneath Wayne Island there are no baying crowds or adoring fans to welcome him – just a microwave lobster for one and a romcom movie marathon to distract him from thoughts of the family he so cruelly lost as a child.
Naturally, Batman’s solitude is challenged by the appointment of Gotham’s new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) – who makes a politically timely speech about the importance of working together to keep the world safe – and the arrival of his adorably dorky adoptive son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) who stumbles upon his new padre’s secret lair and sets his heart on becoming his favourite superhero’s new sidekick. Oh yeah, and The Joker is getting ready to launch his most bombastic scheme yet in a desperately needy bid to prove to Batman that he is his one true enemy.
Visually, this movie is as delightfully absurd as its predecessor. The stop-motion-esque style of animation remains uncommonly charming and yet proves to be no barrier to executing spectacular set pieces. An opening gambit is particularly impressive, swiftly introducing a raft of new characters – including a rare moment in the spotlight for some of Batman’s lesser known nemeses – while still delivering cinema worthy tension and entertainment.
It’s also frantically funny, boasting a script packed tighter than Robin’s spandex y-fronts with one-liners, silly sight gags and sharp pop culture references – a knack McKay honed through three seasons working on Robot Chicken. The filmmakers are even bold enough to poke fun at Batman’s own chequered history, with a lot of tongue-in-cheek affection aimed towards Adam West’s unashamedly camp ’60s era.
All these positives are not quite enough to mask the movie’s inability to find another gear, though. The Lego Movie worked, at least in part, because it bounced between genres with the boundless enthusiasm of a toddler at Disney Land. Lego Batman, by contrast, works only as a superhero spoof. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but here it makes the tone of the jokes feel unbearably monotonous. This is especially true for Arnett’s grumpy frat boy shtick: an uproarious take down of a comic book icon when delivered in small doses, the rebellious teen antics feel exhaustive when required for every scene.
Still, to dub The Lego Batman Movie a failure for its flaws would be churlish. It might not reach the extraordinary heights of The Lego Movie, but its ingenious craft work, exuberant performances and the sheer joy its story provides remain as exciting and infectious as ever.