Matt Damon will try to be the white savior in The Great Wall this weekend but he’s going to get beat by LEGO Batman. So if you haven’t seen it yet…
The LEGO Batman Movie gets you laughing right from the start, with Batman (Will Arnett at his gravelliest) expounding on how all good movies start with a black screen and long logos. It’s a great hook, and it is somewhat shocking to realize just minutes into the movie that you’re watching a Batman movie and it isn’t dour. In fact it’s the opposite—LEGO Batman is exuberantly silly and fun, and yet still hits all the standard Batman beats of family, loneliness, and darkness. Though it’s a figurative darkness this time, as the color palette, while not quite as bright as The LEGO Movie, is still more neon than not.
Arnett is joined by a voice cast that includes Rosario Dawson as Barbara Gordon, Michael Cera as Robin, Zach Galifianakis as the Joker, and Jenny Slate as Harley Quinn. (Are we fighting if I say that I like Slate’s Harley voice better than Margot Robbie’s?) There is also a slew of famous people doing one liners as a cavalcade of villains including Conan O’Brien (the Riddler), Billy Dee Williams (FINALLY Two Face after all these years), Jason Mantzoukas (Scarecrow), and Zoe Kravitz supremely wasted as Catwoman (the way she went “Meow meow” around everything she said begs to be better utilized). Also Mariah Carey voices the mayor.
The movie opens with a gonzo sequence as the Joker attempts to blow up LEGO Gotham City, which is built on planks suspended over a void—a clever way of describing a table holding a LEGO set—and Batman racing to stop him. Arnett’s hilariously over the top Batman voice is still great, but Galifianakis makes for a spectacular Joker. The character design is terrific, down to the Joker’s pointy yellow teeth, and Galifianakis delivers a great, unique Joker-laugh.
(After Suicide Squad I dubbed Jared Leto the “third best Joker”, because he was the worst of the three movie Jokers. But since then Mark Hamill, longtime animated/video game voice of the Joker, starred in a feature adaptation of The Killing Joke, adding him to the “movie Joker” list, and now we have Zach Galifianakis as LEGO movie-verse Joker. Which means that Jared Leto is no longer the third best Joker, he is now just the worst Joker.)
The story starts off strong, with Batman determined to work alone so that he can never lose another family. Building off the vainglorious Batman of The LEGO Movie, Batman is revealed to be not only self-involved but callous and so dark and grim that the rest of the Justice League doesn’t tell him when there’s a party. And when the new Gotham City Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon—top of her class at Harvard For Police—announces she wants to team up with Batman, he is borderline furious.
The setups all work in LEGO Batman, and the references and in jokes come so fast and furious it’s impossible to keep track of them all. Superhero Face Punch and Suicide Squad take their fair share of the ribbing, but there are references ranging from the expected riffs on Eighties movies to a deeply scatological Patton Oswalt reference—if you get that one, you get a cookie.
But the longer the movie runs, the thinner the jokes get, until the movie pretty much falls off a cliff at the start of act three. There’s a laser, you see, and a portal in the sky. And they’re not mocking that overplayed superhero movie trope, no, they’re straight up using it as a plot point in a totally un-ironic way. LEGO Batman starts off as a solid spoof, managing to get the characterizations right while riffing on the long history of Batman and his colorful—and very weird—rogue’s gallery. But once that portal opens over Gotham City, LEGO Batman turns into any old superhero movie, right down to “too many villains”—funny at the beginning as a gag but much less effective as a real plot device—and a rushed resolution.
The LEGO Batman Movie offers plenty of laughs and some deep cuts for fans of Batman to geek out over, but in the end, it falls victim to the same heavy-handed plotting that tends to plague the genre. But there is so much joy in the first half of the movie that it keeps this version of Batman from taking itself too seriously. The movie’s sense of humor and fun save it from the more pedestrian parts of the script. The live action DC movie could take a hint.