batman film

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE Review: Pew, Pew, Pew! Family! Good Times!

Monday, February 13, 2017 Rob Samuelson

The Lego Batman Movie is a rare thing. It is a movie designed to sell toys, above all else. But much like its predecessor, 2014’s The Lego Movie, it is something stranger and more confusing. It’s a piece of film criticism packaged inside of a film.

Photo credit: The LEGO Batman Movie/Facebook

Director Chris McKay, working alongside an army of screenwriters (somehow the movie avoids “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome), tweaks everything that has defined the character of Batman for the last 35 years, especially the relentless lurch toward misery that culminated in last year’s wretched Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The cute Lego version of Batman, voiced by Will Arnett (his cameo as the same character in the 2014 film was one of that project’s many delights), is a gravely voiced simpleton obsessed with himself and his own shallow idea of what a pained existence is like. As anyone who is familiar with the Batman mythos knows, beneath the cowl is a billionaire named Bruce Wayne. Yes, his parents were murdered when he was a boy and he has enormous issues that derive from that trauma, but if anyone is able to absorb that tragedy, it’s a person with limitless resources and a support system (butler Alfred, played by Ralph Fiennes as an exasperated parent of a petulant child at his wits’ end, is a delight) eager to love him -- if only Bruce/Batman wouldn’t willfully shut them out.

McKay skewers this instinct by putting Batman, still wearing his mask, in a bathrobe in front of a giant home theater system. On the screen is any number of romantic comedies, including Jerry Maguire, which draws forced laughter from the theater’s sole occupant, who munches on big Lego lobster dinners (because he’s so rich, he can eat it every single night). Batman continually brags about his “awesome” life, spitting out the word in true “trying too hard to sound cool on the internet when you’re actually just a nerd” fashion. Repeated references are made to Batman’s past on film, including one “going back in time” montage that gets brighter and more silly/fun the further back it goes -- it includes footage of a lovely dance called the Batusi that Adam West performed as the title character on the 1960s television series. It teases each era for different reasons.

That teasing serves a purpose. It shows that it’s okay for a character, one that was originally designed for children and is still largely consumed by younger people today, to be fun. By constantly trying to lock down the nostalgia crowd with entertainment that feels like an “adult” update on what they loved as kids, recent adaptations of the DC Comics hero have felt slightly off in their tone, including Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy -- those three films occasionally transcend the fact that they’re chasing those nostalgic fans, but the chase continues throughout them nevertheless. It makes the case that the people entrusted with the Batman character must take some responsibility with him. Because his intended audience has traditionally been younger viewers, perhaps it’s best, the movie argues, that those creators make him a man who sees the world as something more than a heinous hellhole.

But simply taking potshots at the mistakes of other movies is hardly artful. McKay and the writers recognize this and they often succeed in showing that there is a better, non-dark way to freshen a franchise that has existed in one form or another for nearly 80 years. By cutting straight to the bone -- Batman’s fear that he will lose those close to him if he lets anyone in -- they show that Batman needs a new family to show him that it’s okay to create units of love. He’s reluctant to let in Alfred, or new Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson, exhausted by Batman’s antics), or newly adopted son Dick Grayson/Robin (Michael Cera) because of his deep-seated fears, but also because he’s a lunkhead who can’t see what’s in front of his face. Admitting that he needs them (and that he needs the villainy of the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) to balance him out as a hero) is a heck of an arc that hardly needs an action-adventure plot structure to make you care.

Those action elements are among the most lacking in The Lego Batman Movie. While the first film in the Lego franchise made every effort to incorporate the toys’ primary function -- building wild stuff out of thin air -- this time it looks more like fully-built Lego vehicles flying through the air. The editing by David Burrows, John Venzon, and Matt Villa is jittery, with every action scene cut taking place a fraction of a second too quickly. The audience’s eyes can’t catch up with the action being performed. The movie is not without its inventive charms, though, especially whenever henchmen shoot guns or laser beams -- the actors’ voices yell “Pew, pew, pew!” instead of having actual sound effects there.

Without a wildly inventive use of Lego technology, The Lego Batman Movie can’t succeed on the level of its series precursor. But by focusing on a larger question, “What can Batman be for his audience?” McKay and company show that it’s possible to make the Caped Crusader a lot more lovable.

Director: Chris McKay
Writers: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Starring: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Available in theaters now

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