About five minutes into the LEGO Batman Movie, when I realized I hadn’t been paying attention for the last two minutes, I knew we had a problem.
Now, I don’t want to be a dick (Grayson), and I feel like I’m encroaching on that territory. But I can’t help it. I wanted to like this movie so much. And there was a lot I really did enjoy. I enjoy the fact that we live in a world in which a LEGO Batman Movie exists. I enjoy that it’s a film, a DC film no less, that seemed to want to be there to have fun. I just wish I could have been more engaged.
I realize I might be holding this movie to an unfair standard because of The LEGO Movie. I loved (and still love) The LEGO Movie. It’s the perfect cartoon movie, speaking not just to children, but to anyone who’s ever been a child, who remembers what it meant to be a child. Its charm and wit awaken a playfulness that you probably haven’t felt since the last time you, say, built with LEGOs, or that you remember every time your parents ask you again if they can throw away your old action figures. And Batman’s presence in that movie was perfect: after all, in this world of playtime, it’s only natural that every story will tangle with other stories and worlds, to hilarious effect. Not only that, but it took the piss out of the grimdark version of the caped crusader that we’ve been stuck with for the last ten years. So when the LEGO Batman Movie was announced, I was excited. It seemed as though they might have figured out the magic ingredient in The LEGO Movie that would make this one work too.
And there’s a lot that does work. Michael Cera is inspired as Robin, and surprising no one, Will Arnett is still a flawless Batman. Like its predecessor, LEGO Batman also takes some pot shots that land better than they have any right to. The fact that Batman is a total Republican stereotype – a rich white guy who spends his time beating up poors he judges to be criminals – is pointed out in a way it hasn’t been in any Batman franchise before. It’s a timely dig at the character in the current political climate, although an early line about not paying taxes rides an odd line between “joke – Batman is bad and this is an example of his journey from selfish” and “joke – Batman is just like another big shot billionaire we all know”. But overall, the movie felt rushed. Most of the dialogue felt more like placeholders, the story more like an outline. And the action was anonymous and boring, especially as compared to The LEGO Movie’s action-via-comedy set pieces, every one of which contributed to the viewer’s understanding of the characters and the world.
And maybe I am judging this more harshly because it seemed to be trying to rope in the other aspects of The LEGO Movie – master builders, the shared universe idea – to a larger world. But if it’s going to get in line behind The LEGO Movie, that’s how I’m going to measure it, and it didn’t measure up. It seemed to want to do exactly what The LEGO Movie did, while failing to fully understand it. It was like someone saying that they want to remake the Godfather and then explaining that at its core, the movie is really about how Italians are very family-oriented.
I understand that this movie had to come quickly on the heels of The LEGO Movie to capitalize on its success, and given what a rush job it must have been, it’s pretty good. Ultimately, I’m just disappointed because when I should have been enjoying the opportunity to see Batman from this angle for the first time in what felt like eternity. Instead, I felt as though I was looking at a checklist.
I guess I wanted to like this movie like I loved The LEGO Movie. But instead I liked this movie and it still felt like a DC movie, with the same corporate problems tripping it up, trying to focus-group answers to what the magic formula was last time without actually feeling it out. It felt as manufactured as The LEGO Movie felt like a celebration. Which is a shame, because at the movie’s high points, it really is a celebration of Batman, and what he is beyond the grimdark. But even when it matched The LEGO Movie’s swagger, LEGO Batman never matched its heart.
And without the heart, it just felt like a toy commercial.