If a bunch of 10-year-olds who'd obsessively watched every Batman movie were equipped with a ridiculously excellent, eclectic Lego set, the result might be The Lego Batman Movie.
It’s everything you could want from a Batman movie and, in some respects, from any movie: goofy, self-aware, very funny, imaginative, and packing a sincere message that has both personal and political implications. There are explosions and parties and dinosaurs and chases. And it’s both nostalgic and contemporary — both Lego and Batman have entertained kids for generations — which means it’s a movie for pretty much everyone.
But the best thing about Lego Batman is its explosive, unabashed joy — joy of the kind that’s rooted in both a great sense of humor and a sensibility I can only describe as “playing pretend.” The same spirit of improvisation and recklessness that leads us to dump boxes of Lego bricks onto the carpet and then pair rocket ships with jungle-themed sets is in full force here — and it’s even more fun when strung onto the spine of a Batman story. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.
Lego Batman combines the ridiculous and the sublime in a way only these two properties, with their decades of history, could do. The result is inspired entertainment that’s pure fun, with heart to boot.
The Lego Batman Movie takes a typical Batman-movie path, but with a twist
Our hero (voiced by Will Arnett) — who is, as you might recall, both costumed superhero Batman and ordinary superrich guy Bruce Wayne — appears on the scene as he's saving Gotham (once again) from the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his henchmen, which includes everyone from the Riddler (Conan O'Brien) to Bane (Doug Benson). He succeeds, as he always does, but in the process he hurts Joker's feelings: When the villain mocks Batman by remarking that their mutual antagonism is what keeps them both going, Batman negs him hard.
Because Batman? He doesn't care about Joker. He doesn't even think about Joker except when absolutely necessary. He doesn't need anybody.
This, of course, drives Joker to new levels of supervillainy that involve emptying out not just Arkham Asylum, but also a shadowy super-prison in the heavens known as the Phantom Zone. (The Zone is guarded by a simple eight-peg brick named Phyllis, voiced by Ellie Kemper.)
But before that, Batman returns home to Wayne Manor, alone on its island, where he lives with only his faithful butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and his all-knowing, all-controlling computer ’Puter (which is credited to “Siri”) for company. He wanders around alone at night, looking at old family pictures — alone. He sits in his super-cool home movie theater and watches Jerry Maguire and eats ice cream — alone. He microwaves and eats his lobster thermidor — alone. Batman (and Bruce Wayne, by default) works alone, lives alone, and, presumably, will die alone, if he has his way.
Fate has other plans. Batman — excuse me, Bruce Wayne — puts on a tux and attends the retirement party of Commissioner Gordon (Hector Elizondo), where he also meets and is vaguely smitten with the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), his old friend's daughter. Bruce’s steps are dogged by a big-eyed orphan named Dick (Michael Cera) — our future Robin, of course — who thinks Bruce Wayne is the coolest person on the planet next to Batman. Bruce accidentally adopts Dick (you’ll see), who moves into Wayne Manor and is there for a week before self-absorbed Bruce notices.
Then Joker — aided by faithful sidekick Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate) and all the usual suspects — stages an assault to end all assaults on Gotham. And it’s up to Batman, Barbara, Dick, and Alfred to save the city.
From there, of course, the narrative arc is rather conventionally set: It's a Batman movie, Batman's gonna Batman. But along the way, he learns a valuable lesson about going it alone, being overly self-protective, and the importance of a “village” for crime fighting. You can save Gotham much more effectively if you let people help you — and even more effectively if you acknowledge your archrival as your sworn frenemy.
The Lego Batman Movie suggests that relearning childhood joy of playing is good for adults, too
Perhaps the most fun thing about The Lego Batman Movie is that it’s making a play to be part of the Batman canon. Alfred acknowledges Batman’s history by slyly referring (several times) to the history of Batman films and eras, through which he has patiently assisted. (Now he gets to be one of the heroes.) So we get throwbacks to the manic eye-popping Joel Schumacher age and the moody Dark Knight era, and costume references that go all the way back to the early days.
That throwback to Batman’s history is certainly fan service, but it's something else, too: a winking reference to the audience’s old loves. People will bring their children to this movie (and their children will love it), but it’s perfectly suited to grown-ups too — usually a marker of a great animated film. If you remember Batman all the way back to the 1940s, this movie remembers you.
That Lego first hit the market in 1949, six years after the first Batman serial and the same year as the Batman and Robin serial, can’t be totally coincidental. Both Batman and Lego have been with us for a long time, captivating kids’ (and adults’) imaginations and giving them free space to play and invent their own stories. Combining the two in Lego Batman doubles the nostalgic appeal, while also doubling the creativity. What kid hasn't imagined himself as the Caped Crusader — and what kid hasn't dumped that box of plastic bricks onto the living room carpet and seen what happened next?
But while Lego Batman takes a raucous romp through the Batman movies (and the comics and an assortment of other influences), it doesn’t exclude more recent influences, either. There are winking nods to Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The Phantom Zone houses not only villains both familiar and obscure from the DC Comics Universe, but also assorted other villains: Godzilla, King Kong, vampires, ghouls, Voldemort, the Eye of Sauron. There are vintage Lego villains calculated to delight every child of the 1980s, even those who aren't particularly enamored of Batman himself.
Indeed, the key to Lego Batman’s humor is its eagerness to manically pile on every reference it can come up with — this is a movie that will reward a rewatch — while staying true to the rules of its dual-property universe. Namely: Batman must win, justice must prevail, and, ultimately, Lego blocks lock if you push them together.
Which is what makes it also a good-hearted movie for our divided times. It’s impossible to ignore The Lego Batman Movie’s gentle rebuke to those who would misguidedly save the world without the benefit of friends and wise companions. And that’s fine.
But along with its exhortation to embrace your friends and family — and maybe even your sworn enemies, since you never know when you might need them — when you’re out fighting crime, Lego Batman also nudges us to let loose and use our imaginations again. Maybe some intractable problems have solutions, if we can only regain our sense of play.
The Lego Batman Movie releases in movie theaters on February 10.