Film Review: Lego Batman Movie can't quite sustain superb start

The LEGO Batman Movie opens with a side-splitting onslaught of sarcastic gags and superhero in-jokes, writes Natalie Stendall.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 15th February 2017, 3:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th February 2017, 12:06 pm

It’s a level of comedy that’s difficult to sustain, but director Chris McKay gives it all he’s got.

This sort-of-sequel to 2014’s The LEGO Movie switches the heart-warming lessons about creativity for superhero parody, giving us a glorious take-down of comic book movie formula.

Those familiar with his supporting role in the original LEGO movie will recognise Will Arnett’s gruffly voiced Batman as a riff on the brutally dark Christopher Nolan trilogy.

He’s a solitary vigilante in an oversized Batcave, eating alone and getting lost in old family photographs. Butler Alfred (voiced by an effortlessly charming Ralph Fiennes) is the only witness to Bruce Wayne’s gloomy personal life and resorts to treating the egotistical and petulant hero like a difficult child.

It’s a hilariously subversive role for Batman but the parody doesn’t stop there. Alfred encourages Bruce to adopt an orphan and the arrival of Michael Cera’s somewhat annoying Robin brings an unprecedented level of absurdity along with plenty of opportunities for ridiculous spoofs.

It’s surprising then, that the real genius of the writing lies in its appeal to a different genre: the Hollywood rom-com. While the story gives us a possible love interest for Bruce Wayne - an intelligent and capable heroine with a lesson about teamwork - The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is Batman’s ‘significant other’ and the two are caught in an unrequited hate relationship.

The commitment-phobic Batman rejects his arch-rival, preferring to ‘fight around’, much to The Joker’s distress. It’s a clever distortion. The Joker is not your average super-villain. His zeal for destruction is a means to an end: motivated by his longing to be part of a meaningful hero-villain partnership. His jagged teeth and bright red mouth take on a cutesy helplessness that invites our sympathy. He’s arguably a more three-dimensional villain than any DC and Marvel have to offer.

The trouble is, Batman’s refusal to commit to a single nemesis provides the filmmakers with a carte blanche to include every Batman villain they can think of, along with a handful from other big franchises too.

The movie becomes so overstuffed that any pleasure received from character spotting is outweighed by the flimsy development of those lucky enough to receive cameos.

It’s a similar story with The Joker’s Gotham wrecking action. The combat sequences are frantic, an exhausting bombardment of colour, noise and moving parts. The beauty of spilling LEGO studs, tumbling bricks and master-builders clicking parts together with satisfying precision is lost. Instead the action feels like smoke and mirrors, making it hard to see anything at all.

The LEGO Batman Movie is preposterously over the top, apparently made by filmmakers so excited about their subject’s back catalogue that they forget where to stop. There’s little space left for any homage to the raw materials that made the original movie so great - LEGO itself - and yet the story from Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Dark Shadows) manages to deliver a bunch of wholesome messages that make this another worthwhile addition to the franchise. That The LEGO Batman Movie never returns to the dizzy heights of its irreverent opening gags is disappointing - Batman’s petulance eventually tires - but it’s still funnier than both Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy and an innovative reflection on the fatigued superhero formula.