On the list of Impossible Tasks in Hollywood, hitting hard with the big boys like explaining what happened to Brendan Fraser or not whitewashing thoroughly ethnic properties is the oft forgotten spin-off. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a fully vetted rule that you don’t hear about many attempts. (Need I remind you of The Scorpion King?)
That, however, is exactly what The Lego Batman Movie went for. More than that, it took a running gag from a movie—not even a fleshed out or interesting character so much as a bucket in which jokes could be thrown—and then made it into a movie. But surprise: it’s good. In fact, it’s dang good, and lord help me, we might need more spin-offs.
The idea of this movie sounds a bit like a trap. It takes Will Arnett’s Batman character from The Lego Movie and puts him into a more traditional Batman story involving the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and Robin (Michael Cera) that has been pushed through that same hyperactive, prismatic, irreverent filter that made that 2014 gem such a success. Oh, but throw in somehow more cameos with celebrity stunt voice casting.
After the opening sequence, however, all worries are laid to rest. It is an intense, frenetic, borderline untenable assault of immeasurable goofs and charm. Following the blueprint laid out by The Lego Movie, this film shoots for unrelenting and then backs it up with an almost Robin Williams-level of ferocity. If it starts at an 11, it rides out its quiet moments at a 10 before dicking around at ranges beyond 15 or 20.
It succeeds at that perennially elusive Edgar Wright school of comedy where you don’t do anything without finding some way to wring a joke out of it. You don’t just show some footage of a car going from left to right to demonstrate passage of time and space to the audience. You make that car make weird mouth noises and kind of flop around like a fish just for kicks.
Consider the Joker. He’s a tragic yet horrifying character. To put him through the same transformation process that can yield an Arnett Batman from a source as brooding as, say, an Affleck Batman has to be a terrifying proposition. You could, after all, end up with Cesar Romero. But the film takes both him and his relationship with Batman and turns it into the crux of the movie while making light of the sad, almost Shakespearean interdependence on display.
There’s a lot to appreciate outside of the goofs, too. This is a movie that is fully aware of its place in both pop culture and within the grander DC mythos. It pokes fun at the absurdity of what it means to be born from the early days of comics. (Yes, Condiment King and Calendar Man are both 100% real.) It pokes fun at the absurdity of the base level of suspension of disbelief required to invest yourself in Gotham’s various plights. (Two ships? Come on.)
It pokes fun at everything, really, because it kind of knows about everything. The oversized, ginormous climax indulges in a setup that hits the broad spectrum of the history and long-lingering (and occasionally legendary) criticisms of the immense franchise. The emotional core of the film in Dick Grayson/Robin’s involvement is both an extension and a sendup of the traditionally uneasy acceptance of Bruce Wayne’s habitual adoption of young male orphans.
Granted, that narrative payoff isn’t terrifically potent, though it does manage to hit well-timed and effective beats towards the end. The inclination is to let that slide, though, because that’s not what this movie is about. You already kind of know how it’ll all play out because, well, it’s a kids movie, and The Lego Movie already did the surprising and deeply affecting live-action twist, but that doesn’t stop it from pushing for genuine character growth and development, no matter how predictable.
It’s simply stupefying, too, how many major comedians they managed to stuff into these characters. You hear maybe two seconds of Conan O’Brien as the Riddler. And Kate Micucci as Clayface? I don’t even understand how that happened but it works. It’s a base level of talent, however, that they all bring to the table that manages to elevate even passing, obviously throwaway jokes to something you’ll be quipping about as you walk out of the theatre. (The return cameos from The Lego Movie are also super choice at establishing canon.)
How do you even begin to convince someone like Ralph Fiennes to play Alfred Pennyworth? Or Mariah Carey as Gotham’s mayor? It’s all a bit bonkers, soup to nuts. But it’s all fantastic, too, and that’s the secret of The Lego Batman Movie. It wants to surprise you as much as it delights you, and it does both of those things in spades.
(But also, seriously, don’t do more spin-offs, Hollywood.)
Final Score: 9 out of 10