Friday, February 17, 2017

That's right, I'm Best-At-Teamwork Man


Ah, the spin-off: taking a great character you loved in his original context and making him worse.  But, hey, at least it's still funny.

Directed by Chris McKay
Written by Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and John Washington
With Will Arnett (Batman), Michael Cera (Robin), Ralph Fiennes (Alfred Pennyworth), Rosario Dawson (Commissioner Barbara Gordon), Channing Tatum (Superman), and Zach Galifianakis (The Joker)

Spoiler alert: mild

If it took any form other than the one it actually does—live-action movie, a different kind of CGI cartoon, cel animation, hell, just still images montaged next to one another like those old Brad Neely shorts—The LEGO Batman Movie might've been great.  But then, the problem's right there in the name: it's a follow-up to The LEGO Movie, which was precisely the sort of once-in-a-generation triumph of art over commerce that probably ought to be allowed to stand alone, but never actually is, at least so long as further opportunities in dire exploitation await.  This means that whatever good things that LEGO Batman manages to do on its own (plenty!), there was always an extraordinarily hard limit on just how satisfactory it could ever be.  Inevitably, then, almost everything that's bad about LEGO Batman comes directly from its existence as a sequel-sidequel-thing, beholden to the rules of The LEGO Movie, and those rules were never going to come off as anything but the most unwelcome distractions in a film that, deep down, only really cares about giving Will Arnett's loving parody of Batman a platform to call its own.

That this was already a problematic idea, just in and of itself, clearly never crossed anyone's mind.  (Nor could it have: Batman + the sequel to a successful animated film = money.)  Arnett's Batman was the breakout star of The LEGO Movie, and that's obvious enough; but that's because The LEGO Movie's Batman was, essentially, an antagonist, almost as noxious as Lord Business himself, who simply happened to be on the side of good.  Arnett's Batman was a crass reduction of the Dark Knight to the barest of his essentials—namely, a preening narcissist crybaby.  The funny part, of course, was that Arnett's Batman was permitted to say aloud what we always suspected the character was thinking (and, indeed, what we were always supposed to be thinking, when we were reading or watching him).  And the reason it worked so well was because, at the end of The LEGO Movie, LEGO Batman did not have to change.  So, sure, you can give this awesome but one-note character an arc that punishes and corrects all the terrible things about him that originally made him great; but you'll soon discover that you've knocked out this parody's teeth in the process.

If what we actually wind up with is a movie that tells a version of a classic Batman tale that no one really cares about—that is, the tale that concludes with Batman's oft-experienced but always-forgotten epiphany that his best and least-unstable self involves being the parent his own mother and father never got the chance to be—then hey, that's absolutely fine.  (Honestly, it's nice that a Batman movie even understands this aspect of the character in the first place, given that the only other Batman movies that have the first clue have Joel Schumacher's name attached to them.)  But here's the thing: if that's what your Batman movie is going to be about, then The LEGO Batman Movie is still very close to the worst possible way to tell it, undermined at every turn by the format it's obliged to take.  It's a bit of a paradox: LEGO Batman doesn't exist without The LEGO Movie's proof-of-concept for Arnett's shitheeled Batman parody; but LEGO Batman can't be its best and least-unstable self without severing all ties to the movie that paved its way, and LEGO Batman can't do it.

So it just doesn't matter all that much that the callback gags can be funny ("Like all major cities, Gotham is built on top of several large, flat plates...").  Nor does it matter that the aesthetic bona fides of The LEGO Movie have been revived, more-or-less in full force (though Chris McKay does not have, nor should he be expected to have, the exact same genius for comic spectacle possessed by the dynamic duo behind The LEGO Movie, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Phil Lord and Chris Miller).  On the other hand, it matters a lot that the third act of LEGO Batman devolves rapidly and repellantly into a venal exercise in cross-merchandising; but, obviously, that matters only in the most negative way it could.

And thus does McKay throw his goofy version of the Batman Family up against an army of history's greatest villains—which is to say, naturally, "the greatest villains whose rights are owned by Warner Bros., as well as a couple who are owned by Universal, except you can't sue somebody just for having velociraptors."  (But then, at this point, might it be possible to sue somebody for seven-foot-tall, featherless velociraptors?  If so, I'm just going to point out that Universal owes me ten grand for pointing out a credible cause of action.)

Some of those villains, anyway, are not particularly ideal screen presences, especially Sauron, whose whole point is that he is a formless being.  But LotR is popular.  Harry Potter is too.  That's why Voldemort is in this, although it was a lot funnier the first time a LEGO production did it, and put Gandalf and Dumbledore side-by-side, and face-to-face with yet another wise white-haired wizard, who (brilliantly enough) barely even seemed to know who they were.

But taken as a whole, it's one awfully bizarre turn for this LEGO Batman to take, however inevitable, because by this point, you've spent over an hour of a deeply indulgent 106-minute runtime reconciling yourself to the LEGO look of a movie that, 99 times out of a 100, has been interested solely in rolling out a story set in a parody of the DC Universe.  Why, was Darkseid was too busy in the "real" movies?  All things being equal, I'd think it odd that the only being who ever actually managed to kill Batman doesn't get to be in a movie that features a coterie of similarly-overpowered ultra-foes.  But, on reflection, it's not really that odd: LEGO Batman has earned much of its qualified praise for its wide-ranging presentation of the old Bat-canon—the results are probably better than Grant Morrison's own "every story is true" approach—but LEGO Batman's legion of writers/online researches rather clearly decided to restrain their deep archival dives to the stuff that everyone more-or-less already knew about.  This means that LEGO Batman's exclusive focus is on the stuff that was silly, but also very, very simple to get across to its presumed audience, whose biggest touchstones for Batman are the eight live-action movies and the 60s TV show (the direct references to which are, let's face it, actively annoying).  And so it means leaving out twenty or thirty years' worth of the comics' more recent Bat-exploits.  Yet I'll admit that this was probably the smart move.

All along, most of Batman actual rogue's gallery never coheres into much more than a parade of reference jokes.  Some of them are amusingly pointless (Condiment King, ha ha, you can find some stupid Batman villains if you "google").  Some of them are genuinely fun (the Tom Hardy impression sported by Doug Benson as Bane is so spot-on I thought it might just be Tom Hardy, though why I would think this, in a movie that uses a comedian to voice Voldemort, when Ralph Fiennes is already in the cast, I can't tell you).  And one of them—just one, but it's a doozy—is honest-to-God, metafictionally excellent (Billy Dee Williams gets to be Two-Face, at last).

But that's only most of Batman's villains.  One gets to rise above the fray, and, obviously, that's the Joker, who forces upon LEGO Batman the plot that it kind of has.  It's maybe the Joker's best scheme of all, though it's one that could only be delivered in a parody—essentially, it's a feature-length plan to compel Batman to just admit, for once, that he can't exist without his villain.  This, you know, is the basic foundation of every Joker story ever told in the post-modern era, from The Dark Knight Returns to The Killing Joke to Nolan's Dark Knight—not to mention the thousand and one other, shittier Joker stories that don't bother to make their perverse symbiosis artful.  As a result of this overexposure, it's gotten extremely tedious, but that's precisely why it's funny when LEGO Batman just makes the Batman mythos' aching, abused subtext its actual text.  So it's only too bad that LEGO Batman's Joker is also the worst Joker, given a voice by Zach Galifianakis' deliberately lazy performance, which is neither a straight version of the Joker nor really a parody, and in fact is largely indistinguishable from any other Galifianakis performance.  (Even that might be too kind to it, since Galifianakis does have a shtick, and there's not even that much shtick to this Joker.)  It's the kind of expectation-bucking that might be worth half a chuckle, if it were just a cameo—why, just look at Channing Tatum's reprise of his Bro Superman—but it comes off as merely sad when the Joker's antagonism is supposed to carry us across almost two full hours of screentime.  It's even weirder when you consider that Arnett is exactly as committed to his bit as he was three years ago, and, of all the things LEGO Batman has going against it, Arnett's growly Bat-self-aggrandizement is the one thing it has that remains unambiguously great.

In the meantime, you know, Batman accidentally saddles himself with an orphan ward, Dick Grayson; and, with Dick's help, he learns to feel feelings that aren't "RAGE" at his own bum deal.  This tends to work much, much better than his several tete-a-tetes with the Joker—Michael Cera takes on the 60s TV show Robin, and apparently decides Burt Ward didn't play him as enough of a gormless, wide-eyed innocent—and you simply couldn't ask for a funnier Batman and Robin, especially in the middle stretch of the film.  (That is, where Batman still outright hates his sidekick, and deploys him as explicit cannon-fodder.)  Meanwhile, the other big Bat-relationship, between Fiennes' Alfred and a Batman pointedly oblivious to Alfred's fatherly affections, arguably works even better than Batman and Robin's—if nothing else, Batman and Alfred share the single funniest joke in the whole movie, and, needless to say, it's the funniest because it's also the cruelest.  (And, yep, Barbara Gordon is here, too, effectively modified beyond all possible recognition other than the fact her LEGO figurine has red hair.  That's fine, I guess, since one imagines the movie did need a girl.)

But, like I said a thousand words ago, the whole point of the LEGO Batman is that he's an unreconstructed dick.  LEGO Batman is bound to reconstruct him, and, when it happens, the soul of the character looses his tiny plastic bonds.  Now, it's still engaging enough that you won't be too bored.  But you will get bored—because that's when the big ol' slurry of LEGO and WB advertising that, honestly, LEGO Batman always was reasserts itself.  This point at least arrives deep enough into the picture that you don't quite begrudge all the enjoyable material that's come before—but it's still hard to view The LEGO Batman Movie as anything but a trifle that doesn't even necessarily know what it was good for.

Score:  7/10


  1. I think it's still better than any spin-off has any right to be, but you're right that the flaws are much more apparent. Also, I found this flick POWERFUL ugly to behold, with its overstimulating action drowned in mottled, choking color that make it almost impossible to look at. But hey, I laughed the whole time!

    1. See, I like the LEGO look, on a purely aesthetic level--it's not as beautiful as The LEGO Movie, but that could easily just be because The LEGO Movie had a rationale for it, and since it only barely applies to this movie's story, I could take it or (better yet) leave it.

      It is funny, though, and that is its real saving grace. Whatever else is wrong with it, even Galafianakis' otherwise-weak performance, the jokes almost always work.