With The LEGO Batman Movie, a shiny, irresistible delight, blockbuster flicks have perfected their ideal form. Movies were Legos before the Danes invented Legos. Paintings and poetry and novels are handcrafted toys; the artist whittles alone. But films are masterworks of assembly, with actors and costumers and set-builders and gaffers and truck drivers and kids who fetch water bottles all snapping into place. The credits thank thousands of bricks. Which makes it wondrous when the final construction still feels like one designer's personal dream, or when there are funny pieces out of place that somehow, together, feel exactly right.
The LEGO Batman Movie isn't one of those oddities. It's a mass-engineered monument, a giddy whiz-bang feat of plastic, built to make a half-billion dollars. And what's wrong with that? If you've ever tried to reconstruct the picture on the box, you know precision deserves applause.
Nine writers have their fingerprints on the blueprint, five directly on the screenplay and four from comic books in which, in 1941, our antihero Batman and his frenemy Superman first met while raising money for war orphans. Now their relationship has deteriorated so badly that Batman (Will Arnett) starts off the movie howling, "Come at me, bro!" At least that's friendlier than last year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, when the aggro recluse stomped toward Supes growling, "Do you bleed?"
In this movie, there’s no threat of blood. At worst, these Lego rivals can snap an arm socket. But this Batman is that Batman, too. He's all Batmen, the franchise having decided after nine decades and eight films to stop fretting with timelines and reboots, and embrace the existentialist idea that the Bat-character is just another black brick that can be swapped out at will. This bragging Batman takes credit for every time his manflesh incarnations have bested the Joker. Defeat this goober? No problem. "Remember that time with two boats?" he smirks. "The time with the parade and the Prince music?" When this Bruce Wayne preens to redheaded new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) that he's been "Gotham's most eligible bachelor, like, 90 years in a row," he means it. (And when he gawks at Babs's ass, he drools over two round holes, as though she's Nicki Minaj–meets–antimatter.)
That 90-year boast doesn't make Bruce a great-great-great-grandpa. He still rages like a toddler, forcing aggravated Alfred the butler to read Setting Limits for Your Out-of-Control Child. This welded-together leading man is all ages and no ages. Ben Affleck or Christian Bale couldn't get away with this time-transcending gambit. Actors are too real. They gray. But a Lego leading man can lay claim to everything, including square pecs and nine-pack abs. This Batman is a synthesis who's synthetic three times over, cartoon lore begetting factory-stamped acrylonitrile butadiene styrene begetting pixels. He's the perfect mini-figurehead for a film that's truly post-human.
Director Chris McKay comes from Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken, where he spent years warping playground icons to his will. McKay specializes in sacrilege. He made G.I. Joe hire a sniper named Fumbles and forced the Fraggles to beat each other to death. Let Jared Leto chew his nails trying to equal Heath Ledger's Joker. McKay's content to imagine the green-haired goon, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, as the kind of crybaby who'd weep when a restaurant is out of tater tots. Yet instead of spoofing Batman by revealing him to be, say, a softie who loves kitten GIFs, McKay and the writers lean into Wayne’s hermitic mystique, taking it as self-seriously as he does. A lonely jock tycoon living in a mansion with his butler? The movie sees that trope and raises you one microwave lobster thermidor, a billionaire's bachelor dinner, to be chomped, shell and all. The echo is the saddest.
This Joker commits crimes because he wants Batman to admit the two have a special connection. It’s gotta mean something that their grudge matches have dragged on for decades. (A duration which, as Barbara points out, proves that Batman is a mediocre crime fighter who's good at winning battles and lousy at winning wars.) Batman denies their relationship — or "’ship," as he's too bitter for four whole syllables of affection. "I like to fight around," grunts Batman. "You mean nothing to me. No one does." The joke isn't just on the Joker, who can't keep his red lower lip from quivering. It's on our miserable modern Batman, a narcissist compressed into four centimeters of mockable gloom.
Warner Bros. seems delighted it doesn't have to coddle a man-size ego like, oh, Zack Snyder's. It uses The LEGO Batman Movie to apologize for last year's DC Universe mistakes. "Get a bunch of criminals to fight other criminals? What a stupid idea!" mutters Batman in a swipe at Suicide Squad. (Depending on how long the cartoon took to animate, that might mean the studio knew Suicide Squad was a mistake while it was making it.) Ostensibly, LEGO Batman is about Bruce Wayne rescuing Gotham with his accidentally adopted ward, Robin (Michael Cera), an attention-starved moppet who doesn't mind that his caretaker takes all the credit. (When Robin dodges a death trap, Batman compliments himself, beaming, “Unbelievable obeying!”) Really, LEGO Batman’s mission is to rescue the entire DC franchise, using painted smiles as shields — an ambitious double whammy, like bolting a helicopter to a pirate ship. It's not personal. It's plastic.
Still, McKay's helipiraship flattened my resistance. The grand design is hilarious and the details are sublime, from Robin's sparkly cape, which looks clipped from a dish sponge, to Alfred's glove-white claws. There are cinematographic moments that feel like a serious movie, as when Batman suffers his first loss and the kiddie colors sober into black and gray, except for the police sirens pulsing red. And there's the giggling backyard mayhem of laser guns that sound like kids squawking, "Pew! Pew! Pew!" and watching Bane (Doug Benson) topple over like a wax-dipped Clydesdale.
As for the quick glance of a Bat-fan holding a sign that says, "Batman 4 President," one isolated, immature billionaire in charge is plenty, thanks. Better for the world that after another day of besting the Joker, Bruce Wayne returns to his manor, devours his nightly lobster, and plops down in front of Jerry Maguire. When Tom Cruise stammers, "You complete me," Lego Batman cackles. Silly humans. Blockbusters are for toys.