The Lego Batman Movie review – relentlessly funny superhero parody

Will Arnett voices a brilliantly gruff, macho, humourless Dark Knight in this expressive, cinematic and subversive Gotham City satire

It was already brave of the custodians of the Batman franchise to let The Lego Movie mock their prize asset so mercilessly in 2014. The fact that they’ve doubled down with this feature-length parody suggests they figure either Batman can take it, or that he’s reached that point in the superhero cycle where it’s no longer possible to take him seriously. Either way, this gag-packed, knockabout action-adventure has a lot of fun with the character, while also broaching his pathologies in a way the “serious movies” rarely do. It doesn’t have the heart, the depth or the novelty of the first Lego movie, but it is relentlessly, consistently funny – which excuses everything.

Voiced with Christian Bale-like gruffness by Will Arnett, this is the macho, humourless, self-regarding Dark Knight we get here, who imagines he’s brilliant at everything and prefers to work alone. “Batman doesn’t do ’ships,” (as in “relationships”) he tells a crestfallen Joker, denying there’s anything special between them during a spectacular opening fight (as with its predecessor, this movie’s Lego-bricked animation is surprisingly expressive and cinematic). Afterwards, our hero goes home to an empty Batcave for some microwaved lobster, a little solo heavy-metal guitar, and a night alone in his home cinema with Jerry Maguire. He’s a bit of a loser, in other words.

Inevitably, Batman’s solitude is challenged. First, by his inadvertent adoption of a wide-eyed, orphan kid, the future Robin, whom he initially regards as an expendable pest (many fans would agree). Then by the Joker. Stung by rejection, he’s hatching an even bigger plan to win back Batman’s attention and get their symbiotic relationship back on track. Meanwhile, new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), is advocating a fresh, co-operative approach to crime, noting that “despite all the great work Batman has done for us, Gotham is still the most crime-ridden city in the world”.

In a regular superhero movie, that would be saying the unsayable, but this parallel Lego universe can get away with it, and a whole lot more. The movie is chock-full of meta-references, one-liners and in-jokes (a cinema in the background is playing Two Shades of Grey, for example). There’s a hint of political subversion in the suggestion Batman’s methods are extra-legal and unaccountable. There’s even a Guantanamo-like Phantom Zone where criminals are locked away, outside the law. Mostly, the movie pokes fun at other fictions: rival DC superheroes, characters from other stories (including Gremlins and Daleks), and above all, Batman’s own chequered heritage.

The Lego Batman Movie.
The Lego Batman Movie. Photograph: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

At one point, Batman’s butler, Alfred, reminds him he’s had similar crises of identity before, listing the years of all the previous Batman movies right back to Batman: The Movie, the 1966 Adam West version, from which we see a live-action clip. The Lego Batman Movie knows it’s closer to this than any subsequent iterations. We even get on-screen POW!s and BAM!s. But this is also very much in the vein of current pop satire such as Robot Chicken (where director Chris McKay cut his teeth), Team America and last year’s Deadpool. In fact, this is basically Deadpool for juniors.

That is some achievement when you think about everything this movie has to do. Let’s not forget this is, at heart, a not-so-subliminal promo for two enormous commercial concerns: Batman and Lego. The merchandising is physically built in: many a young viewer will covet Batman’s new Scuttler ship (yours for £84.99). Really, they should be paying us to go and see it. The fact that the movie can satisfy its commercial imperatives, smuggle in some satirical jabs, and wrap it all up in an apparently irreverent, self-satirising comedy for all ages could be viewed as admirable or sinister, but this is, undeniably, a sophisticated product.

• The Lego Batman Movie is released in US and UK cinemas on 10 February


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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