The unexpected side effect of the cold war between Marvel Studios and DC Comics-affiliated Warner Brothers is that big-budget superhero movies can finally afford to be weirder. After a certain point, what kind of new Batman story can you tell that a hungry audience wants to see? Chris McKay's "The Lego Batman Movie" is simultaneously a spin-off of a hit animated movie from two years ago, a masterful melding of valuable corporate intellectual property, and the most amazingly strange film you'll watch all year.
Batman's enduring flexibility and adaptability as the American pop culture icon over 70-plus years is front and center in "The Lego Batman Movie" and even remarked upon by other characters in the film. In the Lego World's Gotham City, Batman's been around forever and every on-screen incarnation from the racist '40s-era serials to "Batman v. Superman" is considered canon. Whereas Christopher Nolan's trilogy stoically turned a critical eye toward Batman's masked vigilantism in a modern society, "Lego Batman" immediately parodies the self-seriousness of recent Batman movie opening credits. Will Arnett's gravel-voiced frat boy take on Batman may invite us all to laugh at and with him from minute one, but the movie we get is markedly unlike any kind of Batman movie we've seen before.
As "The Lego Batman Movie's" hyper-melodramatic opening minutes give way to pure comic madness, Arnett's Batman sings a growly metal song about how awesome he is while delivering effortless beatdowns on an army of villains including The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), and Two-Face (a cute role reprisal/bit of cosmic justice for unfortunately sidelined '89 "Batman" actor Billy Dee Williams). It's a deliberately and delightfully overstuffed action sequence that really capitalizes on the world's-biggest-toy-collection chaos that made "The Lego Movie" such a visually mesmerizing film. But it's all a feint: The conflict Batman faces isn't really with the combined might of his famous rogues or even with—spoilers, y'all—a collection of imprisoned movie super-baddies including The Eye of Sauron, Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West, and the goddamn Gremlins from "Gremlins." No, this dickish loner and emotional recluse has to look at the man in the mirror and ask him to change his ways. And yeah, you better believe Warner Brothers shelled out for three different covers of that Michael Jackson hit to drive this point home in its $180 million dollar movie.
"Batman's an asshole" has become such a pronounced part of the caped crusader's DNA that it feels almost revolutionary that a Batman movie would call attention to it as a problem to overcome. The Lego Batman we met in "The Lego Movie" was the kind of obnoxious alpha-jerk role Arnett has built a career on, but this solo outing suggests an unbeatable rock star Batman who is terrified of forming new emotional connections because of the death of his parents. Arnett's toy Bruce Wayne skulks around his impossibly gigantic mansion and Batcave, pathetically laughing at old movies in solitude and reheating cold lobster thermidor in a microwave. Arnett elevates what could've just been extended schtick into a surprisingly nuanced performance easily on par with Bale, Keaton, or Affleck's live-action takes on the character.
A Batman whose pathological inability to love again is getting in the way of his happiness is a pretty ambitious theme for what's presumably a movie to sell toys to kids, and McKay—and a half dozen screenwriters—do a pretty deft job of balancing this for jokes and actual earned pathos. If there's one area where "The Lego Batman Movie" falls short it's that the film's momentum grinds to a halt in more than a few of these scenes.
As ever, Batman is only as good as his supporting cast, and "The Lego Batman Movie" is held up by some excellent performances. Galafianakis' aforementioned clown prince of crime leaves Jared Leto's try-hard Joker performance from "Suicide Squad" in the dust, managing genuine menace with his pointy shark tooth smile in between bouts of childish pouting. The Lego version of The Joker is less a maniacal psychopath and more a deeply insecure ex lashing out. In case you missed the obvious subtext that's casually tossed around, Batman and The Joker's Lego counterparts re-enact the climax of a certain '90s Tom Cruise/Cameron Crowe joint.
The film also re-teams Arnett with his "Arrested Development" co-star Michael Cera, here playing a deliberately off-putting nerd version of Robin. Cera so often gets pigeon-holed, so it's especially fun to watch his Dick Grayson insist on calling Batman and Bruce Wayne his two dads or ask about the vigilante policy on cookies. Rosario Dawson's Barbara Gordon—first as the new Gotham City police commissioner and later Batman's ally Batgirl—is the kind of reliably affable performance you'd expect. She gets a few jokes, she moves the plot forward, and she gets to kick Lego brick butt here and there. That the film's versions of Batgirl and Commissioner Gordon (a cameoing Hector Elizondo) are people of color is a welcome tweak in a movie that's a love note to the decades of Batman stories that came before it.
"The Lego Batman Movie" is less a comic book movie and more an effortlessly charming animated essay examining the bundle of ideas that make up the world's greatest superhero. Although "The Lego Movie" boasted a stronger overall story, its Bat-centric spinoff is easily its equal in terms of great jokes per minute. It's arguably the best Batman movie, one that roasts and celebrates the stupid, cool, and uniquely American concept of DC Comics' unstoppable masked karate billionaire.