The LEGO Batman Movie is an interminable onslaught of pop-culture references and indecipherable action. Broadly, it betokens a dark future of branded film franchises, endless (Brand Name) (Subject) movies modeled after this putative trailblazer, a nerd-tastic exercise that tends to rely on the wit of its creative team to disguise the fact that the whole thing's one big ugly experiment in corporate advertising. Though the antic editing and warp-speed pace might be optimized for the attention-spanless, mobile-device-scrolling, 21st century zombie pre-teen, this doozy from Warner Animation Group ain't much fun for kids or adults. It opens Friday in wide release.
From the opening image — "Black. All serious movies begin with a black screen," intones Batman (Will Arnett) — we get the same genre of winking meta commentary that we endured in last year's Deadpool. These jokes can certainly land, but become tiresome quickly. The intro signals the humor stylings of the film at large: nonstop reference and self-reference and parody and irony that make for a fleeting laugh here and there but amount to nothing in toto. What you'll get, just like in Deadpool, is an occasional impression of amusement but zero lasting emotional impact.
First up, story-wise: an action sequence so frenzied and off-the-wall it appears to have been scripted and edited by someone on very potent cocaine and then played at six to eight times normal speed. It's apparently an introduction to the movie's central conflict — Batman vs. Joker — and has the whiff of a Marvel or D.C. climax, but it turns out to be bafflingly incoherent. Joker (Zack Galifianakis) is setting off a bomb beneath Gotham and has enlisted the totality of Batman villains, plus a handful of nonsensical extras like Condiment Man, who emits ketchup and mustard from handheld guns in sad gastric spurts.
Batman defeats all of them easily, admitting to the Joker in the process that he doesn't even hate him (gasp!). We then see Batman as the parody of all other Batman incarnations before him, the brooding reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is his moral compass, and he tells Bruce that he's seen this before, "in 2012, and 2008 and 2005 and 2003 ... ." Et cetera. Swiftly onward we go, through other Batman tropes and characters: the adoption of a young orphan, Dick (Michael Cera); the collision with Gotham's new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), daughter of Jim; and then the film's real climax, after Batman has banished Joker to the Phantom Zone, a galactic cloud where the universe's major bad guys now reside — the Lord of the Rings' Sauron, Harry Potter's Voldemort, King Kong. Joker enlists that crew to destroy Gotham. Batman comes to the realization that he can't fight them all alone.
While retaining the look of The Lego Movie, the Batman spinoff has dispensed with just about everything that made the original, well, original. Chiefly, its third-act moralizing is as rote and banal as it gets. While the first film at times leveled clever attacks on corporate hegemony and social homogeneity — attacks all the more salient given the innate Lego branding and the fact that Legos themselves couldn't be any less rigid or rudimentary — Lego Batman ends up talking about togetherness and cooperation. It comes close to commenting on police brutality, but it's a very poor man's Zootopia. Barbara Gordon says she wants to try a new approach to policing, one that emphasizes compassion and statistics. It's almost as if she's armed with a consent decree! Batman's vigilante violence, she suggests, should be a thing of the past. But the film quickly reverts to just that, in the all-hands-on-deck superbrawl that results in the destruction of Gotham's physical infrastructure.
Early in the movie, Batman drives to Gotham City's orphanage to shoot all the kids with a "merchandise gun." The intent is surely wry and self-referential — Haha! Merch! — but its effect is gross. And not only because it pretends to sneer at the advertisement of Batman products while actively advertising Lego products. Also because the story is destitute of novelty and creativity in both the emotional and physical realms — it's just more guns and explosions — and as such, it serves as an entree for the PG crowd into the mindless spectacle of Hollywood's biggest military-grade vehicle, the superhero movie.