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“Black. All important movies start with a black screen,” intones the titular character of The LEGO Batman Movie. “And logos—really long and dramatic logos.” And so continues our narcissistic hero, mansplaining every crucial component to a great film’s intro and sounding self-important, even when he pronounces his studio’s name “Warner Bras.”
With that, The LEGO Batman Movie already feels like a promising spinoff of 2014’s surprisingly entertaining The LEGO Movie, even though not one of the filmmakers involved in the original had a hand in creating its follow-up. This crew—the helmer and five (!) scripters—isn’t even well-versed in the film world, but earned their chops working in television: Director Chris McKay is best known for Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken while the writers bear credits such as Crank Yankers, Community, and American Dad. Collectively, however, they’ve captured the wit, silliness, and parodic spirit of The LEGO Movie note-perfectly.
The LEGO Batman Movie sets up its storyline early: Batman/Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett, returning and just as terrific as in the first go-’round) is lonely. When the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) mentions to his nemesis early on that he’s his greatest villain, Batman bristles like a typical commitment-phobe: “Batman doesn’t do ’ships,” he says. “I like to fight around.” Yet after he saves Gotham City once again (and a cheering fan mentions how great it must be to be Batman), Bruce returns to his literal island, heats up a dinner-for-one, and watches TV alone in the cavernous Wayne Manor. After losing his parents—Bruce is famously an orphan, of course—he’s afraid of letting anyone in.
But during a lovestruck moment (one not unsimilar to what Emmet Brickowski experienced in the original LEGO Movie), Bruce unthinkingly agrees to adopt a puppyish orphan (Michael Cera) who follows him around. The love interest is Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who’s taking over as police commissioner after her dad (Hector Elizondo) retires. And though everyone at the orphanage calls the boy “Dick,” (“Well, kids can be cruel,” Bruce remarks), he’s renamed Robin—and we all know what happens there.
Though the Joker is, in fact, the main villain here, he’s brought along pretty much everyone in the DC universe to help him destroy Gotham, from Superman to Harley Quinn to Godzilla. Warner Bros. fantastically allows itself to be mocked, with not only knocks on its superhero flicks (Suicide Squad is a slow-moving target, as is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; there’s even a quick reference to Zack Snyder) but also romantic properties such as Must Love Dogs. And if you’re not familiar with the history of Batman, you may not catch the flurry of homage to former Batmen down to pre-Adam West days, along with their attendant styles or, in West’s case, goofiness. The re-created look of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is particularly brilliant.
As with The LEGO Movie, the jokes come too rapidly here to catch them all—at least in the first half. Batman has more flat moments than its predecessor, but when it hits, it’s hilarious: Batman’s dark-soul personality is consistent throughout (when Robin and the Joker exchange a “Namaste” greeting, Batman responds, “Gross”), and a protracted, nearly silent scene involving Bruce and his microwave may leave you laughing until you tear up.
Yet the requisite heart of an animated film is still there. The themes of family, togetherness, teamwork, and even gender parity (“If you call me ‘Batgirl,’ can I call you ‘Batboy?’”) are highlighted, and the movie has an odd fixation with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Though he does melt a little, Batman’s self-aggrandizing nature remains charmingly intact and may remind viewers of this not-so-great characteristic IRL, with the disillusioned wishing that a pro-superhero sign in the film could come true: “Batman for President.”
The LEGO Batman Movie opens Friday in theaters everywhere.