The Lego Batman Movie holds a unique position—as does the Lego Movie franchise in general, I’d argue; it’s already brought something unique to mainstream cinema and, perhaps, done so to the surprise of critics and a lot of audiences.
I think a lot of people expected that from The Lego Movie – I don’t think they expected a startlingly well thought-out, surprisingly meta action comedy with a genuinely moving and unseen twist-led finale. It took full advantage of the imaginative play inherent with a toy like Lego – the ability to cross franchises, to meld worlds, to tell geek-creaming stories with all manner of otherwise unrelated characters in one narrative.
Looking at Lego as a brand, it’s endured by holding its own in a market desperate to replicate and overtake it. The company has wisely tied into certain off-brand licenses to keep it fresh and relevant, alongside developing its own licenses…all the while maintaining a high level of quality. The extensions of its brand, from books to video games, all take advantage of that unique format – quality, imaginative play, across franchises and licenses. A non-exclusive toy box, where everything is stored together.
When initially announced as a spin-off from The Lego Movie, even I thought that was an unusual direction and, perhaps, one that carried a lot of cynical weight, especially with the DCEU’s new cinematic canon. What didn’t really occur until the first trailer was how effectively the tone of The Lego Movie and the personality of the Batman established there could be carried into a stand-alone movie; how the character was not only ripe for exploring but how the unique opportunities the format held could lead to some amazing ideas for the writers encouraged to let loose on it.
There’s so many ways to do a Batman movie; you can go camp and ridiculous; you can go cheesy and stylised; you can go intense and dark; you can go fantastic or realistic, brooding or with an arched eyebrow. When it’s done right, it always works, no matter the approach, because there’s a complex personality at the centre of the franchise that lends itself to reinvention and multiple interpretations.
That always works, even in Lego — especially in Lego — whereas the question of “does Bruce Wayne wear the mask of Batman or does Batman wear the mask of Bruce Wayne,” often the backbone of defining the character and the beating heart of the Dark Knight Trilogy, is not at stake here.
The genius touch that only Lego Batman can get away with is exaggerating the arrogant, isolationist aspect of the Wayne/Batman persona that is normally just taken as a given, but here is blown up into a hilarious super egotist. It’s a Batman too unsympathetic for live action; a Batman writ too large to be plausible as “real”; a Batman too sarcastic to be stoic and a Batman we have never seen explored on film before.
It’s an opportunity to do a Batman movie that only Lego could get away with; a Batman movie that can run entirely on imagination and childlike glee, reference and mock its own legacy in equal measure; that can blow itself up and remind its audience that it’s part of the multi-franchise world The Lego Movie established by filling a famous bit of DC Comics lore full of inspired-choice characters from other licenses and coming away from it clean, without any break in the suspension of disbelief.
At the heart of the thing, it’s a really well constructed story that revolves around its central character and, arguably, his flaws. There’s certainly no shortage of characters for that to play out against but the impressive villain roster alone — and that’s just referencing the actual Batman ones — and the voices behind them, the costumes used, the myriad of choices that pay homage to the past and mock it at the same time…it’s just part of what only a Lego movie can get away with in the end.
Combine that with a comedic voice that’s distinctly adult without being too mature, a story pitched towards its older audience without discrediting the equally important younger one, and you’ve got quite an achievement – there’s so many bases for this movie to cover, but it’s like the ability to do so is written into its DNA. You even have a finale that wouldn’t be possible in a film where the characters aren’t Lego characters, in a world where Gotham City isn’t made of plastic bricks.
Despite that, both The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie have measured themselves carefully. Both have struck a balance where they don’t outstay their welcome, they don’t overload on laughs or sentiment and they don’t assume everything’ll work because two massive franchises have been smashed together in the ballpit. The fact that they have been smashed together is as much key to the success of the fledgling franchise as being well-made movies – the proliferation of familiar characters, recognisable franchises, known identities means an audience is easily sold on their involvement…and comfortable and invested before they’ve even sat down.
Both Lego efforts so far are very cleverly constructed movies, where care and attention has been paid to getting that balance right and providing a depth of experience and reference that means you can watch them over and over and still see new things.
(…seriously, has anyone else noticed on multiple viewings that the end credit dance sequence is actually this? The pop-culture meta rabbit hole should practically cave in with this movie, but again, it’s been cleverly balanced to not prove too much…)
The Siri ‘puter and notification noises are inspired gags, but the thrusting into the camera of the rear of Lego iPhones is a bit of a clang when the rear of phones are rarely the focus in any kind of movie (and when BrickPhones were so widely used in The Lego Movie). But that’s a small reason to frown at what is a really strong example of Getting It So Right and perhaps more of a reminder of the commercial origins — and all the assumptions that first went with that — of the franchise in the first place.
It wasn’t commercial consideration that made these Lego Movies successful, even if it was the instigating factor for them happening at all; it was expanding on an existing reputation for quality and ingenuity. A friend said to me “How much must Apple have paid to be in that?!”