It’s easy to be flippant about any film whose very title is two registered trademarks followed by the word “movie”, but there is a reason The LEGO Batman Movie—a hit with reviewers and moviegoers earlier this year—ended up in my Netflix queue in the first place. In an age of overblown franchise tentpoles, there’s something cheekily appealing about taking the blockbuster maximalism of today and miniaturizing it: a LEGO action sequence is staged and scored like it was Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan, or Marvel, only every explosion results in a rain of miniature plastic blocks. It’s a twist that can make you smile. After all, don’t all action movies, if done right, feel like children at play? At least, that was half the fun of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s witty, highly meta The LEGO Movie (2014), which launched the franchise on an unexpected high note, smuggled in some sly satire, and made its CGI mayhem feel new simply by making it clear that all the epic sagas at multiplexes these days are really just a matter of toys.
LEGO Batman capitalizes on that success, grabbing a hold of the DC universe (and roping in as many other franchise as it can get its hands on) for an adventure whose action feels dreamt up by a kid and whose moral feels insisted upon by a parent. There is, I have to say, not nearly as much cleverness as its predecessor, though not for lack of trying. It starts riff-tracking its own movie before the opening credits have even started. And as it uses pop culture as a sandbox, it quickly aims for the kind of cleverness that can so easily seem obnoxious because it encourages audiences to feel like the screen is smaller than they are. That is, it’s a fun film that panders to our universal geekery; it offers little except pastiche, tribute, and the kind of likable self-parody for kids that’s been writing itself since Shrek (2001).
No harm, no foul—but can’t we do better? The last bona fide Batman movie I saw was The Dark Knight Rises (2012). It was, I think, Christopher Nolan’s weakest film by far, with aspirations towards seriousness that landed in an utter tangle. But LEGO Batman, without the satire and novelty of its LEGO original, took the caped crusader so far in the other direction that I had the opposite reaction: I realized I’d rather watch a talented director like Nolan try to create a new movie myth (even if it risks collapse) than watch 100 minutes of jokes that congratulate us for memorizing the old ones. Spotting references is a good deal different than true media savvy, which is the difference between the hollow pleasure of LEGO Batman and the smartest touches that made The LEGO Movie such a cheery surprise. And if it’s not careful, and as more spin-offs fill the pipeline, that’s the only true risk this franchise is likely to take: the unpleasant moment when being cheeky towards cliches is revealed to be a long-running cliche of its own.
The LEGO Batman Movie is now on home video. Hand me down the shark repellent.