Like the trailers promised, “The Lego Batman Movie” is a dazzling, knockabout, joke-a-second comedy set in the DC Comics universe that’s so overstuffed with gags that catching them all in one viewing is impossible. The pace is frantic but never exhausting. The humor ranges from “Mad” magazine-silly to surprisingly sophisticated, and the antics are witty and inventive (the screenplay is credited to five writers, all of whom earned their keep). If the guys who made the “Airplane!” and “The Naked Gun” pictures had trained their sights on the superhero genre, the result might have looked a lot like this.
“The Lego Batman Movie” also benefits from something else: Perfect timing. This thoughtful deconstruction of comic-book movies, steeped in a deep affection for the genre, arrives at a time when the drudgery of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” left behind a toxic fog that tainted nimbler efforts such as “Captain America: Civil War” and “Doctor Strange.” The idea of a “Wonder Woman” movie and “Justice League” and another “Spider-Man” entry feels like a threat now, regardless of how they turn out.
One of the reasons the R-rated “Deadpool” grossed almost $800 million last year is that the movie didn’t care what a superhero picture is supposed to do. Like its protagonist, the film cheekily trampled on the do-gooder rulebook, and its vulgar brashness came off as subversive.
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But “Deadpool” was all shock value and hollow sensation, as edgy as a stand-up comedian dropping f-bombs through a megaphone in a school playground. “The Lego Batman Movie,” which was directed by Chris McKay (a veteran of TV’s shrewd “Robot Chicken”), is more substantial because it takes its subject matter seriously. The characters just happen to be animated and made up of plastic toy bricks.
No other “Batman” movie has done such a deep dive into the psyche of billionaire Bruce Wayne (voiced by Will Arnett), who has always been — let’s be frank — a bit of a weirdo. Yes, he’s tortured by the childhood memory of seeing his parents killed in front of him. But scenes in which we watch him microwaving a fancy lobster dinner and then eating it by himself in his mansion, or sitting inside his enormous home theater laughing inappropriately at “Jerry Maguire,” use humor to ask questions previous films have glossed over: What, exactly, is Bruce Wayne’s deal? And what’s with that raspy voice?
The movie is just as astute at exploring the hero’s love-hate relationship with the Joker (Zach Galifianakis). The villain is so hurt by Batman’s refusal to admit the Joker is his biggest arch-enemy (that honor goes to Superman; see “Dawn of Justice”) that he turns himself in and gets all of his fellow evildoers (The Riddler, Bane, Scarecrow, Two-Face) voluntarily committed to Arkham Asylum. Without any bad guys to fight, how will Batman define himself?
And as the newly-appointed commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) points out: If Batman is so good at his job, why is Gotham City always so crime-ridden? The more familiar you are with the comics, the more you will appreciate how “The Lego Batman Movie” explores the hero’s relationship with his loyal servant Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) or his sidekick Robin (Michael Cera).
The film features some fabulous setpieces, such as an attack on Gotham City by the most fearsome collection of famous villains ever assembled (including three British robots; ask your nerd friends). The cleverness extends to the film’s incorporation of Lego bricks, which play a critical role in the finale. Some scenes, such as Batman’s unannounced visit to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to ask for help, are pure fanboy wish-fulfillment, refracted through a hilariously cracked lens.
But the filmmakers’ fondness and respect for all things Batman are what elevate “The Lego Batman Movie” past the trappings of a funny cartoon. Who could have guessed, in the era of non-stop comic-book pictures, that a movie that uses toys as protagonist would do the most justice to the enigmatic Bruce Wayne?
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Voices: Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis, Jenny Slate, Conan O’Brien, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill.
Director: Chris McKay.
Screenwriters: Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 104 minutes. Rude humor. Playing at area theaters.