Last week, in contemplating the Internet-wide casting-about of a new director for Ben Affleck’s stand-alone Batman movie, titled (pauses, consults notes, furrows brow) The Batman, your Flavorwire proposed a radical suggestion: yeah, maybe they actually don’t have to do that? This was posed in jest, of course; as long as there’s still one fan with a dollar to spend, Warner Brother and DC will continue to beat that dead Bat-horse. But it’s even harder to understand why they would bother making another mopey, serious Batman flick when the same parties are, this very week, releasing The LEGO Batman Movie – which satirizes the ethos and aesthetics of those films so successfully, it’s hard to imagine ever taking them seriously again.
That it’s any good at all places it firmly in the tradition of its predecessor, The LEGO Movie, i.e., a movie that sounds like a terrible filmed deal, yet turns out to be ingenious and delightful. That film’s directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, have kinda made such turnabouts of expectation their specialty (they also helmed the Jump Street flicks and the forthcoming Young Han Solo stand-alone); they’re listed here among the producers, handing the reins over to frequent Robot Chicken director Chris McKay, along with five credited screenwriters (including Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith). They do not attempt to replicate the structure or surprise of the original LEGO Movie, with its somewhat divisive third-act meta-narrative turn. They aim, instead, for a cheerful animated comedy – and an affectionate but nonetheless relentless satire of the entire Batman #brand.
There’s something of a Deadpool flavor to the picture’s self-awareness, which it announces from the opening frames – I mean literally the opening frames, before the production company logos even, with our Batman (Will Arnett) growling, over a black screen, “Black. All important movies start with a black screen. And music. Edgy music, that’d make a parent or studio executive nervous.” He also calls himself, over the DC Entertainment logo, the label’s most important character, dismissing the more obvious candidate: “What, Superman? Come at me, bro.”
That’s the first of many little jabs at WB and DC’s widely reviled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which becomes one of LEGO Batman’s more satisfying runners. But, to be clear, you don’t have to have suffered through that toilet fire to get the gags here. One of the pleasures of this script are the several threads it pursues: general comic book movie satire (the spoken password to get into the Batcave is “Iron Man sucks”), humdrum regular life gags (Batman’s Siri double, going through his mail, tells him he got a soon-to-expire Bed Bath & Beyond coupon, “but I hear some stores will honor them after the expiration date”), left-field references (Robin mentions his skill at gymkata, “a gymnastics-based martial art”), and barely-heard throwaways (you have to strain hard to hear Scarecrow’s description of his special power: “I have a sack for a face!”)
But its juiciest target is Batman himself – particularly his more recent emo iteration in Snyder’s BvS and Suicide Squad, but also the general “darker, grittier” Batman of the Burton and Nolan movies, and the graphic novels of Frank Miller and company before and during them. But while they gave us a rain-soaked Blade Runner riff, LEGO Batman gives us the indelible image of a bored Batman watching his dinner heat up in the microwave before settling in, all alone, to watch Jerry Maguire on his big screen. It gives him dialogue like “For a brief moment, I could’ve sworn I… felt something.” It gives us a particularly patient-parent Alfred (gamely voiced by Ralph Fiennes) who is glimpsed reading a book titled Setting Limits for Your Out-of-Control Child.
These are funny bits. But they also, slyly, underscore the fundamental silliness of the super-serious interpretations. Early on, the Joker (an uproarious Zach Galifiankis) runs down all of the Bat-nemeses he’s gathered – one of those long lists of characters that these movies do so well – and in the middle, he switches to made-up ones that are barely less ridiculous, like Condiment Man. When the Joke brags, of his latest evil plot, that “Batman’s never gonna see it coming,” his victim replies, “Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?” And during a tearful scene in front of Bruce Wayne’s last family photo (posed in front of a street sign for “Crime Alley”), Alfred date-checks all of the earlier movies – including “that weird one” from the 1960s.
It’s a bang-on satire, yes – and, as with Deadpool, it’s also a reminder that when a genre bends towards self-parody, it’s also usually a sign that it’s in trouble. The Trinity movies were the beginning of the end for the Spaghetti Western; the Schwarzenegger/Stallone juggernauts never really recovered from Last Action Hero and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Will movies like these actually stem the tide of the superhero movie glut? Dubious; I’ve seen the release calendars for the next few years. But I will say this: whatever poor schmuck lands in The Batman’s director’s chair, he better hope his audience hasn’t seen The LEGO Batman Movie.
“The LEGO Batman Movie” is out Friday.