‘The Lego Batman Movie’ Review: Animated Superhero Saga Clicks Spoof to Sincerity

DC Comics’ satire/thrill ride understands its characters better than Zack Snyder ever did

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In the decades since “Airplane!” many filmmakers have assaulted audiences with a barrage of gag after gag, but only a few have realized that there has to be a structure to support those jokes. For “Airplane!” it meant making audiences take the disaster elements (borrowed directly from the non-comedy “Zero Hour!”) at least a little seriously.

For “The Lego Batman Movie,” that structure is, of all things, Batman’s emotional growth from a loner to someone who will allow himself to have a family. And while that premise might sound like a comedy-killer, it’s actually the opposite. Not only does the Dark Knight’s inner development give the animated film some emotional stakes, it also demonstrates that the filmmakers understand this character far more than Zack Snyder, apparently, ever will.

Less a sequel to “The Lego Movie” than a big-screen, family-friendly version of Adult Swim’s blackout-sketch show “Robot Chicken,” “The Lego Batman Movie” gleefully parodies every mass-media iteration of its hero, from the serials to “Super Friends” and from Adam West to Ben Affleck. While hard-core devotees will enjoy an overflowing basket of Easter eggs, you don’t have to be a super-fan to enjoy its crafty mix of outlandish verbal humor and outrageous visuals.

(Even the sound design is funny, from the occasional clickety-clack of plastic feet running on plastic surfaces to the actors who say “pew, pew pew!” out loud while their characters are firing guns.)

Returning from “The Lego Movie” is Will Arnett as an arrogant Batman who covers up his loneliness and longing for his parents with a never-ending stream of boasts. (His staccato braggadocio will sound familiar to anyone covering the White House these days.) The film opens with Batman saving Gotham City for the umpteenth time from the evil machinations of the Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who has gathered together all of the hero’s C-list villains, including Calendar Man, Gentleman Ghost, Egghead and Condiment King.

The Joker is crestfallen to hear that Batman doesn’t think of him as his main nemesis, or even that they’re in a relationship at all. (Sometimes you just want to hear those three little words: “I hate you.”) With Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) taking over for her father Jim as commissioner — she graduated at the top of her class at “Harvard for Police” — the Joker turns himself and all of his cohorts in, partly to remove Batman’s reason for existence and partly as an elaborate ruse that involves the Phantom Zone and the many nefarious villains therein.

Batman is such a jerk that he’s willing to put his newly adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) into a Robin outfit just so the kid can face certain death when they break into Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (where the Justice League is having a swinging party to which Batman has not been invited). Once the Phantom Zone blows wide open — revealing villains from various intellectual properties that have been Lego-ized — can Batman and his surrogate family (including long-suffering butler Alfred, voiced by Ralph Fiennes) save the day?

That we actually care about how that question will be answered is a testament to the five screenwriters and to director Chris McKay, a “Robot Chicken” alum making his feature debut. “The Lego Batman Movie,” for the most part, very skillfully keeps the wackiness from overwhelming the plot and vice versa. And while the various Bat-vehicles take us through vertiginous zooms on land or through the air, McKay keeps the action rousing but never jumbled.

Movie superhero fans tend to be divided into camps, with Marvel people complaining about the dank glumness of the DC films, and DC partisans decrying the jokiness of Marvel movies. Committed to lunacy while paying homage to the varied legacy of Batman over the decades, “The Lego Batman Movie” might be the common ground that satisfies both camps.