This is going to be an odd question to ask on a website called “Fandom”, but I’ll ask it anyway: Is there such a thing as too much nerd delight?
The Lego Batman Movie is a sequel to 2013’s The Lego Movie, which already was a nerdy orgasm of franchise crossovers. No other movie could ever mix together DC heroes, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and about a million other franchises into one bubbling cauldron of fan service. It all made sense then because Lego’s brand is built on multimedia crossovers. Any child’s playset of bricks will become a nonsensical jumble of universes and licensing rights. And importantly, the media mash-up wasn’t the point of the movie. The Lego Movie was actually about a father and son learning to share a geeky heritage.
Warning: mild The Lego Batman Movie spoilers ahead
Lego Batman, on the other hand, is not about Legos or the families who play with them. There is no hidden meta-narrative. It doesn’t matter what Batman means to us, it’s about what Batman means to Batman. It’s a movie about 90 years of Bat-history and the many Bat-contradictions. This movie takes the time to point out that behind all of Batman’s increasingly dark and violent turns in films, he’s a just lonely anti-social manchild. Within that, there could be a strong core, mirroring the first film’s theme.
But the movie is also preoccupied with mocking Batman v Superman and bringing back ’80s movie monsters. Lego Batman is nerd candy on overdrive. It’s sweet, it’s funny, and it’s a blast for hardcore fans of both Batman and movies. But is it very wholesome? Are you getting vitamins or just a fandom sugar rush?
More Deadpool 2 Than Batman Movie
In a lot of ways, Lego Batman is less a sequel to The Lego Movie and more a spiritual successor to last year’s hard-R-rated Deadpool. While Deadpool’s comedy is bawdy and adult, and Lego Batman’s is more innocent, they actually share a similar satirical edge. Deadpool took his time to complain about the utter mess of a continuity snarl that the X-Men film universe has become. By riffing on its own franchise, Deadpool had a mischievous energy that no other superhero film could match last year. (And God bless poor Suicide Squad for trying.)
Lego Batman does not have nudity or tiny baby hands, but it’s sewn from the same parody cloth. This movie’s main source of comedy is the utter unwieldy nonsense that is nearly a century of Bat-lore. Through the Dark Knight’s long career, he’s danced the Batusi and brutally beat Superman with a kitchen sink. None of that makes a lot of sense back to back, so the many paradoxes of the character are easy targets.
Most of the jokes in this movie are built on the silliest parts of decades of Bat-films. The writers have to remind us about the Shark-Repellant Bat-Spray, that time the Joker teamed up with Prince music, and the utter disaster that is the DC extended universe. We see Blight from Batman Beyond, a Billy Dee Williams‘ Two-Face, and Clock King.
Since the intended audience was probably not even born when The Dark Knight was in theaters, these jokes will fly over their little heads. But for us nerds, it’s an easy elbow jab. “Remember the Bane voice? That sure was wa-a-aacky!”
The movie handles all of this rather well for at least the first two acts. Lego Batman can play with the tropes of the hero to tell a decent character tale. Yes, Batman’s life is a glorious fantasy, but as audience tastes have turned from the happy Caped Crusader to the brooding Dark Knight, it’s become a very lonely one. The conflict of raising a son, Robin, and dealing with a “platonic co-worker relationship” with Barbara Gordon challenges the Batman character in a strong way.
Back in the ’90s, the addition of Batman’s various supporting characters was mocked for being “toyetic”. Batman & Robin created an entire Bat-family, and the young internet tore into it for not being the angry solo Batman they wanted. Robin and Batgirl only existed to sell toys, and fans argued that they had no place in the gritty storylines. Well, last year the fans got their Frank Miller fascist fantasy Batman in Batman v Superman. After that critical disaster, Lego Batman had no choice but to turn back towards a family dynamic.
The Lego Batman Movie (ironically now not only toyetic but also made of toys) instead puts a stronger spin on the characters. Robin is a sweet do-gooder from the Silver Age who contrasts off his “dads” Batman/Bruce Wayne well. And Batgirl’s dynamic is basically the same as Lana from the FX cartoon series Archer to Batman’s Archer, challenging his ego by being his equal. If this had remained the focus, The Lego Batman Movie could have been much more than it is.
On another level, however, this is still a movie about toys selling you more toys, but at least it’s self-aware. The problem grows when the movie loses interest in itself and just becomes a mess of nostalgia. It isn’t satire anymore, it’s simple commercial excess.
Whatever strength is in the script is lost by the finale. Here, Lego Batman turns into just a giant overflowing ooze of empty pop culture references. The film already has several thousand of the wackier characters of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, but apparently, the climax needed roughly a billion unrelated movie monsters to pad things out. It isn’t enough to fight the Joker and company. We also need Voldemort, King Kong, and a giant monster that technically isn’t Godzilla but looks just like him.
Somewhere in there, no matter who you are, is a reference that will pull at your heartstrings. Gremlins fans, you’ve waited 20 years, but here they are again. They don’t really have anything to do in this script, but they’re here. They’re causing mild amounts of mayhem. Lord of the Rings fans, look, there’s a wacky Sauron!
None of the various cameos add anything in particular to the movie other than noise. There’s a fleeting nonsensical joy that comes from watching Batman fight off whatever junk fell out of Warner Bros.’s endless pop culture garbage bin. However, after a while, this buffet of fanboy appeal becomes an unappetizing game of “spot the movie”.
This isn’t merely pop fun. It’s a frenetic, overly long, exhausting climax.
Why Is This Here?
Agent Smith has nothing to do with Batman. He also doesn’t add to subtle themes of father-son bonding. Neither does Voldemort, neither does King Kong or that giant monster that technically isn’t Godzilla but looks just like him.
There isn’t anything clever about this. We aren’t learning anything about our characters, or the franchise, or ourselves. It’s just fanservice for fanservice’s own sake. It isn’t even parodying the mind-bending scale of other superhero movies with their soul-crushing action climaxes that never seem to end. These cameos aren’t saying much about Batman, but they are saying something about Warner Bros. It’s like this whole movie is a nervous sales pitch to investors: “Look, we still have a mass media empire! We’re still relevant!”
This is all extra unnecessary and bizarre because the target audience for this movie was probably born around 2008. (You’re allowed to feel old upon realizing this.) Why would they care about The Matrix? How many kids are even getting these references? Their dads might be able to follow them, but they won’t.
The Lego Movie had all this nostalgia fodder. However, it smartly put all that away for the climax. The Lego Batman Movie only adds more and more of this, until the movie drowns in post-modern excess. You can make all the jokes you want and tug on whatever programming you need. We live in a nostalgia pop culture economy now. Everything is a remake of something else. But that’s empty without a human purpose. What ultimately matters is still telling an original story.
Compare Lego Batman to last year’s smash, Stranger Things. Every piece of that show was a borrowed part of some older franchise. But Stranger Things wasn’t merely shoving them in your face saying “remember this!” It was combining those pieces, like Lego bricks borrowed from a dozen playsets, into its own unique story. One day people will be able to reference Stranger Things and feel nostalgia for it. How long will Lego Batman stay in your mind once you’ve finished counting the Easter Eggs? Can you feel nostalgia for a movie that’s already nothing but nostalgia?
The truest moment of Lego Batman is an entirely silent minute of Bruce Wayne in his childish mask waiting alone in his plastic kitchen for his microwave dinner to finish. There are no in-gags. No references. Just a character moment that could happen to any lonely man, World’s Greatest Detective or not. That’s memorable and has real human truth to it.
Look, we’re all fans here. Decades of pop culture obsession have programmed us to love what’s in The Lego Batman Movie, regardless of whether its good for us or not. But when the movie is over, it’s easy to feel a little queasy. You’re not left with much more than a pop culture hangover.
Despite what I’ve said in most of this piece, The Lego Batman Movie is a good movie, just one that ends up misguided by the end. It’s definitely a breath of fresh, happy air after the years of misery that Batman has endured. However, relying on nostalgia has a limit. I worry for any sequel to Lego Batman just as I worry for Deadpool 2.
Once you’ve run out of jokes to make at your own franchise’s expense, once you’ve run out of Easter Eggs, you’re not left with a whole lot of substance. Nerd candy is fun for an afternoon, but you can’t live on it. You can, however, live on character development, quick humor, and honest charm – you know, actual vegetables. The Lego Batman Movie has plenty of that, you just have to tear through layers of artificial fan service to find it.