At last, a superhero movie that recognises what a thoroughly puerile concern superheroes might be. Every successful family franchise has its breakout character: 2014's triumphant The Lego Movie gave us a poseur Batman (voiced by Arrested Development's Will Arnett, past master of condescension) who arrived late to that party in a haphazard bid to save the day, convinced he was cooler and more awesome than everybody else around him. (In this, of course, he was very wrong.) Spin-off The Lego Batman Movie proves, in its own off-kilter way, an origin story, positing that the murder of his parents at a formative age, coupled with the immense wealth he inherited, left this bijou Bruce Wayne frozen in time as a perpetual adolescent: a brat-man, dressed in black, with someone to go round picking up his clothes for him (the butler Alfred, dryly voiced here by Ralph Fiennes), and prone to transforming into a colossal mardy-arse whenever anybody sees fit to challenge his worldview.
This immediately converts the character into a figure of fun (not to mention ridicule), and allows Chris McKay's film to rethink Wayne's relationships with the other inhabitants of Gotham City. His match-ups with Bane, the Joker and Superman are now positioned as sublimated, sexually ambiguous, insistently casual flirting ("I'm fighting around"), although he can be nudged towards some form of maturity via his pairing with Robin (Michael Cera), the orphan he distractedly agrees to take under his wing. Thus can McKay's extensive writing staff (including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' Seth Grahame-Smith and Community's Chris McKenna) achieve new and often amusing perspectives on a universe they surely know has been excavated to the point of exhaustion: Wayne's formerly romantic seclusion is recast as tragic-pathetic, that of a billy-no-mates kid shutting himself away in his bedroom.
Again, the design team have worked overtime to create a dense, busy universe that seems forever to be reconfiguring itself before your overstimulated eyes, and will therefore repay multiple viewings when the DVD gets here. Yet equally they never shy away from the idiosyncratic specifity of Lego itself: the dots on the floor, the crap, flat-blocky renditions of fried eggs and ketchup squirts, those afterthought hands. The million-gags-a-minute template laid down by the Lord-Miller partnership in the first film doesn't appear to have been abandoned, either: if anything, TLBM is even more relentless, allowing the spitballing scribes responsible to get away with one properly rude (if thrown away) gag involving the numberplate on Bruce Wayne's car, and a very sly dig at the entire premise of last summer's Suicide Squad. (If the execs or censors blink, they'll miss 'em.)
We should note that - as with all the Murdoch-razzing Mr. Burns material on Fox's The Simpsons - this is another example of a corporation having its cake and eating it: holding every last one of the Batrights as they do, Warner Bros. can presumably offset any deficits Squad or Batman vs. Superman registered if a larkier exercise like this cleans up at the box office. The new film doesn't have the surprise factor of the first movie, and part of me thinks it peaks comedically with an early routine involving the cooking of a lobster thermidor: thereafter, the pace accelerates, but we're left haring around just the one city, where Lord and Miller crossed frontiers and kept building new worlds. Still, it restores a sense of play sorely lacking from the monomaniacal recent Batflicks, folding in all previous incarnations of this character (yes, even Adam West), but also elements of King Kong, Lord of the Rings, YouTube clips, Dr. Who and the Daleks ("British robots - ask your nerd friends"), the Christian Slater skateboarding vehicle Gleaming the Cube, and the Cutting Crew back catalogue. Anything is up for appropriation, and everything is mostly awesome once again.
The Lego Batman Movie is now playing in cinemas nationwide.