The genius behind The LEGO Movie is also the reason every subsequent LEGO movie—starting with The LEGO Batman Movie and surely a dozen movies to follow—is destined to be a little bit worse. The LEGO Movie was fresh and different. But it could only work once, because you can only wink and nudge as often as that movie did—incessantly, compulsively, like a happy eager dog wagging its tail—so many times before the joke starts to try our patience. The LEGO Movie felt like the product of two guys, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who had spent their whole lives having every pop culture meme beamed directly into their brains before returning them all to the world in a glorious hellzapoppin seizure-inducing delirium. The movie let them play in every little kids’ sandbox; you could almost see their disbelief that they were being allowed to have this much fun. But the thing about a sequel or a spinoff, even a mostly fun one like The LEGO Batman Movie, is that it’s hard to recreate enthusiasm and inventiveness. What was once new is now, already, routine.
This one is a spinoff about Batman, the breakout star of the first film (as much as one of the most popular and most dramatized characters in the last 100 years can be a “breakout”). Voiced by Will Arnett, he is every doctoral philosophy student obsessed with “darkness” you’ve ever met, only with billions of dollars, fantastic crime-fighting gadgets, and “fully jacked abs.” (Batman informs us he’s so jacked he has an extra ab to make nine.) This Batman is beloved by Gotham for constantly saving it from The Joker (a funny, fun Zach Galifianakis), but goes home to an empty house and no family, save his reliable butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, proving every great British actor on the planet will end up at some point playing Alfred Pennyworth). After The Joker turns himself in to new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), Batman/Bruce Wayne has to deal with accidentally adopted orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), while trying to figure out if he will ever be less alone.
This is a lot to put on a Batman, this Belonging Arc, particularly one who is scowling in toy form. Arnett’s character was a blast in the original film because it mocked the traditional notion of Batman—the brooding, self-conscious tortured vigilante act— while still presenting Batman as pretty much the coolest dude on the planet. Giving him a traditional story arc as a leading man doesn’t do him or Arnett that many favors: This Batman might be funner in smaller doses.
In fact, for all the self-referential touches this movie throws in—at one point, we get a short LEGO version of every Batman movie ever made—this Batman doesn’t even particularly resemble Batman, neither the traditional one nor the alpha bro of The LEGO Movie. He’s just a traditional, straight-out-of-Robert-McKee protagonist: He starts out somewhere, meets someone who changes him, learns a lesson, and ends up in a different place from where he started. The movie waves all sorts of jangly keys at you, but this is as basic and hoary a story as Batman has ever helmed. He had more quirks in the Joel Schumacher movies.
Which is to say: You can only meta pop-culture speed-riff for so long before you inevitably start making a normal movie like everybody else. The LEGO Movie had a deceptively sweet, almost profound metaphysical trick at its core: When we pan back and realize that the evil President Business is, in fact, a boring old dad played by Will Ferrell who has lost his sense of play and creativity, it turned the film into something larger than we thought it was, something almost nostalgic and hopeful. But there is no larger universe here, no boy playing with his toys. We’re just playing straight up with brands. (This is the sort of movie where Siri plays herself.)
Thus, a little bit of the original’s charm can’t help but fall away. The spinoff feels less like a deconstruction of our pop culture icons than a repackaging of them. Want a friendlier Batman than the lunatic murderbot of Zach Snyder’s awful films? Here you go. The movie functions not only as a cute exploration of the Batman story, but as a cleanup of a damaged corporate asset.
To be fair, it’s a valuable asset, and the movie certainly has its fair share of fun: This is without question the most lovable Robin has ever been. (It helps that the film essentially turns him into an anime character.) The movie still has plenty of life and vigor, even if it’s just left over from the previous film, and while the jokes run out of steam in the overly busy final half-hour, there are still some pretty great ones throughout. (I’m particularly fond of Frat Bro Superman, voiced by Channing Tatum. That’s a LEGO reinvention with some legs.) This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch, even if invention atrophyies into convention awfully quickly.
The next LEGO movie is The LEGO Ninjago, with a straight LEGO Movie sequel and then a Cannonball Run homage after that, not to mention countless straight-to-video movies. These are cute. These are good-hearted. But they are going to keep providing diminishing returns. I might get off this ride sooner rather than later, before I forget just how astonishing the first film truly was. Everything’s a franchise eventually.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site