The public may, in this grim and fraught year of 2017, know Batman best as the extremely Dark Knight Detective. As portrayed most recently by a tortured Christian Bale and a hacked-off Ben Affleck, Batman is the cranky, brooding, ultra-rich orphan compelled to fight crime, his own demons and — because we can’t have nice things — Superman.
Director Chris McKay (and a basketball team’s worth of writers) know all this and parody it to totally excellent, family-friendly effect in the gonzo, goofy “The Lego Batman Movie.”
You might remember that Batman was a breakout star of 2014’s brilliant “The Lego Movie.” Voiced by Will Arnett (apparently, turning Batman into a spandex-clad Gob Bluth is what he was born to do), that Batman was an egomaniacal tough guy, hilarious in his self-regard, the rock-star-in-his-own-mind of the Lego pantheon.
He is no different here in a kinetic rollercoaster of a movie that combines the first film’s Lego-y action with a distinctly DC Comics spin (hardcore comic book nerds will adore all of the C-list villains that get cameos) along with a meta-commentary that all sorts of adults will love. Of course, what was a one-note character can’t quite stay that way for a 104-minute movie — there was really no way “Lego Batman” could have held to the Seinfeld mantra “no hugging, no learning.”
The first hour or so, however, is a blast and a half, opening about as self-awarely as possible (Arnett’s voice: “Black … all important movies start with a black screen”) and doubling down on the meta-commentary as a dazzlingly self-involved Batman careens across the screen, fighting every baddie from Catwoman (voiced by Zoë Kravitz, somehow combining the speech partterns of Eartha Kitt and Henrietta Pussycat) to the Condiment King (no, really) to their leader, the Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). The latter takes it really personally when Batman denies that, after 78 years of combat, they are arch-enemies (“I like to fight around,” he says to a weepy Joker).
Back at Wayne Manor, Batman is having a moment of introspection about his aloneness and his fear of family. Alfred (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) recognizes something is wrong (“Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966”).
So it’s not a shock when Bruce Wayne accidentally adopts Richard Grayson (voiced by Michael Cera) and is forced to experience — with the help of newly-minted police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) — a victory that he could only achieve by expanding his circle of Batpals.
And, yes, compared to the fun-via-creativity vs. brand-licensing debate that animated the heart of “The Lego Movie,” the conventional power-of-friendship plot in this movie’s back half is a little bit of a letdown.
But this is, first and foremost, a Batman movie, one willing to take aim at the character’s most basic structural weaknesses and giggle at them. As Commissioner Gordon puts it when she suggests Batman work with the cops, “We don’t need an unsupervised man karate-chopping poor people in a Halloween costume.” Bam!
But it’s also a totally bonkers Batman yarn, the kind Bats used to have all the time in the Silver Age, back when comics cost a dime and plots followed the dream-logic of a little kid telling a story, “And then … and then … and then”-style.
Look for cameos from Superman, Green Lantern, Bane, the Phantom Zone, King Kong and He Who Cannot Be Named. (No, not the real one; the one from Harry Potter). It’s a reminder than Batman as a character works in all sorts of contexts. Yes, he’s the cranky guy glaring at Superman or getting creeped out by the Joker in a nurse’s outfit. But “The Lego Batman Movie” pokes fun at all that without ever selling out the character and, by extension, the kids who will enjoy the movie, perhaps the first Batman flick they have seen in a good long time.
‘THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE’
Starring: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera
Rating: PG for rude humor and some action
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix Brewhouse, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Moviehouse, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate. 3D: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, Metropolitan, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tinseltown, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Bullock, Gateway.