And yes, as I write this, Lego Batman is sitting pretty at a 91 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating (something that’s sure to make those snarksters giddy). The thing is that Lego Batman is a great superhero movie, and not just because it’s colorful and has jokes. It’s because director Chris McKay and his team of writers understand the fundamentals of filmmaking, giving the audience an adventure that didn’t have us drooping with boredom or scratching our heads about what the hell was going on.
What normally happens in a superhero movie—a supervillain executes a sinister plot, it looks like all hope is lost, and Batman swoops in at the last minute to save the day—all occurs within the first 10 minutes. It’s like the filmmakers are acknowledging that everyone in the room, including the audience, knows what the increasingly boring modern superhero formula looks like. That creates a space for them to tell a different kind of story.
After that opening sequence, we go home with Batman to find a very lonely man whose obsession with gadgets, self-affirmation, and the color black cloaks an obvious emptiness in his life. Batman’s deep-seated family issues don’t just pop up as a convenient MacGuffin to further the movie’s plot. They’re baked into his personality. The genius of the script is that while we’re laughing at Will Arnett’s sulky Batman eating lobster and watching Jerry Maguire alone in his giant, empty mansion, we’re also developing sympathy for him. It’s vital setup that pays off later when Batman is struggling to allow new people into his life.
Batman accidentally adopts young orphan Dick Greyson at a gala, the same event that brings Barbara Gordon into his life. Barbara—who you might recognize as Bat Girl—has Batman immediately smitten, but thankfully the feeling isn’t reciprocated. As Commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter, Barbara grew up idolizing Batman, but as the new police commissioner, she insists that Batman play by the rules and accept help, pointing out that he had yet to make Gotham any safer as a vigilante.
Of course, no superhero movie would be complete without villains—and boy does Lego Batman deliver on villains. Batman’s fear of relationships doesn’t just affect the people on the same side, it even prevents him from admitting that Joker is his greatest enemy. In a deliciously self-aware move, Batman refuses to “ship” himself and Joker (a nod to fanfic writers who have long understood the chemistry between archenemies). The rebuke sets Joker off on a quest to get even by releasing some of the universe’s worst villains on Gotham.
The movie is littered with hilarious gags like Batman firing a merch cannon at orphans and a villain onslaught that includes Doctor Who Daleks and the raptor from Jurassic Park. The movie also makes clever use out of its Lego-based setting, letting Batman engineer vehicles on the fly with repurposed blocks. But what makes Lego Batman satisfying goes deeper. Batman doesn’t come around to embracing change easily, giving his evolution the emotional impact it deserves.
A lot of people have made excuses for hugely expensive blockbusters that fall short on plot and character development by saying that superhero movies are just supposed to be “fun.” That it’s enough to see superheroes we love on screen, regardless of what they’re doing or if it makes sense.
Lego Batman proves that argument is garbage. Superhero movies can be fun and still give us enough heart and substance to make them worth seeing over and over again.