Many films open on a high and drop off, but you’ll rarely see a plunge as vertiginous as the one in The Lego Batman Movie. The first 20 minutes kill. The ultragruff voice of Batman (Will Arnett) provides a running commentary on the doomy music and various fancy studio credits, after which the Dark Knight confronts a priss-pot Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) who longs for Batman to call him his most specialest enemy. But given his tragic orphanhood, Batman is commitment-averse, even to his foes. He sings a song about being the “darkest knight.” Then he sits in his cowl in his empty manor (the house is interchangeable with the Batcave), crunches on microwaved lobster thermidor (shells and all), and snickers at Superman’s sentimentality. The early sequences bring out the hilarity of the conception. These childish Lego blocks with their limited range of expression are the perfect antidote to the last four Batman movies’ solemnity. The enterprise might be opportunistic — DC will laugh at itself for a few hundred million — but whatever razzes Christopher Nolan’s and Zack Snyder’s deep thoughts on vigilantism is to be cherished.
And then the jokes stop landing, as if the B-team of screenwriters (there are five credited) suddenly took over. The last hour is like a night at the comedy club after the headliners have left and the room has the smell of stale beer and flop sweat. Batman’s odyssey from lone bat to family man becomes sincere. The clingy Robin is funny for a while, but even a good gag can only stand repeating maybe nine or ten times. Barbara Gordon adds little and Alfred the Butler (Ralph Fiennes voices him) less. It might also be that the first 20 minutes have spoiled us and led us to expect a level of surrealistic rug-pulling that would be difficult to sustain. When they bring in the eye of Sauron and the Daleks, it feels less gonzo and more like … I hate to say this because there can be no greater defamation … Batman & Robin.
*This article appears in the February 6, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.