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The Lego Batman Movie review: The best Batman movie since The Dark Knight

“You can’t be a hero if you only care about yourself.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

There are questions that Batman movies like to ask, but never quite answer.

Is Batman really good for Gotham if villains always come back and, after all these years, crime is still an ever-present threat? If Batman dresses in black, ignores the police and isolates himself from society, is he not becoming the sort of monster that he himself has been warring against?

Batman movies like to raise these questions because they lampshade the inevitable narrative inconsistencies created by long-term serial fiction — mentioning them gives a movie a veneer of that quality so theoretically prized by the modern superhero movie audience: “realism.” But Batman movies almost never actually give any answers, or if they do, they do it in near-tautologies like “Gotham needs Batman.”

The Lego Batman Movie asks these fundamental questions, and then it actually provides its own clear answers and solutions. It’s also an hour and 46 minutes of pure joy, a hilarious heroic romp and a love letter to the history of Batman in film. But perhaps most importantly, The Lego Batman Movie is also an out-loud critique of the brooding, angry, hyper-masculine, loner Batman of modern film, from his cut abs to his sadness mansion.

(Also, it feels silly to be saying this, but The Lego Batman Movie is a spinoff — so, I should tell you that while it presumably takes place sometime after The Lego Movie, its plot does not directly flow from any previous events in the series.)

DC Comics/Warner Bros. Pictures

The idea that Batman (Will Arnett) struggles with interpersonal connections is established earliest — and hilariously — when it is contrasted against the Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) need for the validation of being the person that Batman considers to be his greatest enemy. Even among his villains, Batman is unwilling to admit that he has strong emotions about any one person over anyone else.

But other than that awkward moment with the Joker, Batman’s life of fighting evil by moonlight and living to excess by daylight is going just swimmingly ... until Commissioner James Gordon (Héctor Elizondo) retires and his daughter Barbara (Rosario Dawson), a graduate with honors from “Harvard for Police,” takes his place. Barbara believes that the Gotham Police Department should take a more active role in the city’s defense against crime. Simultaneously, the Joker crashes the new Commissioner Gordon’s introductory gala, only to turn himself and every other Batman villain over to the police without a fight.

What’s a Batman to do when there’s no crime to fight? The Lego Batman Movie has answers.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Dawson’s Barbara Gordon is fantastic casting in a great role. Michael Cera as Dick Grayson is funny, earnest and adorable — a parody of Kids’ Movie Cloying without ever slipping up and becoming Kids’ Movie Cloying. Channing Tatum also deserves a mention for a small but very deliberately put interpretation of Superman. There are more I could mention, but, well ...

This is is a Lego Batman movie, which is to say that it takes place in what I guess we’re going to have to start calling the Lego Universe, a setting significantly wider than the DC one. Which is to say, I would really like to talk about some of the unexpected cameos in The Lego Batman Movie but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

But I will say that there’s a scene where a room full of villains gives the Joker a pep talk about how he deserves better than Batman, who has never been able to acknowledge the importance of their 78-year rivalry.

“I am not going to be part of a one-sided relationship anymore,” says the Joker at the peak of his self-actualization. Needless to say, the team behind The Lego Batman Movie understand what it takes to make the Joker interesting, and it’s not a grill.

The Lego Batman Movie is not to be underestimated. I expected it to answer its questions quickly and get on with things, but the third act is satisfyingly complicated. It doesn’t take the idea that Batman is a jerk as a necessary quality of the setting, and keeps pushing until it earns its accomplishments. Batman is bad at team work, and he fails at it over and over again, but The Lego Batman Movie makes sure we know exactly why he’s failing, the lessons he keeps missing and the trauma and justified fear that ultimately drive his isolation.

If this all sounds more like an adult Batman movie than a kids’ Batman movie to you, I’d like you to find me a recent Batman movie made for adults where its lead learns a lesson, changes his mind, or has any sort of arc of character development worth talking about. And get out your focused microwave emitter, because you’ll have to go back to 2005’s Batman Begins.

The Lego Batman Movie is that rare bird of big-screen Batman film: A Batman movie that is actually narratively about Batman, and not a featured villain.

It also has a big dance number over the end credits.

Take your kids to see it. Take your friends. Take a Warner Bros. executive, and maybe they’ll finally realize what they’re doing wrong with the DC Expanded Universe.