"Why so serious?" The Joker posed that question in "The Dark Knight," and even in the context of the greatest (and the most serious) of all Batman movies, it carried the unmistakable sting of a self-critique. If there was anyone who could stand to lighten up a bit, it was surely the film's director, Christopher Nolan, who gave us a masked superhero so heavy with existential doom-and-gloom, even some of his admirers couldn't help but wonder when the fun was going to start.
You never wonder in "The Lego Batman Movie," an impish, big-hearted parody that also happens to be the best Batman movie since "The Dark Knight" in 2008. That may not sound like high praise coming so soon after "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," but it's no small accomplishment when the latest contribution to our collective superhero fatigue instead reveals itself as a possible cure — or a tonic, at the very least.
In its best moments, this gag-a-minute Bat-roast serves as a reminder that, in the right hands, a sharp comic scalpel can be an instrument of revelation as well as ridicule. That's true even when Gotham City is a brilliantly hued wonderland assembled from miniature plastic bricks and presided over by a Batman who looks like a raw cocktail weenie garnished with cape and cowl — an impression that doesn't really change when he opens his mouth.
You probably remember this Batman (hilariously played by Will Arnett in a voice so gravelly, he must have been coughing up rocks for weeks afterward) from his scene-stealing appearance in "The Lego Movie." That 2014 hit ably demonstrated that, the "Transformers" movies be damned, a popular toy line could serve as the building blocks of a wickedly sophisticated popular entertainment, and that the causes of good moviemaking and effective merchandising need not always be at cross-purposes.
Partly because it enters theaters facing high expectations — and partly because the earlier Lego film's inspired writer-directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, are back in strictly a producing role this time — "The Lego Batman Movie" doesn't sustain its creative lunacy as consistently as its predecessor did. The focus on a well-known comic-book mythology forces even the script's cleverest jokes into a narrower, more homogeneous register, and not even Batman's love of angry, brooding hip-hop (listen closely and you'll hear a riff on Neal Hefti's original 1960s TV theme) can hide the absence of a song as catchy as "Everything Is Awesome."
Still, if not everything is awesome this time around, much of it comes appreciably close — especially in the giddy first half-hour, which gleefully spoofs every live-action Batman movie ever made while briskly dispensing with some of the origin story's familiar beats.
Rather than replaying the tragic loss that set Bruce Wayne on his vigilante path, the movie gives a melancholy nod to a portrait of his parents (who are shown posing right next to "Crime Alley"). And rather than climaxing with a tortured disquisition on the duality of heroes and villains, the script includes an early, knife-twisting breakup scene in which the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is heartbroken to learn that Batman doesn't even consider him his "greatest enemy."
Truth is, this Batman doesn't really consider much apart from his fame, his wealth, his solitude and his fragile yet overinflated ego. This has perhaps always been true of the character, his do-gooder streak notwithstanding, but "The Lego Batman Movie" is the first Batman movie I can recall that really grasps the character's all-consuming narcissism — and proves willing to call him out rather than coddle him for it.
To that end, the busy, eye-popping action sequences are sandwiched between regular interventions by the key supporting cast, which includes the loyal Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), showing more spine and fighting moves than the past several Alfreds combined, and the new Gotham City police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who refuses to follow her dad's policy of hitting the Bat-signal at every moment of crisis. And of course, there's Robin (squeakily voiced by Michael Cera), the alter ego of Bruce's eager-to-please, accidentally adopted son, Dick Grayson, who can strip down to his costume so deftly, he'd be a shoo-in for the Lego Chippendales.
Together, Lego Batman and Lego Robin are more than merely a thumb-sized rehash of a classic hero-and-sidekick duo. Think of them as two very different behavioral models for the pint-sized Lego player: Robin is the delighted kid whose wide eyes can scarcely take in this lavish new playground while Batman is the spoiled, preening master of his domain, the one who warns his friends not to touch any of his toys and clearly never learned the importance of sharing.
In this way, "The Lego Batman Movie" offers a less conceptually daring version of the framing device in "The Lego Movie," in which every inspired flight of fancy turned out to be grounded in a real sense of child's play. If anything, first-time feature director Chris McKay (who previously worked on "The Lego Movie" and Cartoon Network's "Robot Chicken") pushes the brick-by-brick world building to even more inventive extremes: It's dazzling, if a tad exhausting, to see how a few thousand toy pieces and a herky-jerky stop-motion aesthetic can effectively simulate an exploding fireball or an icy blast from Mr. Freeze's ray gun.
Mr. Freeze isn't the only old-school Batman villain to make an appearance; there are also brief appearances by Two-Face, Clayface, Poison Ivy, Bane and even the Condiment King. And because the Lego universe is one of relentless cross-branding and mash-up merchandising, Gotham City is soon invaded by a host of other supervillains who conveniently fall under the Warner Bros. umbrella, including Lord Voldemort, King Kong and the Eye of Sauron. Not that corporate synergy isn't thrilling and all, but it's here that the movie's gleeful sendup of the entertainment-industrial complex begins to wear a bit thin — right around the point when a Wicked Witch turns up with her winged monkeys but no Winkies or Munchkins in tow.
Or should I say Mnunchkins? One of the executive producers of "The Lego Batman Movie" is secretary of the Treasury nominee and Donald Trump presidential campaign supporter Steven Mnuchin — all of which casts a fascinating new light on a movie about a billionaire playboy megalomaniac who dwells in an impregnable fortress, undermines his closest allies and has to be reminded, repeatedly, that not everything is about him.
Why so serious, right? But perhaps there's another, more salient line from "The Dark Knight" that can be applied to this entertaining and surprisingly revealing movie, in which Batman finally lives long enough to see himself become the villain.
'The Lego Batman Movie'
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
MPAA rating: PG, for rude humor and some action
Playing: In general release