The Lego Batman Movie ***½|****

Will Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Movie was one of 2014’s biggest cinematic surprise hits with both audiences and critics (it even made my top ten list that year), so Warner Brothers wisely chose to follow up with a spinoff of one of the film’s most memorable characters. Just as its predecessor did, the hilarious The Lego Batman Movie picks away at the mythos of the Caped Crusader (and the superhero genre as a whole) in a way that’s fresh, cheeky and exceedingly clever without being mean-spirited in the process. It’s the kind of comedy that you want to immediately watch again after first viewing, not only enjoy it once more but to pick out the jokes and visual gags that you may have originally missed.

Will Arnett returns with Ron Burgundy levels of arrogance to a version of Batman who is treated like a rock star by the citizens of Gotham City but once his crime-fighting is done, it’s revealed that he’s actually quite lonely and unable to form any meaningful relationships with those around him. His inability to commit is even distressing to his arch-nemesis The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who considers himself the Dark Knight’s greatest foe but Batman refuses to put a label on things (as he puts it, “he likes to fight around.”) To prove his importance to Batman, The Joker unleashes his wildest plan yet on Gotham City, which forces Batman to team up with his long-suffering butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes), Bruce Wayne’s accidentally adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) and new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) to save the day together.

The laughs come early and often in The Lego Batman Movie, as Batman chimes in with voiceover commentary before the first frame of the opening credits and even regards DC as “the house that Batman built” when the company’s logo appears on the screen. Within the first five minutes, there are in-jokes and visual citations not only from the most recent Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films but from every iteration of the Caped Crusader thus far, even going back to his early comic book roots in the 1940s. Even if you’re not privy to some of the more obscure references to Batman mythology (you’d be forgiven for not recalling Condiment King as one of Batman’s enemies), there is still plenty of humor to be had in the fast-paced slapstick and silly banter.

Director Chris McKay is known for his work on Adult Swim’s stop-motion series Robot Chicken, which has also lovingly lampooned fan favorites like Star Wars and many others for years, although the format here is obviously more family-friendly and not quite as irreverent. He and his five screenwriters have crafted a superhero movie that’s not only funny but also has a surprising amount of pathos and more moral fiber than most other entries in the genre. The virtues of teamwork and togetherness have been touted before but when the movie does slow down enough to give these subjects credence, it’s often thoughtful and touching in a way that I didn’t expect.

Even more than The Lego Movie, the story pacing and animation style goes at breakneck speed and some people will no doubt be overwhelmed with how much this movie throws out during a 105 minute runtime that goes by in a flash. Still, it’s hard not to admire a comedy that’s bursting at the seams with creativity and energy when there are so many comparatively lifeless and brain-dead options around, even if that means viewing it can feel like having the fast-forward button on your remote accidentally pressed to 1.5x speed. My hope is that the good-natured laughs and carefree style of The Lego Batman Movie will influence the pervasive doom and gloom that has infected the DC’s live-action features up to this point and help elevate it to a worthy competitor to the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios.