Did you know that Batman uses an iPhone? Or that his Batcave computer is powered by Apple’s Siri voice recognition software? Probably not: in fact, I’m not sure Batman has ever used a mobile phone on screen before. Producers can often get away with product placement in live action films: did that just happen to be the prop they were using? Maybe. You can’t really say that in an animation. When we’re zoomed in on Batman’s pristine branded mobile, you can’t help but think about the fact that every single pixel is animated, and deliberate, and required a decision.
It isn’t so much that this is the first egregious piece of product placement in a Lego movie: technically, every scene of every Lego movie they ever make will be entirely product placement. But this is the first time it feels naked and cynical. The Lego Movie did a thoroughly impressive job of obscuring its machiavellian commercialism with a pretty decent piece of entertainment. But now, with the arrival of The Lego Batman Movie, the facade is starting to peel away.
It all starts promisingly enough, with a super self-aware voiceover mocking the opening logos, and then we’re straight into an inventive, pulsing, absurd set piece that deluges you with Lego action and peppy one-liners until you can barely keep up. It’s actually very funny. Except then the plot begins. You see, Batman’s scared of relationships, including having a family or even committing to fighting villains. The Joker takes umbrage at this and begins a nefarious scheme to get Batman to properly hate him. Meanwhile, Batman’s accidentally adopted an orphan who calls himself Robin… It’s very, very silly and it doesn’t really make any sense. Maybe it doesn’t have to. But while the jokes keep coming, they don’t keep landing. There are sporadic zingers, to be sure, but the quality is all over the place.
Every single thing the franchise is allowed to throw on the screen, it throws on the screen. First it’s the entire back catalogue of Batman villains, trotted out in a humorous sequence that acknowledges how terrible they all are. Then, when that’s all done and dusted, Lego flexes its enormous marketing muscles and produces the entire back catalogue of every villain in every other universe as well. Look, it’s Sauron. It’s Voldemort. It’s Godzilla, I think. Wait, does King Kong even really count as a villain? Hold on, the monkeys from The Wizard of Oz? The goddamn raptors from Jurassic Park? Stop. Please stop. For the love of… Fuck me, it’s the Daleks.
This is most jokes in the film: hey, look at that thing you know from some other thing. Now it’s in this thing! It’s all so meta, so aware of how ludicrous it all is. None of which unfortunately takes away from how ludicrous it all is. It’s so self-aware that it’s basically sentient; so busy mocking itself that it doesn’t have its own identity. So busy taking the piss out of all the Batman movies that went before it, that you can’t help but start agreeing: yes, all of Batman is stupid. Which is a dangerous place to take the audience of your Batman movie.
It is, frankly, exhausting. The film is so busy being nonsensical that when it attempts the inevitable Hollywood reversal from sarcastic to schmaltzy, it immediately falls flat on its face. It simply hasn’t built up enough goodwill, either with its characters or its narrative, for an audience to believe its sudden insistence that it matters. Its switch to sincerity is entirely, well, insincere.
The first movie just about created its own believable mini-Duplo universe – but here nothing feels like a real world. It’s just a meta-Batman sketch show, the inevitable consequence of making a series of movies that is literally about products. Ultimately it isn’t a franchise built on a universe, it’s a franchise built on references to other universes. Creatively, if not financially, it’s the law of diminishing returns. You can’t keep making films that are only about other films. Next up, we have The Lego Ninjago Movie. What the hell even is that?