The first 20 minutes of The Lego Batman Movie, in which a character made of small plastic snap-together pieces captures delicate gradations of hubris and loneliness, are genius. The opening blast of action uses every color in the jawbreaker palette: Lego Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) saves Lego Gotham from a cadre of villains led by Lego Joker (Zach Galifianakis), with his acid-green molded pompadour and equally acidic ingratiating smile. There’s never any doubt who’ll win. Lego Batman makes a point of showing off his “nine-pack” (he’s so awesome, he has an extra ab). But after the rumble is over, he retreats to cavernous Lego Wayne Manor, shifting straight into moody Christian Bale mode. He pops dinner into the microwave–it hums morosely, its light bathing his forlorn, masked face in a one-is-the-loneliest-number glow. The seconds tick by. Lego Batman’s existential suffering gets funnier with each one.
And then the whole thing falls apart. The film, directed by Chris McKay, is a spin-off of 2014 hit The Lego Movie, an unapologetic product unapologetically selling a product. Sometimes brash, sometimes wearying, that movie at least felt like it was made by the brightest kid in the class. Not so for Lego Batman. After that kick-ass opening, the picture devolves into an action-action-plot-action-plot-action monotone. Where have all the gags gone? By the end Lego Batman has learned a valuable lesson: family is important! (A lesson, by the way, that’s almost always designed to please adults more than children, who mostly long for chaos and freedom.) Lego Batman, with his comically blank eyes and observant pointed ears, deserves better. No other character with nine abs has ever made misery funnier.
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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