In the spring of 2016, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” darkened the doorway of nearly every multiplex across America. Almost exactly a year later comes the animated “The Lego Batman Movie,” set in a universe where everyone and everything is made of Legos. Guess which movie has more humanity, heart and sheer entertainment value?
Clue: It’s not the one with an Affleck.
Three years ago, the predecessor to “The Lego Batman Movie” — the simply named “The Lego Movie” — surprised many people with its eye-catching visuals, pop-culture smarts and subversive humor.
Eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds could both be enthralled, not an unusual feat with animated movies these days but “The Lego Movie” threaded that needle with particular aplomb. To paraphrase the title of that movie’s signature song, “everything was awesome.”
But it seemed to be asking too much that a sequel could be anywhere nearly as diverting. That was especially true since the directors on the first film, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, weren’t returning (they’re working on the Han Solo “Star Wars” project).
Instead, there’s Chris McKay, of TV’s “Robot Chicken” fame, making his feature-film debut working from a script by five writers. That could have spelled disaster.
Instead, “The Lego Batman Movie” is a wise and funny send-up of the DC Comics universe and the wider world of entertainment. While it’s witty and nimble enough to appeal to the very young as well as the comic-illiterate, it certainly deepens the humor for viewers if they can, for example, catch the dig at “Suicide Squad” or recognize the track — Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 hit “Planet Rock” — that Batman rival Superman likes to rock out to when he throws a house party.
The story, not that the details of it matter all that much, revolves around Batman/Bruce Wayne (Will Arnett) coming to grips with his epic sense of loneliness and loss, rattling around the Bat Cave all day with only his manservant Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) and screenings of “Jerry Maguire” in his empty home theater for company.
When Tom Cruise famously confesses “you complete me” to Renee Zellweger in that movie, the words cut like a dagger through Batman’s heart.
Instead, he lives for his nights of crime fighting against the Joker (Zach Galifianakis) and his henchmen but refuses to admit that he needs the Joker, that he’s emotionally addicted to their never-ending battle. In fact, the Joker tries to taunt him into conceding they need each other but Batman won’t budge. No man is an island but Batman just might be.
Yet undermining his sense of self-worth is the lauded new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), who wants to put Batman out of the vigilante business. She says he has no sense of accountability to Gotham City or the public. This angers Batman, yet he’s torn, as he’s attracted to her.
Meanwhile, Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), a kid from the orphanage where Batman likes to give away his “merch” (merchandise), forces himself into Batman’s life, ultimately becoming his Robin. And here the seeds of a nuclear family are born.
All of this is handled far more effectively than some of the live-action comic-book films, especially those built around DC characters. Its message that everyone needs a supportive family, even one that’s cobbled together like Batman’s, may be obvious but doesn’t feel heavy-handed.
That may be because “The Lego Batman Movie” is also often riotously funny, so much so that a second viewing may be required to catch all the jokes. Try keeping a straight face when The Joker rounds up every fantasy villain/monster ever — including King Kong, Godzilla, Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings,” and the Daleks from “Doctor Who” — to aid him in his perpetual fight against Batman.
Yes, everything is awesome indeed.