If Warner Bros. has learned anything from its experience making DC Comics-based superhero films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—and, recently, the more successful and well-received Wonder Woman and Aquaman—it’s that darker isn’t always better. It’s thus amusing to see the studio directly owning up to that hard-earned truth with The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, a rollicking follow-up (out Feb. 8) that argues against equating bleakness with maturity, and cheeriness with insubstantiality. Amidst its frantic animated action and rat-a-tat-tat gags, the sequel proves itself not only a worthy successor to 2014’s franchise-spawning smash, but also a sly piece of self-aware art. Which makes sense, since the masterminds behind it, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, are cinema’s reigning kings of boisterous big-screen deconstructionism.
Longtime friends who met at Dartmouth College and first hit it big with 2009’s energetic and imaginative Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Lord and Miller have over the past decade delivered a string of hilarious triumphs including The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street and December’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which seems poised to take home a Best Animated Film Oscar later this month. As writers, directors and producers on those ventures and their sequels (as well as small-screen shows like Clone High, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Last Man on Earth and Son of Zorn), they’ve pioneered a highly specific sort of humor, one that revels in a wide range of pop-culture minutia with nostalgic glee, even as it lightheartedly picks apart and pokes fun at those very things. It’s a have-it-both-ways approach, where affection and incisive criticism meet, and it’s again at play in The Lego Movie 2, which is destined to continue their winning streak.
In the highly-anticipated sequel, directed by Mike Mitchell and featuring a script by Lord and Miller, average guy-turned-savior Emmet (Chris Pratt) once again has to battle an enemy that threatens to destroy his world, thrusting him into an adventure to save his friends with the aid of a new, badass compatriot named Rex Dangervest (also Pratt). Having been chastised by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) for behaving too childishly upbeat, Emmet finds in Rex a grimdark image to which he can aspire—a scenario that the filmmakers eventually use to mock the very strategy Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. employed with their aforementioned DC sagas. That it also functions as something of a not-so-subtle jab at Pratt himself—whose career has involved a transformation from a goofy doofus on Parks and Recreation to a ripped-bod marquee headliner in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World series, to uneven results—only further underlines its canny self-referentiality.
This makes The Lego Movie 2 another prototypical Lord and Miller effort, as the duo’s filmography is marked by works (live-action and animated) that derive considerable humor from looking inward. From 21 Jump Street openly ridiculing its very existence, to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse rooting its story in the idea of comics creating multiple versions of the same character (not to mention including rapid-fire references to well-known TV theme songs and branded popsicles, and consequently to the larger real-world corporate forces behind superheroes), Lord and Miller recognize that we now exist in an era of hyper-pop-culture saturation, where movies, television, books, comics, pop music and internet memes are a fundamental part of our everyday fabric. Rather than shying away from the inherent nature of their projects (which are often adaptations or reboots of popular properties), they lean hard into it, overtly shouting out to the elements in which its audience are already well versed.
This meta approach is delivered with smarty-pants winks that never alienate (Lord and Miller have no interest in positioning themselves as above their material). By operating from a place of love, they’re able to dissect their given subjects while still embracing the very qualities they’re mocking. This tactic works best when dealing with true icons, because in those instances, audience familiarity (and adoration) is so high that they can truly dig into characters, pinpointing the nuts and bolts of what makes them tick without losing their effusiveness about those building blocks. It’s therefore no huge surprise that the breakout star of The Lego Movie was Batman, who (as gruffly voiced by the great Will Arnett) proved the ideal vehicle for Lord and Miller’s method of exposing iconic characteristics (and clichés, and formulas) in a jokey way, the better to highlight why they continue to have such a strong pull on fans’ hearts and minds.
With all due respect to the smart and funny The Lego Movie 2, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which Lord co-wrote, as well as co-produced alongside Miller) is to date the thrilling apex of this m.o. The film’s faithfulness to comic-book lore and aesthetics doubles as a commentary on those things—all as the story commingles the multicultural, multicharacter and multimedia via Marvel’s biggest star. It’s such an impressive achievement, in fact, that it throws into sharp relief the missed opportunity that was last summer’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, the live-action Han Solo origin story that Lord and Miller were famously fired from more than halfway through production. Whether their dismissal had to do with their inexperience on large-scale live-action endeavors, their desire to make the project too comedic for Lucasfilm’s tastes, or simply their idiosyncratic take on the swashbuckling protagonist, Solo is exactly the sort of larger-than-life figure—beloved by millions, and casting a long pop-culture shadow—that the filmmakers have had success enlivening, by locating and directly addressing what it is we love about them in order to amplify their resonance.
The serviceable blandness of the completed Solo: A Star Wars Story (under the stewardship of replacement director Ron Howard), which dramatizes backstory details with nary an inspired wink in sight, only underlines the distinctiveness of Lord and Miller’s style. And The Lego Movie 2 reconfirms it, delivering a barrage of jokes about toys, superheroes, childhood, romance, sibling rivalries, gender dynamics, and studio-tentpole construction in a high-octane, incessantly merry manner. Like the blocks that comprise its Lego world, their film’s joyous celebration, and playfully self-aware critique, fit perfectly together.