This article contains spoilers for The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.
Few filmmakers are as adept at blowing the dust off dated properties as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. As directors, screenwriters, and producers, the duo’s remarkable gift for modernizing hand-me-down material made an unexpected hit of the 21 Jump Street movie and its even more unlikely sequel, both based on a mostly forgotten TV show from the late 1980s. And if giving us a fresh take on the eight-decade-old character of Batman in The Lego Batman Movie wasn’t enough, Lord and Miller helped reinvent the superhero movie genre itself last year with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. If The Lego Movie—a relentlessly clever visual treat that made the most of its IP-based origins—is the ultimate testament to the pair’s talent for updating cultural antiques, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, is just as ambitious and contemporary. The secret to its timeliness? Its wide-ranging critique of toxic masculinity.
It’s impossible to discuss this aspect of the sequel in much depth without spoiling the movie’s many twists, but it all begins with the cliffhanger that closed the original film. At the end of The Lego Movie, Finn, the live-action boy playing with his Lego set in the basement, and his persnickety father, who has threatened to glue the blocks together in monuments to his own, uh, toy-stacking prowess, finally make peace. But moments later, this brief cross-generational harmony is disrupted by the introduction of an even younger builder, Finn’s younger sister, Bianca, whose arrival is portrayed in the Lego world as an invasion by cutesy, toddler-voiced extraterrestrials.
While this might have foreshadowed another conflict between builders of different ages, the sequel’s conflict hinges primarily on gender. At the beginning of The Lego Movie 2, the fighting begins anew when several of our old heroes in war-ravaged Bricksburg, now renamed Apocalypseburg, are kidnapped by the pastel-colored aliens from the “Systar System.” (In “real life,” Bianca grabs several of Finn’s favorite figurines and takes them to her room.) Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt), the one cheerful man left in this gritty, Mad Max–esque wasteland, leaves to rescue his friends, who are to participate in a wedding between Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish), the queen of the Systar System, and Batman, that brood-tastic perpetual bachelor (Will Arnett).
All of which might sound like it’s doing little more than playing with stereotypes about boys liking action figures and girls liking dolls, but things get more complicated when, on his way to the Systar System, Emmet encounters Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt), a stubbled and self-interested spaceship pilot whose only friends are the raptors that form his crew. (Think Han Solo without Chewy, or, if you’re so inclined, the rogues Pratt has become known for playing in the Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises.) One of The Lego Movie 2’s big twists is that Rex is actually a time-traveling version of Emmet from the future, who wants the younger Emmet to embrace his more cynical, macho, and antisocial instincts. While Emmet learns that becoming a more hardened, friendless version of himself isn’t the only way to grow up, Finn discovers that only playing Legos with his sister if she agrees to a certain very male idea of “cool”—i.e., no weddings, no glitter, and no catchy pop songs—leads to neither’s satisfaction.
Lord and Miller are often seen as masters of pastiche, but that description fails to convey how thoroughly and persuasively their best work incorporates their sunny, humanistic point of view. In their screenplay for The Lego Movie 2 (the sequel was directed by Mike Mitchell), Lord and Miller don’t simply allude but critique. Loner bad boys like Rex have nothing to offer anybody else, and their stoic closed-off-ness isn’t maturity but a self-regarding form of arrested development. The movie acknowledges the allure of this fantasy of isolation, but they gesture toward what it really is: misery porn. We see this not only through Emmet and Rex’s storyline but also Batman’s. After embracing a surrogate father and son in The Lego Batman Movie, the caped crusader is single again, because, as he says, “It’s what the fans want.” And yet even the Dark Knight finds happiness in his partnership with Watevra Wa’Nabi, who, as a royal, understands the vigilante’s lonely perch atop the city he strives to protect.
The Lego Movie 2 finds additional nuance in showing that it’s not just Rex who pressures Emmet into brooding antiherodom but his girlfriend, Wyldstyle, too. Though Wyldstyle spends most of the movie worrying about being brainwashed by the more feminine Systar System, it’s ultimately she and Rex who have been drinking the Kool-Aid. She, too, has been pressuring herself to be an invulnerable badass every moment of her life, and her initial disapproval of Emmet’s softness illustrates the pervasiveness of messages to “toughen up.”
But Lord and Miller’s deeper critique is aimed at the gender roles that keep Finn from playing with Bianca. In the same way that his dad threatened to end all the fun when he insisted on only doing things his way, Finn’s refusal to engage with Bianca and her sparkly, girly toys—and tendency to see the femininity they represent as a foreign, aggressive force—ends playtime, too. (Here, it’s because their mom, played by Maya Rudolph in a surprise cameo, orders the toys to be put away if the kids can’t stop fighting.) Bianca says she played along as the alien invader because it was the only way she was allowed to play with her older brother—a fleeting but moving line that parallels the way many female characters have only been accepted by Hollywood by stripping away their feminine qualities. Whereas The Lego Movie’s live-action storyline resolved with the familiar scene of a father and son bonding over their toys, the resolution in the sequel achieves a greater poignancy by showing the boy enjoying playing with his sister’s toys on her terms, a situation we’ve seen far less. It’s no coincidence that this happy ending is the result of an intervention by the children’s mother, whose useless, unhelpful husband becomes a running joke.
The past few years have seen an increasing woke-ification of family-friendly entertainment, and The Lego Movie 2 is not the only recent children’s film hoping to impart the loveliness of keeping one’s heart open. Along with The Lego Batman Movie and Ralph Breaks the Internet, it’s part of a spate of animated movies that make a villain of toxic masculinity. The Lego Movie 2’s great contribution is showing what a “heckish place to live” a world dominated by that kind of machismo can be. Only when we’ve dismantled it, the movie reminds us, can we begin to build a new world, one brick at a time.