Fun fact: the world of Batman wasn’t always dark, brooding, and menacing. He was comedic, light-hearted, funny, and incredibly corny during Adam West’s run as the caped crusader. But the one-two punch of Tim Burton’s rendition of the character in the live-action medium and Eric Radomski and Bruce W. Timm’s in the animated medium kind of cornered him in the serious zone. Joel Schumacher tried to take the dark knight back to his campy roots, but that backfired so hard that every subsequent version of the character ended up being gloomier and bleaker than its predecessor. I love Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and Matt Reeves, but the lack of variety is disappointing. So, it’s really nice to see Merry Little Batman embodying the Christmas spirit of Batman Returns while assuring Joel Schumacher that he doesn’t need to hate himself for his take on the iconic DC superhero.
Mike Roth’s Merry Little Batman, which is written by Morgan Evans, Etan Cohen, and Jase Ricci, with additional material from various writers, is about Batman and Christmas. Bruce Wayne lives in his palatial home with his butler, Alfred, his son, Damian, and a cat who is hilariously named Selina. Apparently, after Damian was born, Bruce decided to rid Gotham of all crime so that he could dedicate every waking hour of his life to giving his son the love and care that he needed. And, funnily enough, Bruce actually made Gotham a crime-free city by sending all the villains to prison and turning every shady area into a hub of productivity and growth. Damian isn’t impressed by all that, and he wants to do some good old crime-fighting like his father, especially after getting his very own, kid-friendly utility belt as a Christmas gift. Bruce tries to teach Damian the importance of having no crime to fight in the first place and how he isn’t exactly ready to tackle villains because he is eight. However, when Bruce is forced to don his costume one more time for a mission that requires him to go far away from Gotham and a couple of goons break into the Wayne Manor, Damian decides to take on the mantle of Batman.
Merry Little Batman is one part Home Alone and one part How the Grinch Stole Christmas, except it’s the characters of Batman’s rogues’ gallery that are acting like the Grinch, and it’s up to Damian to save Christmas. It’s a well-defined goal, and you root for Damian from the get-go because a) he’s such a lovable little kid, and b) we want everyone to enjoy Christmas. But through this apparently simple tale about the festive season, the writers do what every story about Batman’s legacy tries to do: comment on what it means to live in the shadow of Bruce and Batman. And it’s so subtle that when the realization hits you, you cannot help but feel impressed. The tone of the film, the jokes, the action sequences—all of it keeps you very engaged. When Damian is at his lowest, though, and he has a full-blown mental breakdown in the alleys of Gotham, you see that something more than Christmas is at stake. To be honest, this is what I want more of from four-quadrant films. Nowadays, “kid-friendly” films treat their audience like idiots, and it seems like the filmmakers literally want them to leave their brains at home because a “family film” is meant to be enjoyed and not analyzed. Every kind of film needs to be well-written, and if it’s aimed at children, then it needs to be more than dumb humor and loud noises. Then, that movie will stay with them, and they’ll be able to watch it through a new lens when they grow up. That’s the kind of “made-for-kids” films that I’ve grown up with, and I am glad that Merry Little Batman falls into that category.
Merry Little Batman triggered my nostalgia with its animation too. Cartoon shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Johnny Bravo, Spongebob Squarepants, and many more were obviously aimed at children. But all of them were peppered with moments of absolute grotesqueness. The intention was to shock the target audience and make them laugh at the absurdity of those carefully crafted frames instead of, you know, causing nightmares. There was a moment in this DC film where Bruce lifted his shirt to show his scars, in an attempt to warn Damian about the perils of being a superhero, and his torso was drawn like the most anatomically incorrect thing in existence. And I can’t explain how much I laughed at that. Also, as a fan of 2D animation, the hand-sketched and painted quality of the visuals excited the hell out of me. I don’t know if I’ll be scolded for doing this, but I am guilty of pausing the film several times to focus on the details of the artwork to appreciate it. The imperfections, the lines, the colors—it’s so goddamn good! Going back to Damian’s panic-attack sequence, the use of black and white was mind-blowing. It instantly put the audience in the kid’s shoes and reminded me of every overwhelming moment I faced as a child. If that’s not immersive storytelling, I don’t know what is.
The voice-acting in Merry Little Batman is incredible. I don’t think I would’ve imagined Luke Wilson as Batman under any circumstances. Don’t get me wrong, I love Luke Wilson as an actor. But recent iterations of the greatest detective in the world have created this idea that the actor, or voice actor, has to be really dark and intense, and Luke is none of that. That said, he fits the role perfectly. The genuine sense of care and wholesome dad vibes permeate through the screen and touch your heart. James Cromwell as Alfred is fantastic. Dolph Adomian does a great Arnie impression as Mr. Freeze. Brian George as The Penguin is maniacal and a laughter riot, especially when he’s one-upped by a kid! Therese McLaughlin and Chris Sullivan are amazing as Poison Ivy and Bane. Michael Fielding and Natalie Palamides knock it out of the park as Terry and Francine. David Hornsby brings the house down as The Joker. However, it’s Yonas Kibreab who steals the show as Damian Wayne. The kid has range. He is adorable when he needs to be. He exudes strength and grit. And during Damian’s moments of vulnerability, he hits you in the feels.
I know that a direct-to-OTT release like Merry Little Batman won’t be considered for awards or anything prestigious. But I am putting it up there with all the well-received films of the year, which include live-action and animated projects. I don’t know if there’ll be more films featuring these versions of the DC characters, but I want more. My vocabulary isn’t developed enough to communicate how much I loved the aesthetics of the film. Will it help if I say that this is one of my favorite Christmas movies, alongside Klaus, Batman Returns, Die Hard, and Carol? Will that convince the suits to greenlight more Batman and Little Batman movies? If they ask, “Who is asking for more Little Batman movies?” just point them in my direction, and I’ll convince them to let Mike Roth and his team make one festival-themed Little Batman film every other year, for as long as they want to, or die trying.