‘Merry Little Batman’ Gives the World an Adorable Dark Knight
“Sweet” and “adorable” tend not to be words associated with Batman, but then again, neither is Christmas. Which is why Merry Little Batman, which premiered yesterday on Prime Video, is an endearing addition to a franchise that’s been in our lives on the big or small screen in some capacity since we were born. This is hardly the first time someone came up with the idea of making the Dark Knight funny, but this animated movie’s kid-friendly vibe and generally good-natured spirit is rare for Gotham’s most famous resident. Even when the humor gets too juvenile and the plot goes slack, Merry Little Batman is a minor little yuletide treat. It’s fun to see Bruce Wayne as a sappy single dad.
Directed by Mike Roth, the film is actually more about Batman’s kid, Damian (voiced by Yonas Kibreab), an eight-year-old who dreams of being a crimefighter like his pop. It’s almost Christmas, and he lives in big, empty Wayne Manor with Bruce (a very appealing Luke Wilson) and Alfred (James Cromwell). Who’s his mom? The film is coy about her identity, but if you know your Batman lore, there’s one hint that makes it fairly obvious. Regardless, Merry Little Batman explains that, when Damian was born, Batman decided to double his efforts to clean up lawlessness, resulting in a Gotham City that’s now lauded as the safest place in the world. (As an example of this movie’s breezy, non-cutting sense of humor, Arkham Asylum has been transformed into Arkham Daycare.) Batman’s arch-enemies are either in jail or in retirement. Life is good.
Still, raising a willful boy like Damian is tricky, especially when he keeps bugging Bruce for superhero gadgets for Christmas. Bruce, reasonably, thinks Damian is too young, but he does surprise his son with a utility belt — albeit one that’s more of a caped-crusader starter kit. (For instance, the bat-boomerang is made of harmless foam.) Damian is impatient to grow up, but he loves his dad, who he looks up to, not fully appreciating that Bruce wants nothing more than to ensure that his son doesn’t have the same traumatic childhood that he had.
Their father-son domestic bliss is interrupted when, for the first time in years, Batman gets a ring on the bat-phone, being sent on a mission by the Justice League to take care of a problem in Nova Scotia. He hates to abandon his boy on Christmas Eve, but duty calls, with Bruce insisting that Damian stay at Wayne Manor until he gets back.
Soon enough, however, it becomes apparent that Batman has been lured away as part of a nefarious plan to rob Gotham’s wealthiest homes by two clumsy sidekicks of a mysterious supervillain. No worries, though: This allows Damian to have an opportunity to try out his Batman skills. In a clear nod to Home Alone, he takes care of the crooks thanks to some mildly violent hijinks, although they do escape with his utility belt. Scared that his dad will be mad at him for letting the belt be stolen — thereby demonstrating he’s not mature enough yet to be a superhero — Damian goes after them, learning that they work for the Joker (David Hornsby), who’s ready to start trouble after a long hiatus.
Long before Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton gave us 1989’s blockbuster Batman, the Dark Knight had been portrayed on television and movies in the form of Adam West’s campy interpretation. That was an era before Hollywood really took comic books seriously, so treating a guy running around in a silly costume as a big joke seemed the right approach. It was only after Burton brought a gloomy grandeur to the property, inspired by the more hard-edged graphic novels, that Batman became the Batman most modern audiences think of. (Not that those movies didn’t have their share of wry one-liners.) Not long after, though, Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, especially 1997’s love-it-or-hate-it Batman & Robin, reintroduced a cheeky sense of humor — arguing that, honestly, a real-life Batman is kind of ridiculous, right? In the ensuing years, Batman has veered back and forth between dark and light: The Christopher Nolan trilogy treated Bruce Wayne as a complicated, tormented figure, while the Batman of The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie (voiced ingeniously by Will Arnett) was a loving sendup of the character’s most overwrought qualities.
DC has worked overtime ensuring that viewers of every age will get a little Batman in their lives at all times. Between Batman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, Gotham, DC League of Super-Pets and the big-budget movies with Ben Affleck and Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, you really can’t escape the Dark Knight. Merry Little Batman is a minor addition to that canon, but its modesty is one of its best qualities. It’s not as funny as, say, The Lego Batman Movie, but it’s also not as smugly backslapping, either. There are definitely insider-y jokes that only work if you’ve invested a good chunk of your waking hours thinking about Batman — naturally, Batman & Robin gets poked — but its prevailing ambition is to be an enjoyable, touching Christmas story involving Bruce, his son and some of Batman’s most notorious foes. There’s never really any danger or big stakes in Merry Little Batman — it’s mostly a way to kill some time during the holidays with your kids. You could do a lot worse.
This largely snarkless comedy is very much pitched to an audience about the age of Damian, the jokes tending to be of the “Oh, brother!” level of sophistication. (At one point, a frustrated Joker declares he’s so fed up he’s gonna move to Metropolis.) I wouldn’t describe the film as especially witty — although there is one bit about Batman’s potential death that’s really sharp — but its sweetness isn’t cloying. And in its own quiet way, Merry Little Batman does satirize the Batman mythology, without calling much attention to that fact.
Simply having Bruce be a single dad gives the film an amusing take on the Caped Crusader: This isn’t a brooding Batman but, rather, a regular guy just trying to figure things out. (Hilariously, this Bruce does possess a magnificently over-the-top jawline, truly the most important aspect of being a good Batman.) Watching the Dark Knight have to put up with an eight-year-old is consistently endearing, especially because he clearly loves the kid and is glad to have hung up his bat-outfit to be a full-time father. The juxtaposition of our image of who Batman is supposed to be versus the Batman we see here is Merry Little Batman’s best running joke.
While Batman finds himself stuck in Nova Scotia — the cold weather knocks out his jet as well as his communications capabilities — it’s up to Damian to save the day, taking on the Joker and other familiar baddies like the Penguin, Bane and Poison Ivy. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to report that the kid will demonstrate he’s got the goods, but he’ll also learn some heartfelt lessons along the way — as will his superhero dad. I rarely LOLed during Merry Little Batman, but I appreciated its easy-going approach to tweaking the property, finding fresh ways to mock Batman and the Joker’s two-sides-of-the-same-coin feud and suggest that Mr. Freeze’s ice-related puns really suck.
None of this is groundbreaking comedy, but Merry Little Batman’s gentle subversion of Batman’s “Why so serious?” legacy is a balm all the same. Few Batman movies are about the love of family — the dude’s so busy being a weird loner he barely has time for anyone — but this one, happily, is. This is hardly the most compelling Bruce Wayne, but he’s easily the warmest. Yes, we all know he lost his parents at a young age — that doesn’t mean he can’t still have a holly jolly Christmas.