Merry Little Batman (2023)

This is the second time in the space of a year an animated movie was abandoned by the studio that made it, got purchased by a streaming service, and turned out to be... well... pretty goddamn great (the other being the absolute masterpiece Nimona). I mention this in part to draw attention to the fact the same person who decided Merry Little Batman wasn't worth releasing on Max is also the guy who wrote off at least two virtually completed films: Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt... both of which were apparently Christmas movies we'll likely never have an opportunity to watch or discuss here. He's also the same guy who called The Flash the best superhero movie he'd ever seen, in case anyone thought his opinion was worth taking seriously.

To summarize, fuck studio executives. I'm sorry. That's really not an appropriate way to kick off an article about a kids' movie, is it? Let me start over....

This kids' movie fucking rules. There. Much better. 

Funny, sweet, and surprisingly touching, Merry Little Batman offers a very different take on the world of The Dark Knight than any I've seen to date. Based on the trailers, I'd assumed this would feel relatively similar to "Teen Titans Go!", and there are some similarities in the way the two series push the envelope in kid-friendly media regarding violent sequences or jokes about death, but that's really where the similarities end. Merry Little Batman has a lot more heart than Teen Titans Go. In some ways, it's a little closer to its predecessor, Teen Titans. Powerpuff Girls or Lauren Faust's reboot of DC Superhero Girls (another show that deserves more attention than it gets) are probably closest, but they're still a long way from a match. Regardless, despite the presence of an extremely long, shockingly distinguished tradition of superhero animation, this feels fresh.

I also want to be crystal clear about something: while Merry Little Batman is a very silly Christmas movie primarily intended for young audiences, that in no way means it's not an authentic superhero movie. It understands the core elements of the property and genre it's exploring and uses those to tell a different kind of Batman story, but make no mistake: this is absolutely a BATMAN story. And it's a good one.

So if you haven't seen it yet, take this Spoiler Alert seriously.

The movie is set in a universe very different from those comics fans will be used to. Here, Damian Wayne, son of Bruce, has been raised by his father since his birth. We get a few references to his mother, but - aside from a quick shot of a tattoo on Bruce - Talia isn't even named (the movie doesn't even tell us for certain that's who Damian's mother is).

Damian, now eight, is eager to follow his father into a life of crime-fighting, and dedicates his childhood to training. Despite his efforts, two major obstacles stand in his way: his father is over-protective, and - due to Batman working overtime in preparation for Damian's birth - Gotham has been crime-free for the boy's entire life.

As an early Christmas present, Bruce gives Damian his first utility belt, though anything dangerous has been stripped away. Batman is then called away by the Justice League on Christmas Eve, leaving Damian alone.

Only it wasn't actually the League calling. Batman is sidetracked in Alaska while some goons working for The Joker break into various homes to steal gifts. This kicks off a Home Alone homage establishing Damian is almost as capable as he thinks he is, with the caveat that he hasn't learned to minimize collateral damage. He prevents the criminals from taking anything else, but they get away with his belt, which they deliver to The Joker along with video of the new, tiny Batman.

Damian, obsessed with proving himself to his father, becomes fixated on recovering the belt. He breaks into the Batcave, where he discovers a suit his father prepared for him in the event of his death. The suit includes an AI guide with Bruce's memories capable of guiding Damian. 

Meanwhile, The Joker dumps his minions in a vat of chemicals (it's unclear whether this is lethal). He also instantly sees the potential in a young Batman who lacks the wisdom to avoid damaging his surroundings. Using the belt as bait, he lures Damian into a series of battles against Poison Ivy, Bane, and The Penguin, trusting the child to destroy Gotham's Christmas.

This works out pretty well for the supervillain, who also uses Damian as a distraction to steal all of the gifts from Gotham's homes. Damian holds his own against the supervillains, but they manage to keep the belt out of his grasp. Through it all, the boy finds himself bonding with his computerized dad, who reveals his real father's fears around the idea of Damian being left alone the way Bruce had been following the murder of his own parents.

For something with ridiculous cartoon animation, this gets kind of heavy.

Eventually, Damian goes too far and finds himself hundreds of feet in the air without a way to slow his descent. The AI in his suit sacrifices itself to save him, but this leaves Damian without support. Terrified, the boy runs as the style of animation shifts into an expressionistic black-and-white sequence nothing short of breathtaking. This stops when he's found by Alfred, who....

Look, Alfred's basically Damian's adopted grandfather in this, he got sidelined trying to get some marshmallows, and he shows up again here. He serves as an important emotional component to the movie, but barely factors into the plot, which is why this is the first time I'm mentioning him.

Alfred calms Damian down and starts to take the boy home, but Damian ditches him almost immediately when he receives an invitation from The Joker. He heads to the Joker's lair and discovers the villains applauding him. They explain what they've been doing and how the trail of destruction left in Damian's wake proves he's a supervillain like them. In celebration of this, they offer him a Christmas present: the utility belt he'd been trying to get, now "improved" with explosives and other dangerous components.

Damian, having been taught the importance of sacrifice by his suit's now-deceased AI, tosses the belt he'd been fighting for into a fire, destroying the villains' lair in the process. They attack, and he fights tooth and nail, but is clearly outnumbered.

But that stops mattering when his father shows up. Together, they defeat the four villains (well, five, actually, because Batman brings Mr. Freeze back with him), and Bruce realizes his son is capable of taking care of himself. Once the fight's over, they return the city's gifts and save Christmas. Then they have breakfast with the handcuffed Joker (among others) because it's Christmas and this is a kids' film.

While I loved the movie, there are a couple areas where it does come up a little short. First, the movie - like too many incarnations of Batman before it - features very little female representation. Aside from Ivy, one of the Joker's minions, brief cutaways to Vicky Vale delivering news updates, and a literal cat, this is pretty much a story about a bunch of men. I'm not sure this is technically a flaw (the story is well structured, and the characters are great), but it's disappointing to see one of these fail the Bechdel-Wallace Test this spectacularly in 2023.

On a similar note, the Joker's mannerisms and voice are reminiscent of queer-coded villains from the past. I suspect this is a result of the movie existing largely as an homage to classic animation, and - again - whether this impacts your experience will vary from viewer to viewer, but I felt it should be acknowledged.

Aside from those notes, I had a blast with this. Despite a runtime exceeding ninety minutes, this didn't outstay its welcome for me (though to be fair, I've seen some disagreement on that front). I found this funny, whimsical, and at times touching. This joins Batman Returns, Iron Man 3, and Shazam! as yet another example of great holiday superhero movies.

I just wish we could have found out whether Batgirl belonged on that list, as well.