In ‘Merry Little Batman,’ the Dark Knight takes on a new challenge: parenthood
Over the course of his nearly 85-year history, Batman has taken on countless on-screen iterations.
There was the fun and campy 1960s show starring Adam West as the caped crusader, the stylized world of Tim Burton’s movies, the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy, and the beloved 1990s animated series. In all of them, the wealthy vigilante’s defining trait is his stoicism.
A new holiday-themed, hand-drawn animated TV special titled “Merry Little Batman,” which is now streaming on Prime Video, challenges all those previous versions. It shows the Dark Knight facing a major challenge we haven’t seen him experience before: parenthood.
“Instead of focusing on Batman as the brooding crime-fighting presence, we turned the lens and focused on him as a father raising a son,” director Mike Roth told The Times in a video call.
For Morgan Evans, the lead screenwriter on the project, the emotional connection between an overprotective Bruce Wayne/Batman (voiced by Luke Wilson) and Damian (Yonas Kibreab), the son he had with villainess Talia al Ghul, served as the story’s foundation.
Through a balanced mix of comedy and poignancy, Evans sought to explore how Batman, knowing the harsh childhood he experienced losing his parents, would approach being a father. His first instinct, at least in “Merry Little Batman,” is to clean up Gotham of any and all crime.
In this delightful saga, Damian is aged down from his teenage self in the comic books to an energetic 8-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a valiant hero like his dad, a Little Batman if you will. But while they made him younger, the creators maintained the character’s original complicated identity that is at the crossroads between good and evil.
“Damian is kind of a Luke Skywalker. His dad is Batman, yes. But his mother is also a major supervillain in the canon,” said Evans. “There’s a question as to whether or not he will follow the dark side or the light side. He’s a darker character than we initially thought.”
Working on a movie based on a property such as Batman, Roth admits, presents the tricky dance of having to honor its legacy while striving to distinguish their interpretation of the character from their predecessors. That artistic feat included devising a unique spin on Batman’s eternal archnemesis, the Joker, an emblematic character in his own right. He’s also undergone various interpretations at the hand of some of Hollywood’s greatest actors.
Voiced by David Hornsby (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), this Joker behaves like a petulant child who throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. His exuberant body movements and menacingly suave personality are inspired by famed choreographer Bob Fosse’s performance as the Snake in the 1974 film adaptation of “The Little Prince.”
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Evans imagined that in a world where Gotham is a utopia, the Joker would be bored out of his mind, but not only because he draws joy from watching the world burn.
“He needs Batman and Batman needs him,” said Evans. “Left to his own devices, he feels that what was great about the past wasn’t so much committing crimes but doing it with his villain friends. That’s a metaphor for how nobody should be alone on the holidays.”
Key to crafting a one-of-a-kind reimagining of Batman was finding a singular animation style. In search of an aesthetic that could communicate both humor and danger, Roth and his team found their main source of inspiration in the sketchy drawings of late satirical cartoonist Ronald Searle, whose worlds were inhabited by offbeat expressive figures.
One look at Damian’s cat Selina (named after Catwoman’s real identity, Selina Kyle) in “Merry Little Batman” and one can easily see how much of an homage to Searle’s work it is. Bruce Wayne’s pronounced jawline and the Joker’s lankiness are other examples.
1. An early sketch of the Joker. (Warner Bros. Animation) 2. A sketch of Santa and Damian in “Merry Little Batman.” (Warner Bros. Animation)
Searle’s style, however, doesn’t seamlessly translate into the realm of animation, because it’s not particularly uniform and can’t be easily reproduced for the medium’s needs. “We had to do a deep dive into the design language specific to our show so that we can replicate it and explain it to other artists, and they can match what we’re doing,” Roth said.
Then there was the Christmas factor. “Merry Little Batman” is not the first Batman movie set during the holiday (there’s “Batman Returns” for one), but the creators wanted Christmas infused into the story and not only as a backdrop.
“We wanted this to be a classic holiday film in the true sense of the word, where it was adventurous and heartwarming and timeless,” said Evans.
Aside from depicting Gotham and the Wayne mansion decked out in colorful decorations, Roth decided to include a playlist of Christmas songs that are not necessarily the most overplayed and popular, such as “Father Christmas” by the Kinks, Lil Jon’s “All I Really Want for Christmas,” or “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios. The parody tune “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” also makes a notable appearance, appropriately sung by the Joker.
“When I first saw a very early animatic I instantly told Mike, ‘This is going be a classic!’” said Jase Ricci, the special’s co-writer. “It’s not ‘A Christmas Carol’ where you can’t tell the story without Christmas. Here, Christmas adds flavor, but the story is not dependent on it.”
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Yet, the most significant impact Christmas has on this Batman tale comes in the form of the harmless utility belt Damian receives as a present from his father. In an earlier draft of the story, he was given a toy that was later stolen and had to be recovered, but while that item fit the holiday spirit, it didn’t communicate the boy’s wish to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Ricci, who has worked on multiple Batman projects, suggested that instead of a toy, Damian should get a utility belt, even if it’s one safe for children without real tools, as a validating symbol, like a Boy Scout receiving a badge, that his father trusts he can take care of himself.
“The belt’s kind of a McGuffin,” added Roth. “What Damian really wants is to be a superhero like his dad. And the belt is the physical representation of that. The toy never really quite got us to that, but the belt did.”
Both fathers to young boys, Roth and Ricci imbued the storytelling with their own “dadisms” and respective experiences in parenting. For example, Bruce and Damian’s fun fist bump came directly from how the two creators behave with their own kids.
“Batman is good at everything, but the one thing that you can’t prepare for is being a dad,” Ricci explained. “There’s an expression that says that given enough time and preparation, Batman could defeat any enemy. But as a parent, no matter how much you prepare the night before, you cannot get your kids to school on time.”
There are plenty of fun nods to other Batman universes in this TV special, including a joke referencing the nipples on the batsuit in Joel Schumacher’s 1990s movies. A fan of Schumacher’s campy “Batman & Robin” growing up, Evans knew Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Bane would be part of the aging gang of retired antagonists getting back into evil shenanigans. The team decided to not include Catwoman, as not to muddle the waters with another character who’s been Batman’s romantic interest. In this timeline, it was important to introduce audiences to Damian’s lineage.
For Roth, the most important Easter egg featured in “Merry Little Batman” is one that could go unnoticed. The voice of legendary comic artist Carmine Infantino, a leading figure at DC Comics for decades who is credited with redefining Batman’s iconography, appears briefly via a character that also looks like him and whose coffee is ruined by Poison Ivy.
A friend of one of Infantino’s relatives, Roth was given access to the family’s recordings of conversations with the late artist, from which he pulled the audio to include in the animated cameo.
Originally produced to debut on HBO Max, “Merry Little Batman” was ultimately purchased by Amazon, hence its release on Prime Video. The company also acquired the upcoming spinoff series, “Bat-Family,” which will continue to center on Bruce and Damian’s bond. Roth is also spearheading the show, which is still in its early stages, keeping the same animation style.
“We’re adding a new chapter to Batman, but it’s still Batman. We haven’t broken anything, but it’s a very specific, special type of Batman,” said Roth. “I hope everybody connects to this father figure Batman that we’ve built.”
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