‘Batman Returns’: An Underappreciated Christmas Classic

This time of year, when the snow has started falling and every department store is at least 6 weeks into advertising Christmas specials, I am want to revisit all my favorite holiday flicks. I roll out the yearly rewatches of The Year Without a Santa Claus, It’s a Wonderful Life, Holiday Affair, and Batman Returns. Yes, you read that last one correctly. Batman Returns is an underappreciated Christmas classic. Tim Burton’s 1992 Batman sequel ranks among my personal Christmas movie hall of fame for it is in fact representative of all the best facets of the genre. The movie is of course set in a snowy Gotham City over Christmastime, but my reasoning goes beyond the festive backdrop. Batman Returns puts its jolly setting to active use, and I intend to use these column inches to get you on board. 

A quick refresher on the plot of Batman Returns in case it’s been a while. Set an undetermined amount of time after Burton’s 1989 Batman, we catch up with Gotham City at Christmas. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) stays tucked away in Wayne Manor before an attack orchestrated by the Penguin (Danny DeVito) calls him to action. Once on the scene, he saves tepid assistant Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) from a pair of goons, but he cannot save her from her own digging into her boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and his corrupt plans. His failed attempt to push her out a window and kill her results in her transition to Catwoman, and so Christmastime in Gotham becomes a neo-noir affair of corporate schemes, bloodied snow, and tragic romance.

Batman by Moonlight (and Mistletoe)

The Gotham City tree lighting ceremony in a still from Batman Returns (Warner Bros.)

Before delving into the thematic and narrative portions of the argument, I would be failing at my job if I did not highlight the full embrace of holiday iconography in Burton’s direction and Bo Welch’s production design. If Batman succeeded in turning Gotham into a deranged circus under the Joker’s spell, Batman Returns imagines the city as an almost Victorian midwinter. Dark alleys flecked with snow. Warmly lit storefronts with wares to spare. An almost endless fog, broken here and there by spurts of tree lights and, well, the occasional explosion. Add onto this the antiquated Wayne manor and you have all the major components of a gloomy holiday setting straight out of A Christmas Carol or any mid-century Christmas noir. 

Beyond those hallmarks, Burton and Welch incorporate a stream of holiday props and set dressings that emerge as vital to the plot. The first major sequence takes place at the Gotham tree lighting, and Penguin’s arrival comes through an enormous gift. Later on, Batman and Catwoman have a fateful encounter under the mistletoe that leads to their discovery of each other’s secret identities under a second clump of the “deadly” plant. While there are blockbusters set over Christmas that only half-heartedly embrace their holiday timing, Batman Returns passes the first major barricade of working to make the look and major symbols of Christmas central to the film’s visual language. It repurposes it to fit a Batman story, but the centrality of the holiday remains a throughline of every sequence and palette in the film.

Gotham’s Unrepentant Scrooges

Christopher Walken as Max Shreck in a still from Batman Returns (Warner Bros.)

If one were to crown the ultimate archetype of Christmas movies with some holiday bracket, chances are the one seeds would include the indomitable Ebenezer Scrooge. Since Charles Dickens birthed him through prose in 1843, Scrooge’s journey from greedy curmudgeon to a selfless and loving man has been refashioned and remade on hundreds of occasions. Batman Returns gives the old geezer another remodel by taking the broad strokes of his cantankerous self and offering up a handful of villains emblematic of what might happen if Scrooge never saw the light. In fact, the film opens on a scene that sets the tone; the extravagantly wealthy Cobblepot’s abandoning their child in the sewer because he is deformed. Their actions set in motion the rest of the film because 33 years later that abandoned child becomes the Penguin. His parent’s selfish hope to maintain a refined and opulent image results in their full-scale rejection of family and parental responsibilities, both things Scrooge suffers before coming around.

Nonetheless, the Cobblepot’s pale in comparison to Max Shreck, a man who seems equally as inspired by the pre-president Donald Trump as a Scrooge who opted for massive amounts of cocaine instead of Christmas cheer. Shreck wants to build a powerplant, not to generate energy, but to steal it. He sees Gotham’s citizens as resources to exploit, not to help or celebrate. He is therefore the personification of capitalistic greed, the cornerstone of a pre-reformation Scrooge who hordes wealth no matter the harm it causes his employees, friends, and family. Batman Returns has no delusions about a post-1980s American CEO finding the Christmas spirit though, as Shreck remains an unrepentant glutton for money and power all the way through the film. Burton and company take the staple Christmas theme of the wickedness of greed and blow it out to massive proportions, making it, through Shreck, the central antagonist of the film. 

Misfits and Lovers to the Rescue

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Michael Keaton as Batman in a still from Batman Returns (Warner Bros.)

Standing against Shreck and this mountain of greed are Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Wayne is an exceptionally wealthy man, and the idea of him donning a cape and cowl and fighting crime is as likely as Jeff Bezos actually donating billions to fix the world’s most pressing issues. Of course, that’s part of the fantasy and fun of Batman as a character, and Batman Returns positions him as a lonely misfit yearning to find love and connection during the holidays. This is of course the motivating factor of a vast array of Hallmark movies and holiday rom-coms and so is the first point of order folding Bruce and Batman into the proper Christmastime vibe. Bringing Selina into it and you have the makings of a screwball holiday couple of mismatched oddballs in the vein of You’ve Got Mail. The central arc of Batman Returns is Bruce and Selina trying to connect with each other while also duking it out as their alter egos. 

It is the alter egos that also position Batman Returns in the tradition of holiday film noirs like Blast of Silence, or more recently, L.A. Confidential. Batman is the hard-boiled detective and Catwoman is the femme fatale, and together over Christmas they must cat-and-mouse their way to vanquishing the seedy crime boss, a combination of Shreck and Penguin, to save the holidays. If much of the first two acts embrace the screwball elements I touched on above, the third act fully embraces the noir sensibilities by turning the romance tragic while maintaining its centrality to resolving the conflict. It is only through working together that Catwoman and Batman can defeat Penguin and Shreck, but their decisions mean that the screwball romance of Bruce and Selina is untenable. Even so, the closing scenes with Bruce divulging his feelings and Selina killing Shreck do successfully position Batman Returns as a film in the lineage of Christmas movies that frame finding romance and connection as the antidote to the cold and greedy darkness that seeks to disrupt joy. This may not be as cheery as White Christmas, but the central considerations and messages are the same. 

Michael Keaton as Batman in a still from Batman Returns (Warner Bros.)

And so, I rest my case for why Batman Returns stands tall amidst the most perfect of Christmas movies. Bruce Wayne is no Bill Bailey, and Gotham City is no North Pole, but Batman Returns nonetheless succeeds at fashioning a neo-noir superhero tale into a film overflowing with the major tenets of the holiday genre par excellence. So this year, when you’re done rewatching Scrooged and The Best Man Holiday, consider pouring a nice brandy and queuing up Batman Returns.

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