‘Batman Returns’ Is the Darkest Christmas Movie Not About Christmas

Movies


The Big Picture

  • Batman Returns is a dark and twisted Christmas film, perfect for those who prefer a little edge during the holidays.
  • The film explores the damaged and disconnected childhoods of its characters, delving into themes of identity and societal pressure.
  • Batman Returns combines the seemingly wholesome spirit of Christmas with grotesque and disturbing elements, creating a unique and unmatched Christmas movie experience.


When you think of Christmas, what do you think of? The sound of carolers singing and the smell of fresh cookies? The warmth of family and the promise of an upcoming new year? If that sounds like you, then we’re not the same person. When I think of Christmas, I think of cats licking a corpse, a political campaign fueled by a corrupt power broker, and being the only person at a costume party not wearing a mask. That’s right, we’re talking Batman Returns, one of the films that I must watch every Christmastime to get into the proper spirit. This definitely says something about my standard mental state, but I prefer my Christmas movies to have a little bit of that dark edge to them, and there’s no darker Christmas film than Batman Returns.

Batman Returns

While Batman deals with a deformed man calling himself the Penguin wreaking havoc across Gotham with the help of a cruel businessman, a female employee of the latter becomes the Catwoman with her own vendetta.

Director
Tim Burton

Rating
PG-13

Runtime
126 minutes


What is ‘Batman Returns’ About?

The follow-up to the smash hit Batman, the film that arguably started the superhero craze we’re seeing potentially falter, Batman Returns sees Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) back on the prowl, literally not doing a damn thing unless he needs to be Batman. He stutter-steps his way through social interactions and sits alone in the dark in his mansion, waiting for that big Bat signal to inconveniently blare into his window. When the signal inevitably comes, he must deal with the Penguin (Danny DeVito), a deformed rich boy abandoned by his parents, and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), a vigilante with a penchant for play. This is to say nothing of the potential connection they have to powerful industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), who seeks to build a power plant that will secretly suck power away from Gotham City. All of this during Christmastime too, when Bruce could have been using that time to buy presents for…well, no one.

It’s been well documented that Tim Burton almost didn’t come back to direct this sequel, as he was deeply unhappy with the script for the first film and wanted more control. This is an insane idea to consider, since this is easily the most genuinely damaged film Burton has ever made. While he’s always had a reputation for being a “dark” filmmaker, Burton’s films are rarely truly traumatic, relying on his aesthetic sensibilities and taste for the sublimely Gothic to give his films an edge. But outside of that, his films tend to be much sweeter and, for lack of a better word, more wholesome than people give credit for. Violence is often cathartically silly, any reference to sex is usually lightly juvenile, and there’s an underlying sincere affection for the ideas of found family and being true to yourself in a world that doesn’t understand you. Batman Returns is, to be generous, an anomaly among his work, being the most rampantly sexual and graphically violent film of his career with the possible exception of Sweeney Todd. But even Sweeney Todd afforded its protagonist a feeling of cathartic victory, Batman Returns doesn’t even afford Bruce Wayne any level of the emotional release he clearly needs.

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‘Batman Returns’ Characters Are Deeply Disconnected Children

If there’s anything that unifies the main characters in Batman Returns, it’s the conflict between separating their true self from their public self for the sake of social conformity, all born from the traumas of childhood. Let’s start with Batman, who would rather spend his nights picking claws out of his ribcage than do anything as Bruce Wayne. The film takes his backstory of being an orphan with murdered parents as a given, but it permeates throughout the story as subtext that informs his emotional responses to what happens around him. Knowing that Penguin is an orphan makes Bruce feel empathetic towards him, and he doesn’t disagree when Penguin implies that he’s just “jealous because I’m a genuine freak, and you have to wear a mask”; this implies that Bruce wants to see himself as a monster, especially since Bruce openly calls Penguin a monster in passing. As Bruce says to Selina, he’s “split, right down the center”, and no matter how much of a front he puts up, he knows which side he wants to commit to. The entire crux of his relationship with Selina is the idea that she’s the only person who can understand him, since she also relishes moving on from who she used to be.

Speaking of Selina, her second life as Catwoman is vital to her because of the escape it provides from her upbringing that she can’t let go of. A scene in her apartment tells us her entire mental makeup: every room is decorated like it’s for a 7-year-old, with pink walls and way too many stuffed animals. She resents that her mother keeps nagging her about her life choices, and she tortures herself by making the same joke repeatedly about how she isn’t married. This upbringing built on the learned pressures of societal expectation taught her to be the insecure and self-loathing doormat she is when working for Shreck, who clearly doesn’t respect her by how he mentions she’s so new on the job that they haven’t “housebroken her” yet. She frames him killing her as liberating her, freeing her from the burden of being stuck in adolescence; now, she’s a house cat let free to roar as she pleases, saving lives for next Christmas and making as many sexual innuendos as she wants to. Part of the genius of Pfeiffer’s portrayal is how she’s a woman not so much transformed as finally grown up but still remembering her childhood, relishing the change she’s undergone. She’s gone from an innocent girl skipping rope while chanting “all good girls go to heaven” to a stone-cold killer who can’t forgive herself for wanting to live the fairy tale ending, even if it’s with the person she knows she’d be happiest with.

Regarding Penguin, nobody is more overtly unhappy than him. Aching to know who he is after being abandoned by his parents as soon as he was born (to be fair, he did eat their cat), he’s convinced himself that he’ll be happy if people respect him, but his sense of respect is solely built on being in a position of power. It’s not enough to be mayor, he must also lord it over everyone else and then play up the pity of being an unwanted “monster” to get sympathy. Penguin may cry about how rejected he is, but he seems far more comfortable living up to the raging man-beast legend the papers purport him to be, even going so far as wanting to murder children out of revenge for all the societal rejection he’d faced. Much like Catwoman, once he’s put his past behind him, Penguin feels liberation from societal pressure and a freedom to express his pleasures; unlike Catwoman, Penguin is far more gross and insistent on making it other people’s problem. Catwoman might be a bit of a thief, but ultimately she just wants to have some fun, and this serves to give the two a freaky funhouse mirror dynamic when they’re together.

‘Batman Returns’ Doesn’t Shy Away from the Extremes

Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns
Image via Warner Bros. 

For being both a superhero movie and a Christmas movie, Batman Returns probably has the world record for “references you will never hear in any other movie of this genre.” This includes, but is not limited to: Norman Bates, Ted Bundy, Spiro Agnew, the Reichstag fire??? Not to mention the sexual jokes, of which there are numerous, and most of them are actually pretty daring. Penguin can’t stop referencing his disgusting sexual fantasies to every woman he comes across, while Catwoman teases any man she’s in a close radius with, most of all Batman. Her entire villainous plan is just wanting to get close to Batman because she’s “tired of wearing masks” and the idea of getting under Batman’s skin makes her feel all “dirty”, commenting on the subconscious connection between violence and sexual psychology. The Christmas party scene, where Bruce and Selina are the only two people not wearing masks, and they figure each other out while being warned that kissing under the mistletoe “can be even deadlier if you mean it,” is the bow that ties everything together, waltzing around the idea of this beauty and beast as one “luscious Christmas gift pack” forced to examine each other’s kinkiest desires during the most wholesome time of the year.

If there’s any one thing that truly makes this a Christmas movie that’s unmatched in its abyss dwelling, it’s that constant juxtaposition between the allegedly inherent juvenile spirit of Christmas and the horrors lurking underneath the tree. We get to see a circus train, but it’s trailed by children in cages. We get two people who possibly love each other sitting in front of a crackling fireplace, but they’re trying to bone each other while avoiding the other’s scars. We have a puppet master villain in Max Shreck, who openly believes that “there is no such thing as too much power”, proving himself to be the embodiment of capitalism during the holiday more defined by capitalism than any other. An enormous Christmas tree gets lit up for the city to see because a performer fell off a building and died crashing onto the light button. Christmas is supposed to be the time that brings you back to childhood, but Batman Returns shows how existentially terrifying that time is for those with miserable childhoods. Bruce says that there are two truths to everything, but which do you choose when the world around you forces you to believe one truth? This film argues that you must make peace with your demons, or perish.

Batman Returns can be watched on Max in the U.S.

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