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Batman Returns


‘Batman Returns’ is the best Christmas movie there ever was

The bat, the cat, the penguin, and the holidays.

Batman Returns is the best Christmas movie that ever was. Dark instead of bright, macabre instead of cheerful, and cautionary instead of celebratory, Batman Returns points an inverted and blackened kaleidoscope on December’s festivities and through its tragedy, teaches us more about the holidays and the ties that bind them than the jubilations of whatever, AI scripted shlock the Hallmark channel churns out in several different respects.

First, how does Batman Returns qualify as a Christmas movie? Well, a Christmas story is nothing more than a tale of a person/people being prompted by the festivities of the holidays to overcome their personal turmoil to reaffirm their bonds with loved ones, find new strength in that togetherness, and find hope in a better tomorrow. The story, along the way, will also explore themes such as, the dangers of commercialism to warn how it can warp our view of the world, the importance of kindness and its power to build stronger communities, and the dread of loneliness and how to counter its afflictions. Beyond that, throw in a few holiday themed set-pieces, a bunch of characters stressed about buying gifts, and a shoe-horned, awkward romance complete with the “uh-oh, they’re bickering under the mistletoe” moment and voila – a Christmas story. 

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These stories really write themselves. Don’t believe me? Watch this, I’m going to write three movies for you:

How about…Brittany is a VP at her finance firm, clears six figures with stock options every year, and has three Jacuzzis in her top floor penthouse and all it cost her was her marriage. Her best friend, Anna, keeps nagging her “yo, you have to celebrate Christmas and find love,” but she doesn’t have time because she has to do stocks, booze, and cocaine because she is in finance and doesn’t want to get hurt loving someone again. All that changes though when she meets Steve and his square-ass jaw at the “Winter Rave” in Brooklyn who helps her rediscover the spirit of Christmas while doing cocaine together in the bathroom and they go on dates and stuff. Make sure you catch Lines of Snow on Hallmark, this Thursday at 8/ 7 p.m.

Don’t like that one? Meet…. Ben who lives in a hippie commune in Oregon and everyone there hates Christmas! They think all the gifts, and the wrapping paper, and then cards, and the stockings ruin the environment and Santa is the devil. Oh and Ben’s brother, Adam, died in a Christmas light related fire so he doesn’t wanna deal. But one day while he was selling compost at the Winter Farmer’s market and chewing on mescaline, Ben hallucinates a visage of Adam who tells him “yo, it’s time to celebrate Christmas and find love.” Ben refuses till he meets Sarah, who sells healing crystals and tacky Christmas ornaments at the market. Ben realizes that Sarah doesn’t want compost, she wants Christmas and, with the guidance of his dead brother’s mirage, must quickly forsake his values and let Christmas back into his life. Can Ben come down from his trip to win this stranger’s love? Find out during Peyote Christmas, coming to Amazon Prime Video. 

And, another one…Bruce hates Christmas because he watched his parents gunned down in front of him when he was eight years old. His butler, Alfred, keeps telling him “yo, it’s time to celebrate Christmas and find love,” but Bruce doesn’t have time because he stalks about in the night in a bat costume to beat up criminals as he can’t stop thinking about how dead his parents are. All that changes one night at the Gotham Christmas Tree Lightning when a gang hired by The Penguin causes a ruckus and Bruce comes across Selina Kyle who dresses up as a cat and also hates Christmas. Can these two loners come together to defeat the Penguin and hate Christmas together? Find out in Batman Returns, streaming now on HBO Max.

'Batman Returns' is the best Christmas movie there ever was

See? Batman Returns is a Christmas movie but what elevates it above others in its class is how it explores the messages and themes that the genre demands and, moreso, how it warns its audience of their dangers. The movie has no interest in presenting an idyllic version of the holidays and worshiping the impossibly transformative powers of the yuletide. Instead, Batman Returns is a brutal, iconoclastically macabre dissection, if not autopsy, of the holidays. It systemically berates how Christmas is presented in the media, how laughable it is to expect “holiday cheer” to combat depravity, and how we must rise above the darkness that our traditions, unwittingly, embolden. Our story is told through the eyes of Batman, Catwoman, and The Penguin as follows.

Batman Returns starts the same way most Batman stories do with Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) brooding alone in his mansion, waiting for an external disaster to pull him away from the void inside of him. Disaster does indeed strike the Gotham Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, as I mentioned, quickly prompting Batman to quickly ride into a Gotham drenched in holiday garb. However, this isn’t just Christmas in any city, this is Christmas in Gotham City. Instead of being depicted as a bright, bubbling hub of vibrant warmth – Batman finds the same, cold, dark, and violent city that just so happens to be adorned with a few new lights. The holidays in Gotham are purposefully depicted not as a time of earnest celebration, contemplation, and rejuvenation, but rather as a grim satire presented to the audience to show how empty, commercial sentimentality can be brandished during this time of year to distract a populace from socioethical decay and, moreso, veil the architects of this deception who wish to profit from society’s downfall. It is no coincidence we are introduced to Max Shrek (Christopher Walken) in these scenes and his machinations and dealings with Batman throughout the movie warns the audience that “the holiday spirit” can be used to distract and manipulate us for nefarious means.

Once Batman has quelled the calamity, our story turns to Oswald Cobblepot, The Penguin (Danny Devito). The Penguin is depicted as a ghastly, physically deformed man who, well, looks like a penguin and his story warns of how people can exploit sympathy and good will that is given freely during the holidays. After being abandoned by his parents and raised in the sewers of Gotham by penguins (somehow), he returns to the city after 30 years, purposefully during the holiday season to collect recompense. Branding himself as a forgotten son who, ever so humbly, only wants to make peace with his family’s legacy and to enjoy a normal Christmas despite his visage – Cobblepot quickly gains a sympathetic notoriety, is gifted a place in the hearts in minds of Gotham’s citizen, and is even propelled to becoming a favorite in the city’s mayoral election. Oswald, at this moment, can end his Christmas story. He has everything a Holiday protagonist can ask for in regards to acceptance, a found communal family, and even fame that a mayorship implies. However, Cobblepot is not the protagonist that was promised and The Penguin remerges.

The Penguin is not content with being Gotham’s favorite son, he wants vengeance on a city that denied him. He means to do so by – sigh – kidnapping the first born son of every family in Gotham (psychos gonna psycho) and framing Batman using a captive media that hangs on Cobblepot’s every word; he is a holiday miracle, after all. The Penguin, of course, overplays his hand and Batman is able to show Cobblepot’s true face to Gotham and ends his machinations. The Penguin is then, literally, ushered to a watery grave but his warning still lives. The Penguin promises that despite the tidings of the holidays, monsters never sleep. His story cautions you that you may want to believe in redemption during Christmastime, and that you may want to hope for your loved ones to become their best selves, people don’t just change between November 30th and December 1st. The Penguin, coldly, reminds you that your kindness can be used against you.

Selina, Bruce, their relationship, the masks they carry, and the tragedy their union reaps preaches the most important, time honored, Christmas movie lesson of all; never wander alone in the dark. Selina at the start of her journey is a well-intentioned woman hoping to climb the corporate ladder of success and the inevitable happens. She is repeatedly ignored and berated, marginalized to being nothing more than a secretary responsible for ensuring that coffee is served, and, oh, her boss, Max Shrek, throws her out a window when she accidentally uncovers his evil plan. But from Selina’s fall, Catwoman rises. Catwoman is a guise Selina adopts to process her trauma – complete with a latex bodysuit, an animal motif, and a whip to purposefully invoke a BDSM vibe. Nothing signals vengeful liberation like BDSM and, come to think of it, didn’t Bruce do the same thing?

Catwoman Batman Returns

Like you didn’t have this poster in your room in 1992.

While Selina chose a cat, Bruce chose a bat and their romance was all but assured considering their shared coping mechanisms. It was quite the whirlwind for the couple as they very quickly gravitated towards each other, found understanding and comfort in the arms of one another, and for the first time in their respective lives could envision a happy tomorrow. I mean, we all have that insomniatic friend-couple that go out into the night dressed as animals to fight people. It’s the only way they can quiet the maelstrom raging inside of them and we love that for them but, it always gets quiet at the table when they start talking about that stuff. That picnic they went on in the damp alley after that drug bust sounds like a hoot but, you can’t really relate, can you? So Bruce and Selina, like your friends, kind of drift off into one another because they’re the only one who can understand, ya know?

Batman Catwoman

Batman and Catwoman on their first date.

But as much as we rooted for Bruce and Selina, we knew that Batman and Catwoman could never be and their tragedy delivers Batman Returnss central message about using bonds to others to find strength. Bruce uses Batman to find a modicum of peace in his life. He has little interest in being “Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy” as that person died along with his parents in that alleyway. Instead, he quiets the gunshots that won’t stop ringing in his ear by patrolling the streets of Gotham to ensure that no other 8 year-old boy has to endure what he did. Selina, however, uses Catwoman to lash out onto the world. 

Selina suffers unspeakable trauma during the course of Batman Returns because she committed the sin of being an attractive, ambitious woman. She then fashions the guise of Catwoman, in an unforgettable, delightfully depraved scene, to reassert control over her life. However, despite her new found power and agency, she continuously is led astray by her anger towards Shrek, wrongly allies herself with The Penguin, and finds herself in direct conflict with Batman – the one person in the story who does not wish to manipulate her and clearly loves her. Thus, for as much as Selina is liberated by Catwoman, Catwoman’s anger holds her captive which leads us to the film’s climax where she must choose between a life with Bruce or taking vengeance upon Max Shrek. 

The scene plays out in my head as I’m typing: Batman pleads with her: “let’s just take [Shrek] to the police, then we can go home” and that they’re, “the same, split right down the center” as he rips off his mask. 

Selina pauses and admits, “Bruce, I would – I would love to live with you in your castle…forever, just like in a fairy tale,” in a hopeful, moment of clarity that is punctuated by Catwoman roaring, “…I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending.” She then claws at Bruce’s face and kills Shrek, and seemingly herself, with a taser. 

Bruce, in this moment, demonstrates that he is able to use take off Batman’s cowl and use his ties to other to avoid falling into the abyss inside of himself, however, Selina, tragically, has long since fallen into the madness Catwoman has wrought, rejects help when it is freely given, and, effectively, dies.

Batman Returns’ most prominent criticism is that it relegated Batman to being a bystander in his movie but, how can a character who has learned so much be considered a bystander? During that fateful holiday season in 1992, Bruce was reminded of how malice can hide behind a yuletide veneer during the holidays, how not even the redemptive spirit of Christmas can make monsters like The Penguin pause, and beyond all else, how important it is to rely on the bonds with your loved ones in times of need to tether yourself away from the void inside yourself, lest you fall into darkness as Catwoman did. So no, Batman Returns is not the Christmas movie you expect but it comments upon and, moreso, provides a counterpoint for everything the holidays imply, making it required viewing to fully understand the genre. 

The end is, certainly, dark. Bruce’s heart didn’t grow ten times larger, he didn’t get the BB Gun he always wanted, and he didn’t have a large family dinner sitting beside the woman he loved. Instead, he went on a quiet drive with his Butler, Alfred, on Christmas night after being visited by three monsters who, in their own way, taught him not even Christmas is enough to stop the things that go bump in the night. But, by means of a twisted romance, Bruce learns that maybe, just maybe, he’d have a better life if he listened to Alfred when he says “yo, it’s time to celebrate Christmas and find love.”


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