People probably don’t realise just how successful Tim Burton’s gothic version of Batman (1989) was, it made a staggering $410 million, (it had a budget of $35 million) so therefore it would be inevitable that a sequel would be made. Despite being classed as a ‘Christmas film’ Batman Returns was released in June 1992, regardless of this fact Batman Returns is a Christmas film just as much as Die Hard is. At first, the director had no real interest in returning to helm the sequel. It was only when he was given more creative freedom that he agreed to come back to Gotham. Critics have criticised his first film as too dark, but they were probably not expecting things to get even darker.
The film begins at Christmas (33 years prior to the film’s events) where socialites Tucker and Esther Cobblepot give birth to a deformed baby boy, Oswald. Disgusted by his appearance, they ultimately throw him into the sewer, where he is discovered by a family of penguins at Gotham Zoo. We fast forward to the present where millionaire Max Shreck proposes to build a power plant to supply Gotham City with energy, somehow Schreck is kidnapped and meets Oswald who is now a crime boss, going by the name of Penguin. Schreck and Penguin, both want the same thing, control over Gotham, but which one is more evil and twisted?
At first, the Christmas setting of Batman Returns seems hardly noticeable; we are far too caught up in grimacing at the revolting Penguin (played by the superb Danny De Vito) and watching Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer who oozes sex appeal) seduce Batman. However, the film’s first lines of dialogue is an exchange of ‘Merry Christmas’ and rewatching the film through the lens of Christmas, we realise that it has always been there in one form or another. The mise-en-scene with it’s giant Christmas trees decorated with tinsel and twinkling fairy lights, seem to be lost in dark, bleak and gothic architecture of Burton’s Gotham city. Occasionally we will witness a character reference Christmas, and the season of goodwill, but the idea of Christmas cheer is far from the minds of our main characters, and we can understand why this is the case. Burton’s decision to set the film’s events at Christmas is an interesting one. Of course, there must be Christmas in Gotham, however, Christmas in Gotham is like no other. The concept of Christmas is presented as a hyper-real portrayal, clearly representing the German expressionism films that Burton was influenced by. To Burton, it would seem that Christmas is just as twisted a holiday like Halloween.
Okay, so far Batman Returns just seems to be an odd pick for a Christmas film, why on earth would anyone want to watch something so depressing, right? It is what I refer to as an anti-Christmas film, a perfect antidote to all the sentimental films that get shown this time of the year. Christmas isn’t always a time of happiness and goodwill, bad things can still occur at Christmas, and Burton isn’t afraid to remind us of this fact. Batman Returns is the far better film out of Burton’s Batman flicks. Its main villain is far more loathsome than Jack Nicholson’s The Joker, and I am not talking about De Vito’s Penguin here. Walken’s Max Schreck is the film’s true villain. A man who uses people’s vulnerability and their Christmas spirit, to exploit them and manipulate them in order to get what he truly desires. One could argue that Schreck is the embodiment of everything gone awry with Christmas, a symbol of greed and corruption. Schreck tries to pass himself off as a contemporary ‘Father of Christmas’, with his tousled white hair, his red bow tie and wide smile. He seems very jolly at least on first glance. However, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who thinks nothing of pushing his secretary, Selina Kyle out of a window.
Christmas films tend to follow a basic feel-good formula about personal growth or gratitude, our main protagonist is meant to grow as a person. There is no real redemption here, Batman still remains shut off. If we can judge anything about his current track record with women (err, what exactly did happened to Vikki Vale?), then we know that his relationship with Selina will be short-lived (if she ever returns to him that is). Batman Returns helps to reinforce the idea that not everyone is able to share in the warmth and love that the Christmas is supposed to offer. Heroes aren’t like everyone else, they aren’t always allowed to partake in the celebration of Christmas. Crime never sleeps. If anything, Burton’s Batman Returns helps to reinforce the isolation and pain that Bruce Wayne aka Batman, must have to endure every year. We can picture him reminiscing in the Batcave on Christmas day, alone and reflecting on his parent’s brutal death, while Alfred brings him his Christmas dinner.
Batman Returns is as twisted as a Christmas movie can get and that’s why it’s great. The Penguin’s plan revolving around stealing Gotham’s first-born sons like the evil king David from the story of the nativity reminds us just how morbid the actual nativity story is when you deconstruct it. It is also a well written dark comedy that reminds us of a screwball comedy from the 1940s (‘’A kiss under the mistletoe. You know, mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.’’ ‘’But a kiss can be even deadlier… if you mean it.’’). A film like Batman Returns helps to remind that mayhem and chaos occur 365 days a year and that Christmas in the Burton household must be a blast.