Holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life are always a great way to ring in the season, but sometimes you want a less conventional Christmas movie. Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns wraps this superhero story with the spirit of the season. Set at Christmastime, the movie sees Batman (Michael Keaton) at odds with two villains: industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and crime boss Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), also known as the Penguin. He also finds himself beset and besotted by the mysterious Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her secret identity, Selina Kyle.
Backed with dark, eerie visuals and great performances, the film was a critical and financial success. Burton’s sequel is a strong Batman movie, but it also makes for a surprisingly good Christmas movie—and not just because it takes place around the holiday. So, what is it that makes Batman Returns a great film for celebrating the season?
Update December 14, 2023: This article has been updated with more reasons why Batman Returns is such a great Christmas movie and worth checking out this holiday season.
Christmas Aesthetics in Batman Returns
Batman Returns has the look and spirit of Christmas right from the start, with fantastic images of the art deco-inspired Gotham draped in bright lights, greenery, and a thick blanket of snow. The film opens with the birth of Oswald Cobblepot shortly before his affluent parents throw him into the sewer on a snowy Christmas night. This doomed, dark evening juxtaposes the warm, inviting Christmas aesthetic in the Cobblepot manor with the perceived monstrousness of the baby Oswald. These visuals continue throughout the movie, with Christmas decorations, carols, and celebrations. Burton’s interpretation of Gotham is often considered the best and grittiest, which makes a perfect contrast for the bright white snow and colorful Christmas decorations throughout. Even Alfred puts up a Christmas tree in Wayne Manor, which adds a festive touch to the grand house.
In addition, the film’s Christmas setting is incorporated into the plot. For example, Catwoman and Penguin’s plan to sully Batman’s reputation involves the highly public lighting of the Gotham City Christmas tree. The two frame Batman for kidnapping and murdering the Ice Princess, the beauty queen who falls to her death in a swarm of bats.
The Penguin also takes advantage of the season to introduce his family of henchmen by having them emerge from giant presents. Batman Returns culminates in Max Shreck’s Christmas costume party, where Bruce and Selina realize the truth of the others’ identity. While Halloween is traditionally the costumed holiday, Christmas celebrations have always had their fair share of masks and lavish dress. Like earlier scenes, this moment in Batman Returns is another example of Burton pitting joyous celebration against grim reality: Selina and Bruce, dressed in their Christmas best, look the part of the happy couple, but behind those masks lie the characters’ incompatible views of morality. All these scenes have enough Christmas flair to make a great holiday movie, while still fitting into Batman’s typically darker themes.
Batman Returns Has Classic Christmas Themes of Good, Evil, and Greed
Given the commercial nature the holiday has had for centuries, stories revolving around greed are quite common. Just consider A Christmas Carol and its numerous interpretations. Batman Returns follows this tradition, combining the classical superhero plight of good vs. evil with a reflection on the selfish opportunism of major economic figures—in this case, corrupt factory owner Max Shreck. Shreck is a shrewd businessman who knows that it doesn’t matter how much he ruins the environment and society so long as he keeps up appearances. Behind closed doors, Shreck is cruel, calculating, and abusive. When he discovers that Selina is onto his plan to steal Gotham’s electricity, he has no qualms, shoving her out the window and to her death.
Like many a corrupt businessperson, Max Shreck also sticks his greedy fingers into politics to get his way. He turns the Penguin’s blackmail back on him by convincing Cobblepot to run in a rigged election for Gotham’s mayoral seat. Despite Penguin’s ghoulish appearance and awful behavior, Shreck is the main villain of Batman Returns. Not only that, but Shreck is exemplary of classic Christmas villains, a la Ebenezer Scrooge: he’s greedy, corrupt, and refuses to respect anyone he deigns beneath him. Shreck, though, never changes his evil ways and instead meets an early demise with a shocking kiss from Catwoman.
While Max Shreck is undeniably evil, the other two villains in Batman Returns are a bit more complicated. Penguin and Catwoman are both products of circumstance, shaped into their villainous personae by the cruelty of the universe—and wealthy and powerful men. Shreck and the elder Mr. Cobblepot choose murder without a second thought, in part because they both know that they are too wealthy and powerful to face any consequences. Those consequences, though, do come crawling back from Gotham’s sewers as grim reminders of the true cost of doing business with someone like Max Shreck.
Christmas stories tend toward endings where good triumphs over evil, typically by rehabilitating the latter via some vague Christmas spirit. Alternatively, Batman Returns ends on a somber note with all two villains dead and the world and Bruce Wayne thinking Selina Kyle died. The movie ends with Bruce Wayne and Alfred driving through the snowy Gotham winter having won the battle, but sadly alone for the holidays. While not the happy Christmas ending we’ve come to expect, the final moments of Batman Returns exemplify the classic holiday message that love and understanding are the greatest presents of all as Catwoman rises into frame, showing how Bruce Wayne and Batman may have saved her life and her soul.
Batman Returns Addresses the Christmas Blues
Batman Returns, in keeping with its bleak nature, also addresses the darker and lonelier aspects of the holiday. Before she’s reborn as Catwoman, Selina’s life is clearly lonely: she goes home to an empty apartment, her only visitor a stray cat she feeds. She jokingly calls out hello to the husband she doesn’t have and avoids her mother’s calls to come home.
Similarly, the Penguin, while villainous, is still a hurt and lonely man who was abandoned by his parents – his plan to kidnap the firstborn sons of Gotham comes from his own pain over being thrown away. Penguin is resentful of the familial love that he sees others experience at Christmastime and thus twists the holiday so that the elite of Gotham will feel as lonely as he has his entire life.
And Bruce, the eternal loner, spends another quiet Christmas with Alfred, his hopes of a partner accepting of the man behind the mask dashed yet again. It’s a peaceful moment for the hero and his stand-in father, but it’s a sad one, too, since Bruce’s Batman duties make a normal, happy life impossible.
Is Batman Returns a Christmas Movie?
Whether or not Batman Returns truly qualifies as a Christmas movie is highly debatable and ultimately up to the person watching. Those who disagree with the classification point to the film’s plot not relying on the holiday, as well as the fact that it was originally released in theaters during the summer. If that were the case, then other Christmas movies released during the summers, like Die Hard or Gremlins, would not count either.
While Batman Returns may not be a Christmas story, the point still stands that the aesthetics and themes are effectively imbued with the spirit of the season. No, not the joy or love we expect from a Christmas classic, but the sense of loneliness and despair that pervades many minds in the month of December. It’s these feelings, pitted against the forced happiness and overabundance of the holiday, that makes Batman Returns worthy of a spot in your Christmas rotation.
Batman Works At Christmas
There is something about Batman and Christmas that just go well together. Maybe it is the association of the classic “Jingle bells, Batman smells” song, but something about the caped crusader and Christmas go hand in hand. Batman Returns is likely the most popular Batman story set at Christmas, but it would not be the last. The Joker’s first episode in Batman: The Animated Series was a Christmas episode. There is also an episode of The New Batman Adventures that digs into what the various characters in Gotham City do during the holidays.
In 2011, DC published Batman: Noel, a graphic novel written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo that showcased a retold of A Christmas Carol with Batman characters. 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins was a video game set during Batman’s early career during Christmas. Recently, Prime Video released Merry Little Batman, an animated Christmas special. Since Batman Returns, the lonely brooding figure of Batman and Bruce Wayne has matched the setting of the holiday season. Maybe it comes down to the hope that even a figure as frequently depressed and filled with trauma and guilt as Batman can find some comfort on Christmas.
- Release Date
- June 19, 1992
- Tim Burton
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