Dark Christmas is very much Tim Burton’s aesthetic.
So it’s no surprise that when he was asked to direct the sequel to his massive hit, 1989’s Batman, he would choose to go full-Burton. Burton enjoys the wintery aesthetic, displaying it in Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Batman Returns is a full-on Christmas movie and makes absolutely no attempt to hide it. The WB logo is on a snowy background and every part of the movie — including the opening prologue of Penguin’s birth and abandonment — takes place during the holiday season. Just watching the film makes you want to bundle up and light a fire.
Batman Returns is a very interesting, complicated and kind of muddled examination of its four leads. There’s Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck. All four have intertwining goals, relationships and thematic parallels that make for interesting examination but sometimes leave our apparent lead, Batman, a little hard to stand out. The trick is that each of the villains opposite him are warped aspects of his own personality. They’re what-could-have-beens if this Batman hadn’t gone down the right path: a mentally unbalanced vigilante, a self-described “freak” and an immoral, unscrupulous businessman.
Batman Returns pulls a little bit from various holiday standards when it comes to its storytelling. There’s some It’s a Wonderful Life in the mix (characters seeing how their lives could have been through the other characters), a tinge of the Ed Wood-esque Santa Claus Conquersy the Martians (specifically in some production design in the Batcave) and even a smattering of Biblical Epic (Penguin wanting to take and possibly kill the first-born children of Gotham’s elite). But because of the interesting character dynamics there’s one Christmas standard that slots into the movie really well. That’s A Christmas Carol.
This version of the story, however, is different. Burton takes his love of German Expressionism, satirizing ‘80s excessiveness, and moralistic folk tales and throws them in a blender with A Christmas Carol. What comes out is a really amusing subplot about Scrooge not learning a damn thing from the Ghosts that visit him and dying horribly for his troubles.
Our Scrooge, in this instance, is Walken’s Max Shreck. As good a choice as ever. He’s seen for the first time in a boardroom (a la Bill Murray’s character in the equally off-kilter Scrooged, directed by Superman: The Movie’s Richard Donner) trying to bully the mayor into paying for Shreck to build an unnecessary power plant for Gotham City. The best part of the Batman films, and most of Burton’s work, is the production design. The large office is full of glass and metal and varnished wood and black leather, an ode to ‘80s capitalist decadence, while Shreck himself has a shock of white hair like Beethoven or Andrew Jackson. This timeless retro-futurism would live on in Batman: The Animated Series and gives a sense of heightened realism, allowing for a modern take on an old Christmas ghost story.
So we get to see Shreck being rude, greedy, misogynistic and casually violent. Which is perfect timing for our first Ghost to arrive. Shreck gets whisked away by a gang of former circus performers and meets the Penguin. For our purposes he stands in for the Ghost of Christmas Past. We even cut to the chase and have our Jacob Marley stand-in, Shreck’s old business partner, Fred Atkins, appear right alongside Penguin. Well, some of him.
Lucky for Shreck this Ghost isn’t an ethereal, fairy-like being. He’s willing to make a deal. He doesn’t care about having Shreck learn anything from his past, he wants to put Shreck’s criminal powers to use to help himself out. They’re both considered monsters but, as Penguin puts it, “somehow, you’re a well-respected monster and I am . . . to-date . . . not”. Our Scrooge will take advantage of this weakness and, instead of maybe rethinking some life choices now that he’s been kidnapped and brought down to a sewer, use it to further his own interests.
That leads us to our Ghost of Christmas Present who happens to also be our ostensible lead, Bruce Wayne. He and Shreck have a business meeting together where Wayne lets him know he’s onto him, that the power plant mentioned in Shreck’s first scene is actually some type of scheme. Wayne is the ideal of a do-gooder capitalist. He speaks with local government, he commissions reports and he tries to stop those who are harming society. This is the first time he’s a thorn in Shreck’s side and he — through Batman especially — will continue to plague him throughout the film. A constant reminder of opposition to his brazen selfishness.
So once Shreck gets his first warning from the Ghost of Christmas Present he isn’t put off by it. He doesn’t exactly sweat the fact that people seem to despise him. He decides he’ll just get rid of those people. So he spearheads a Mayoral campaign for the Penguin. He’s very eerie as the man behind the curtain, pushing the Penguin — the newly minted Oswald Cobblepot — into the limelight to service each other’s needs.
Shreck, through the Penguin and the gang of circus performers, cause mayhem in the city. Continuing his streak of not caring for the common folk. Instead of learning his lesson from the previous two Ghosts he goes all-in. It all manages to catch up to him though when he meets the Ghost of Christmas Future.
It’s important when discussing Batman Returns to set aside a moment to discuss Michelle Pfeiffer. Her performance as Selina Kyle and Catwoman is, in my opinion, the best performance in any superhero movie yet. She transitions between playing a meek, mousy assistant with a morbid streak to a raging id. A personification of life and death. Pfeiffer practically steals every scene she’s in, which is no small feat when you’re acting against the likes of Danny DeVito and Christopher Walken. The romance scenes between her and Michael Keaton are off-the-charts exciting, it’s not even fair to compare their charisma to Keaton and Kim Basinger in the original film. Keaton and Pfeiffer both hit the same note of unhinged tragedy that puts them on each other’s wavelengths and no other Batman love interest, not Nicole Kidman or Maggie Gyllenhaal or Henry Cavill, has come close to matching it.
Catwoman, in this tale, plays the very important role of the Ghost of Christmas Future. The roles of Past and Future are blurred a bit between Penguin and Catwoman. Penguin does end up kidnapping Shreck and showing him the possible death of his son while Catwoman is Shreck’s murder of Selina Kyle (a scene that plays like Scrooge deciding to throw Cratchit off the tallest building) coming back to haunt him. Generally though they fit into their respective places, especially the parts they play in Shreck’s eventual comeuppance.
When Shreck finally meets the Ghost of Christmas Future she’s wild-eyed and vengeful. There is no three-strikes policy with Catwoman. Shreck ignored the warning of meeting the Ghost of Future Past and ignored the warnings of the Ghost of Christmas Present and now he doesn’t get a chance to change anything because deep down — and on the surface — Shreck doesn’t want to. It is too late. No one’s going to be able to buy a goose for him in the morning. Catwoman seems like an extremely anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist character in this film. She makes her suit from scraps, she blows up department store and she doesn’t give Scrooges second chances.
So this Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge dying from an industrial taser kiss.
It’s a very, very different take on A Christmas Carol. It’s also intriguing to watch and follow and pretty damn funny, just like the movie itself. Like I said though, the Christmas Carol throughline is almost a subplot. There’s a lot more that you could discuss and explore when looking at the movie. There’s certainly enough winter and Christmas imagery and themes to keep you entertained for years of holiday viewing.
There’s an army of penguins with candy-cane striped missiles strapped to their backs.
There’s a holiday ball with a not-so-subtle jazzy cover of “Super Freak” playing, which is my kind of way-too-on-the-nose gag.
There’s the iconic mistletoe line, connecting Selina and Bruce even more.
Hell, this movie loves Winter so much Batman even turns his Batmobile into a bobsled at one point!
There are a lot of reasons why I think Batman Returns deserves to be in the holiday rotation for more people. First of all, it’s a beautiful film. Burton’s snowy, German fairy tale aesthetic shines through. There are a lot of interesting layers to sift through. I could write a whole article about the relationship between Penguin and Batman, Shreck and Catwoman, Batman and Shreck, etc. and how each of them reflect aspects of each other without losing anything in their own characterization. There’s a lot to unpack there. There’s also the fact that the supporting cast is loaded with character actors like Vincent Schiavelli, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Diane Salinger, Paul Reubens and Michael Murphy.
Most of all it deserves to be in the rotation because it’s a very good, very quirky and strangely funny film. And it has a bittersweet ending that feels at home in December.
While Batman Returns doesn’t end with a “God bless us, everyone” it does comes pretty close.
Merry Christmas, Mr. Wayne.”
Merry Christmas Alfred. Goodwill toward men . . . and women.”