I’m in the Christmas spirit this week, but I don’t want to get into the hottest pop culture holiday debate right now: whether Die Hard is actually a “Christmas movie” or not. I do, however, want to take this week’s column and focus on another movie set in the holiday season that seems to fly under everyone’s radar in terms of whether it’s a “Christmas movie” or not: Tim Burton’s classic 1992 superhero romp Batman Returns.
Are we thinking of terming this a “Christmas movie” just because it’s set at Christmastime? Well… yeah, mostly. Much like Die Hard, there’s really no holiday-relevant themes, morals, or plot lines – but hey, look on screen, it’s sleigh bells and presents and stuff! That’s got to count for something, right? Don’t pay any attention to how dark and morbid the movie gets sometimes – I mean, there are parents keeping their baby in a locked cage and then throwing him off a bridge and into a river within the first five minutes of the film, for Kris Kringle’s sake – or that it’s rated PG-13, when most “traditional” holiday fare is PG or G for families to feel comfortable enjoying together.
As for the movie’s non-Christmas plot: wealthy Gotham businessman Max Shreck (brilliantly portrayed by Christopher Walken) wants to build a power plant in town, but faces heavy opposition from “The Mayor” (yes, he is truly the mayor of Gotham City, but he is oddly never given a name in the film). During a press conference, Shreck is abducted by a gang who is working for Oswald Cobblepot, aka The Penguin (Danny DeVito), who is the grown-up version of the aforementioned bridge-tossed child, raised by the penguins of the Gotham City Zoo after they found him alive in the sewers.
Cobblepot and Shreck strike a deal: Shreck helps bring the Penguin back to the surface and gains the public’s trust as a “poor, orphaned boy,” and Cobblepot in return will help Shreck defeat the mayor in the upcoming election and have the influential business power he desires, to build his power plant and beyond. Michelle Pfeiffer features in the film as Catwoman, a timid Selina Kyle who accidentally discovers Shreck’s shady dealings and is pushed off a balcony by the businessman himself; she survives the fall, becomes quite self-empowered, and swears revenge on Shreck.
Oh, and Batman is in the movie too! This is probably all of the Batman-centric films where the superhero takes the biggest backseat to the other characters and the plot. He meets Selina and the two develop an attraction, he fights the Penguin and Catwoman, and eventually saves the day, as the Batman foils the Penguin’s plan to kill all the first-born children in Gotham – that bird-man carries quite a grudge, eh?
It took some cajoling on Warner Brothers’ part to get director Tim Burton to return to helm this film after the successful first Batman feature. Burton wanted more creative control, which he eventually got; the first draft of the film had Catwoman and Penguin teaming upto search for treasure. The special effects, the acting, Burton’s vision, and Danny Elfman’s stellar scoring all combined to make this is really enjoyable film. And of course, this movie marks, sadly, Michael Keaton’s last outing as the Caped Crusader.
By financial and critical marks, Batman Returns is not a bad film, by any stretch of the imagination: it has an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes to go along with a B rating on CinemaScore, it boasted the best theatrical opening weekend of any film to date when it was released, and it made more than $266 million worldwide. So yeah, it’s no slouch.
But as a movie simply set in the holiday season, is it truly a “Christmas film?” Or does it fall into the odd category of “Christmas-adjacent” movies that don’t really revolve around the holiday itself? Let the debate continue! (At least Edward Scissorhands incorporates Christmas into its narrative, for crying out loud…)