‘Batman Returns’ Is Still the Ultimate Christmas Movie 30 Years Later (And Here’s Why)
Christmas comes but once a year and, when it does, a slew of holiday movies come with it. Yes, Christmas may only last a day, but there are enough movies to satiate your Christmas spirit all month long. In addition to all of the undisputed classics, there also seems to be a handful of movies that toe the line between “regular movie” and “Christmas movie.” People can and will argue until their dying day that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and they wouldn’t be wrong.
The same can be said for Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which was released just in time for the Christmas season (and by “just in time,” we mean June). It wasn’t just the timeframe in which the film was released that qualifies it as a Christmas movie, however. Batman Returns is full of Christmas iconography, from the visuals to the overall message of the film. Even almost 30 years after its release, it continues to be the ultimate Christmas movie. Here’s why.
Cover Photo: Warner Bros.
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Of course, the biggest clue to Batman Returns being a Christmas movie is the visual style of the film. Christmas is everywhere! Gotham City is covered in snow throughout the majority of the movie, but there’s even more to it than that. The Christmas tree in Gotham Square plays a major role in the film, as it is the final resting place for Gotham’s beloved Ice Princess. Gotham Square is adorned with various Christmas trimmings, from holiday wreaths to lights strewn about town. Santa Claus himself even makes an appearance, right before he gets beat down with his own sled. Alfred is seen trimming the Christmas tree in Wayne Manor (while Bruce just sits around watching TV -- rude). There’s an overall Christmas spirit in Gotham City, despite the rampant crime rate and abundance of animal-themed supervillains.
Max Shreck, the Prototypical Christmas Movie Villain
Though this film features the Penguin and Catwoman as its main antagonists, a case could be made that Max Shreck (played to sleazy perfection by Christopher Walken) was the real villain of the film. And what do all Christmas movie villains have in common? Well, in many cases (It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, etc.) the villain is a rich and powerful white man trying to get even more rich and powerful. Shreck even goes so far as to say that his life’s motto is: “You can never have too much power.” In his quest for power, Shreck was even willing to sacrifice the less-fortunate for the "greater good" (i.e. himself). The Penguin may have been warring with Batman throughout the movie, but it was Shreck who declared war on the very idea of Christmas.
Danny Elfman and Christmas movies go together like Santa’s milk and cookies. There’s just something about his symphonic scores that conjure images of Christmas all year-round, no matter the film. His carols of the bells are instantly recognizable in any film he scores, including Batman Returns. From the opening theme to the closing ballad, every song is like a Christmas carol from hell, played during a macabre circus. It’s perfect. Elfman himself would firmly plant his name in Christmas lore forever, as he would later write the score to The Nightmare Before Christmas and even voice that film’s main character, Jack Skellington. If you’ve got Jack Skellington scoring your film, it’s a Christmas movie. End of story.
The Penguin Is Basically the Grinch
Though their aesthetic is quite different, the Penguin and the Grinch have a lot in common. Both are outcasts, living on the outskirts of the city. They don’t like people, because people have failed them. They have pets to keep them company (Grinch has his dog, Penguin has, um, penguins) but they still feel a void. As much as these two dislike people, they still desperately want to be accepted by them. That dichotomy manifests itself as anger, which leads to the Grinch hatching a plan to steal Christmas presents from Whoville, while the Penguin plans to take the city’s most precious gifts of all: its children. Eventually, the Grinch would find forgiveness and some semblance of peace and acceptance. The Penguin never did, which just makes his story all the more tragic.
Mistletoe Can Be Deadly If You Eat It
It is, arguably, the most recognized line in the entire film. After a rooftop battle that leaves Batman maimed, Catwoman climbs on top of him, no doubt going in for the kill. But then she notices that they are under a piece of mistletoe which, being a sacred rule of Christmas, cannot go unmentioned.
“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” Batman says.
“A kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it,” Catwoman replies. And then she licks him. Because she is a cat woman. Still, it’s a seriously passionate moment and it acts as a bit of foreshadowing before the two find out their secret identities later in the film. More than anything, it honors the timeless Christmas tradition of kissing somebody simply because you’re both under the same plant.
The Thematic Elements
Batman Returns is a film that focuses on duality. It’s about who these characters are in public and in private. All three characters -- Batman (Bruce Wayne), the Penguin (Oswald Cobblepot), and Catwoman (Selina Kyle) -- struggle with duality. One might say they are constantly torn between being "naughty" or "nice."
The Final Line
At the end of the movie, the villains are vanquished, and the city is safe and, like always, Bruce is alone. After his final battle with Catwoman and the Penguin, Bruce gets picked up by Alfred and the two make their way home to Wayne Manor, presumably to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on TV. After briefly stopping to pick up a stray cat (because symbolism), Alfred offers some of his fatherly-butler advice. And then, just before Elfman’s score kicks in and we see the Bat-Signal illuminate the snow-covered Gotham skyline, Bruce utters the last line of the movie:
“Merry Christmas; good will towards man…and woman.”
And, really, doesn’t that sum up Christmas perfectly? At its core, a Christmas movie should be both entertaining and enlightening. It should give us a message of hope, wonder and enchantment. It should remind us to be kind to each other, despite our backgrounds or lots in life. Batman Returns does that, and it’s summed up perfectly in that final line, a line that we should all repeat to ourselves and each other until it really sinks in.
Merry Christmas. Good will towards man…and woman.