‘Tis the season for watching Christmas movies – and with that comes the yearly debate over what constitutes a “true” Christmas film. After all, some movies are only really Christmas adjacent; they’re set during the festive season but otherwise have nothing to do with Christmas itself. That’s why every year, nobody can agree whether movies like Die Hard, Trading Places, and Gremlins make the cut.
Batman Returns is yet another of these contentious Christmas-related efforts – there are plenty of people who wouldn’t group it with universally acknowledged festive flicks like It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, and Elf. They’re dead wrong, though. Not only is Tim Burton’s 1992 superhero sequel a Christmas movie – it’s the perfect Christmas movie for outsiders who find themselves at a loss every December.
What makes Batman Returns a Christmas movie?
But first, what makes Batman Returns a genuine Christmas movie? Obviously, the film is set entirely during the lead-up to Christmas; however, as we’ve already covered, setting a movie during the festive season isn’t quite enough to do the trick. Fortunately, though, Batman Returns’ Yuletide elements are more than just garish window dressing.
Several of the movie’s major plot points revolve around Christmas iconography, from the oversized present that the Red Triangle Circus Gang burst out of early on in proceedings, to the ill-fated tree-lighting ceremony later that gives us the iconic image of Michael Keaton’s Batman soaring past a Christmas tree. Heck, even the resurrection of Michelle Pfeiffer’s downtrodden secretary Selina Kyle as sexy femme fatale Catwoman is essentially the twisted version of a Christmas miracle!
What’s more, Batman Returns ties into Christmas thematically, too. Burton and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Daniel Waters weave traditional festive themes like family and togetherness throughout the story – albeit in a decidedly darker way than usual, in keeping with Batman Returns’ Gothic trappings. There’s also a repeated dialogue exchange about mistletoe between Batman and Catwoman which is both another key plot point – it’s how they learn each other’s secret identities – as well as a Christmas-infused motif designed to illustrate the continued evolution of the pair’s relationship and mutual understanding.
So, yes: Batman Returns is a Christmas movie – and a very specific kind of Christmas movie, at that.
A Christmas movie for loners and outcasts
Specifically, Batman Returns is Christmas movie for the kind of people who don’t “get” Christmas: loners and outsiders who feel like they don’t belong every time the festive season rolls around.
Sure, Batman has butler Alfred; Catwoman has her overbearing mother who lives out of town; and Danny DeVito’s Penguin has his shady carnival cronies and uneasy ally, millionaire Max Schreck; but they’re fundamentally isolated people. Batman has driven away his previous girlfriend, Vicki Vale, with his obsessive, one-man crusade for justice; Catwoman’s transformation leaves her consumed with self-destructive rage; and Penguin’s villainous scheme is fuelled by the pain of being abandoned as a baby. Because of this, they’re each cut off from those closest to them and society as a whole – and this leaves them ill-equipped to comprehend, much less enjoy, the goodwill and togetherness that Christmas is all about, even though they clearly want to.
Batman and Catwoman try (and fail) to build a relationship – complete with a festively-themed date, no less. Penguin also mounts a painfully inept attempt at romance, too, and – in his own deranged way – briefly embraces the Gotham City community he’s sworn to destroy. Ultimately, though, this trio of loners are simply too damaged to tap into the Christmas spirit for longer than it takes a snowflake to fall – and there’s something heartening in that for viewers who find themselves in a similar (if less extreme) position. After all, if friggin’ Batman – the supposed pinnacle of human mental and physical potential – can’t make Christmas work, maybe it’s not so bad that they can’t, either.
Of course, Batman still comes pretty close to converting to the Christmas cause, and before the credits roll, we get the sense that he’s holding out hope for a reunion with Catwoman and another chance at the joy and goodwill of the season. There’s something in that for the loners and outcasts in the audience, too – it speaks to the possibility that one day they’ll finally find someone or something that can help them make sense of Christmas.
And in the end, it’s this hopefulness more than anything else that makes Batman Returns a true Christmas movie.