As unconventional Christmas movies go, it doesn’t get much better than “Batman Returns.” Like fellow action flick turned holiday staple “Die Hard,” “Batman Returns” doesn’t bog itself down with the Christmas setting, instead utilizing the jolliest time of year to reinforce its themes of greed and duality. Beneath its snowy layer of blockbuster magic is a thoughtful, incredible Batman story that’s really one of the best films to star the Caped Crusader, even when you consider the seminal Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy.
Unlike those Nolan films, “Batman Returns” fully embraces its comic book roots, serving up a fantastical take on the Dark Knight. “Batman Returns” doesn’t care about being realistic; it only concerns itself with deepening the Batman mythos. It offers a villain-centric story that somehow reveals more about Batman, reflected in the visual style of Gotham City.
“Batman Returns” is notable for being one of Burton’s earlier films that really defines the artist. Serving as an homage to German Expressionist films, it is a beautifully gothic, visual masterpiece that paints Gotham as a portrait of darkness, and weirdness — much like its characters. From the beginning of the film, Burton tells us this is nothing like his ’89 take on Batman. Zeroing in on the birth of Penguin, the film balances dark comedy and horror, as we’re introduced to the terrifying origin of one of the film’s central villains. The opening shot of the Cobblepot mansion establishes the unique visual aesthetic of the film, while the following shot of Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, makes it abundantly clear that the film will inject a flavor of humor with its actors.
The film depicts Penguin as a skewed take on Jesus Christ — he returns 33 years later to his hometown of Gotham, which rejected and ridiculed him, casting him out into the sewers. As much as Penguin is portrayed as grotesque in the film, there’s consistently a level of pathos, thanks to his portrayal by Danny DeVito. DeVito’s casting is just another example of Burton’s ability to use comedic actors to bring a real oddness to his characters, making them that much more fascinating to watch. DeVito kills it in the role, acting truly disgusting, yet sad, drawing out a soup of mixed emotions in the viewer. Are we supposed to like this guy? What makes him all that different from Batman? The complexities of the performance only get better with age, as we grow to understand the similarities between Batman and Cobblepot.
“Batman Returns” would be Keaton’s final outing as the Caped Crusader — one where he really one-ups his performance in the previous film, in which he was overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s delightfully menacing Joker. Even sharing the screen with two villains this time around, Keaton manages to knock it out of the park, portraying a brooding, curious Bruce Wayne, and an equally fascinating Batman. Keaton’s complexity as an actor — that look behind his eyes that hints at so much more going on inside his character’s head — really establishes the sadness that comes with being Batman. We get a glimpse into his detachment from Bruce’s life (his inability to understand vichyssoise!) and struggle with duality. In “Batman Returns” we truly understand that Bruce is more comfortable as Batman — something he has in common with Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is one of the greatest takes on the character in any medium. Equally endearing and unhinged, this is a truly unstable feline femme fatale, but we love her for it. Pfeiffer offers a skittish take on Kyle that really demonstrates how uncomfortable she is when she’s not out on the town as Catwoman. Throughout the film we get a real sense of her anger at the patriarchy and the misogyny that’s plagued her for most of her life. When she gets her revenge on Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) — the employer who tried to kill her — it feels justified, and as an audience we almost root for her.
The anger, insanity and chaos that is Catwoman is perhaps best on display in the scene right after her resurrection, in which she returns to her apartment and trashes her answering machine, grinds up her stuffed animals and wrecks her home, from top to bottom. In that moment we understand the frustration and rejection of the norms that society throws at Selina Kyle — and as an audience, we welcome her villainous transformation into Catwoman.
From head to toe, “Batman Returns” is a masterful film, from its direction to production design, soundtrack and stellar performances. The 1992 hit is the kind of Batman outing we could’ve used 2016. A good Batman movie doesn’t need to be real — it just has to reveal something real about its characters. With such three-dimensional performances on display, the fantastical nature of the film simply works. It reflects its strange characters in the visual style of Gotham City, where everything is weird and uncomfortable.
Which, leads us to our Christmas message: One of inclusivity. Despite all the joyous celebration in Gotham for the Holiday Season, there’s a lingering darkness; a loneliness. We have our three main characters — Batman, Catwoman and Penguin — who all feel disconnected from their community in a big way. But, through combatting each other, and earning their place in Gotham, there’s a bit of solace — they’re all freaks. Despite the fighting, there’s a commonality between our hero and his two foes that justifies they’re existence in Gotham. They’re weird, they don’t feel right in their skin — but they belong in Gotham, despite their feeling of rejection. Gotham is a weird place, for weird folks. And it’s somewhere the freaks belong. Whether they’re running for mayor to make up for a feeling of inadequacy, pining for an unrequited love, or seeking revenge on a misogynistic boss — they all want to fit in. And they do, with one another.
So, in the spirit of “Batman Returns,” “Goodwill toward men — and women.”
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