When it comes to the Christmas season, there are a few constants that are as much a part of the festive celebration as trimming the tree and letters to Santa and among those things are Christmas movies and the annual debate about what non-traditional films are deserving of a place among the holiday movie canon. While there are many films that fall on that list -- including the fan-favorite Die Hard -- as Christmas movies go, Batman Returns is a film that deserves to make the leap from "non-traditional holiday film" to part of the standard Christmas movie canon. Not only is it set during the holiday, but the film contains many themes often featured in Christmas movies and uses them to tell a story that is more realistic than aspirational, making it a bit unique and fulfilling in a completely different way, offering an alternative view on the so-called happiest season of them all. It's the combination of those things that makes Batman Returns more than just a Batman movie and lands it firmly among Christmas movies, more so than many other non-traditional favorites.
Released in 1992, Batman Returns is the sequel to 1989's Batman and stars Michael Keaton as the titular hero alongside Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Christopher Walken as Max Shreck -- a character literally referred to as "The Santa Claus of Gotham", and Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth. The film's plot sees Batman facing the Penguin who plans to kill all of the firstborn sons of Gotham City as well as deal with Catwoman, who herself has a crusade against Max Shreck, a corrupt tycoon in cahoots with the Penguin. While the plot itself doesn't immediately spark thoughts of Christmas, from the very opening the film is clearly set during the season. Even the Warner Bros. logo at the start fades out to reveal a snow-covered Gotham City, though once we get into the film itself, there is plenty of more obvious Christmas iconography: snow, Christmas lights, Santa Claus and even a giant festive Christmas tree right smack in the middle of Gotham. At some point, Alfred is seen carrying Christmas gifts and Shrek even hands out gifts in front of that big fancy tree in Gotham. Beyond the visible elements of Christmas, the holiday features in the dialogue of the film as well. Batman and Catwoman have a conversation about mistletoe and at the end, Alfred and Bruce wish each other a Merry Christmas.
Moving past the superficial visual elements of Christmas, which is frequently where movies that are non-traditional holiday favorites start to falter a bit, Batman Returns also features themes that are common with other holiday films, especially ones of meaning and togetherness. In a sense, each of the characters in Batman Returns is looking for meaning in a season of togetherness and joy when they do not exactly have those things for themselves – and that lack is part of what drives the plot. DeVito's Penguin is perhaps the most solid example of that. The film opens with his parents rejecting the deformed, disfigured baby boy, first confining him to a cage and then throwing him into the sewer in the ultimate act of rejection. As an adult, that rejection is what drives him and leads him to want to seek revenge not just on Shreck who cheated him, but on Gotham more generally for what his parents did to him years before.
But it isn't just Penguin who is a loner looking for some sort of meaning -- even if through revenge -- in the film. Selina Kyle is also a lonely figure even before Shrek shoves her out a window in an attempt on her life, thus setting into motion her turn into Catwoman and her quest to kill him. And, of course, Bruce Wayne is always a lonely figure and while he has arguably found his meaning through his efforts as Batman, the film shows him embarking on a romantic relationship with Selina, something that could be interpreted as Bruce seeking some sort of meaning for his private life, the one outside of his alter ego's work.
What sets things apart from here is that while everything does get resolved just in time for Christmas, this isn't a happy It's A Wonderful Life type of ending. In fact, nothing really ends in a happy place which is honestly a more realistic approach for a holiday film than what we usually see. There are no redemption arcs in Batman Returns. Penguin doesn't suddenly have a change of heart and give all the firstborn sons of Gotham cookies. He tries to have his army of penguins bomb the city and kill everyone, though he is stopped by Batman and Alfred. Penguin ultimately dies. Shreck also doesn't have a change of heart for his nefarious plans and ends up dead himself. Even Catwoman doesn't get an exactly happy ending. She never gives up her quest to kill Shreck -- and is ultimately successful in doing so -- but more than that she also doesn't try to resolve things with Bruce. The closest thing to a happy ending that the film gets for anyone is Bruce returning to life as he's known it, fighting crime as Batman, and celebrating a lonely holiday with Alfred, the only family he knows. Even Gotham doesn't exactly get off with a happy ending. While the city and her firstborn sons live to see another day, it's Gotham; the trauma of that city remains.
The debate about what makes a Christmas movie a Christmas movie isn't going to stop anytime soon. There will always be those who think only films that are explicitly Christmas movies, such as It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and Miracle on 34th Street. There will also always be those who think any film with a Christmas setting can be considered a holiday film, like Die Hard or Iron Man 3. But when it comes to Batman Returns, while the film is certainly non-traditional, it absolutely deserves a place in the Christmas movie canon. The film's setting and themes offer up an alternative view of the festive holiday, one that speaks to the misfits and outsiders in ways the cheer and hope of other Christmas films might not. In a season that's all about cheer, having the alternative that Batman Returns offers is one that feels more welcoming and may just help everyone appreciate the spirit of the season.
What do you think? Should Batman Returns be fully considered a bona fide Christmas movie or is this still up for debate? Let us know in the comments.