As we’re just hours away from the great festive bonanza, many film fan will be in full swing of their annual rewatch of Christmas films. But which deserves the crown as the greatest. Is it a classic like It’s A Wonderful Life? Can a beloved family favourite like Elf or A Muppet’s Christmas Carol take the coveted prize? Or will it be the ever-controversial Die Hard, whose inclusion in any list is subject to debate? To this, I answer that it should be none of them (as much as I love each). I submit for consideration Batman Returns, which I believe is not only the best Batman film (sorry Christopher Nolan) but also the film to watch this season.
More often than not, Christmas films act as adaptations of that eternal festive tale, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And Batman Returns is really no different. The central conflict in the film is one that Bruce Wayne has with three ghosts.
The first of these, the Ghost of Christmas Past, is the Penguin. The film opens with the rejection of Oswald Cobblepot by his parents, who deem it a better option to float their child away, into the sewer system of Gotham, then to raise their monstrous creation. From here, the Penguin becomes an all-encompassing presence in the film, an obsession for Batman and a reminder of the darkness of his hometown’s past.
Then there’s the Ghost of Christmas Present, the eternal grief that haunts the caped crusader. The death of Wayne’s parents is a moment that pings through the entirety of the hero’s comics and adaptations (even finding a place in The Lego Batman Movie) and Batman Returns is no different. What holds our hero on his path, keeps him from seeking his own personal happiness is his present and eternal motivation.
Then we have the Ghost of Christmas Future: Catwoman. Not only is Selina Kyle’s sort-of fatal plunge the founding event for her rebirth as a leather-clad antihero, but it also sets her off on a path as a romantic possibility for Wayne. Their paths weave throughout the film as they find themselves in a waltz that could lead to their redemption or destruction. In the film’s climax (and I shan’t ruin it here), Bruce finds, through grief, the motivation to continue his eternal quest for justice. Unlike Scrooge, the protagonist here can’t break free from his cycle.
Away from A Christmas Carol, Batman Returns exists as a Christmas film on a superficial level. It is set during the festive period and Gotham is bedecked in appropriate trappings. A pivotal moment revolves around the lighting of a Christmas tree, mistletoe is a presence and the film begins and ends with the words ‘Merry Christmas’. Batman Returns is narratively, stylistically and spiritually a Christmas film.
Another reason to add this film to your seasonal rewatch is its overall quality. Director Tim Burton has rarely been as confident as he is here, embracing a weirdness that was there in the first film but is now dialled up to 11. Danny Elfman returns with another swooping, gothic-tinged score (instantly recognisable). Writer Daniel Waters brings the spiky wit seen in Heathers to a comic book playground, while cinematographer Stefan Czapsky again finds the beauty in the grotesque (like in Edward Scissorhands). An ambitious narrative is aided by an iconic pair of antagonists. Michelle Pfeiffer (a late replacement) turn as Selina Kyle is as impressive as Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a heartbreakingly sad performance brimming with a justified fury. And Danny DeVito is simply incredible, a repugnant, hilarious, terrifying figure, turning the Penguin on his head. Michael Keaton continues to be a stable pair of hands, threatening to be overshadowed in his own film.
Batman Returns is also a surprisingly effective metaphor for our time. A repugnant villain can rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the people, with the help of a gullible media and corrupt big business (embodied by Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck – a rollicking hoot). Said villain is motivated by a rage of injustices wrought in their past, aligning them with a wrong and abused office worker, who finds empowerment through confronting her trauma. The film has aged rather well indeed.
All this is why you should seek out a copy of Batman Returns, a comic book adaptation that is oodles of fun, delightfully odd and a seasonal treat. It may not inspire the kind of debate Die Hard does, but it will certainly be receiving an annual playing in my DVD player – I hope I’ve convinced you to join me.