Why do we fall in love with a specific work of art that to others is either an object of mere curiosity or full derision? How does a bizarre novelty gizmo leap out of the pile of toys and become beloved? It boils down to a simple, elegant question: Why does this speak to you?
I’m glad to hear a spirited defense of a book or film that’s never meant much to me but means the universe to another. Sure, you love Jaws, because everybody loves Jaws. I want to hear about your non-ironic embrace of Exorcist II: The Heretic. Lay it on me. I’ll learn something.
The weird wind-up toy I present to you this Winter Solstice Season: Batman Returns, the second of the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher Batman Quartet — and my personal favorite Christmas movie. This might not be a stunner of a revelation considering my holiday movie pick last year was Rasputin the Mad Monk. I was stretching to find a Hammer movie with something akin to seasonal dressing. So… it’s Russia, it’s winter, there’s lots of red wine. Fine, call it a Hammer Christmas movie.
There’s no stretching necessary with Batman Returns. To me, it’s a Christmas movie. No irony or smirk. It was released during the summer of 1992, but now it’s difficult to envision it outside of winter (and I was there in the theater that summer). Imagine the busy New York mall from Miracle on 34th Street,* except it’s run by Ebenezer Scrooge, and he’s in league with an aquatic bird version of Uriah Heep dwelling in the sewer. Now picture Charles Dickens, Edward Gorey, and F. W. Murnau getting into a three-way knife fight over the corpse of Clement Moore, and Fritz Lang filmed the whole thing and put it in theaters for a holiday release. Think of a Christmas tree decorated with all the holiday trimmings, but leathery bats and black cats peer from between the needles. That’s Batman Returns and my idea of a festive December.
Once I aged out of a child’s joy for a Christmas of presents and cookies, the holiday and the weeks around it became an aesthetic interest. Glimmers of light against darkness, endless night and snow over city sidewalks, somber music, and houses trying to keep out the killing cold with a burning Yule log, bright red and green decorations, and spiced wine. It’s a dark view of the season — which is dark by nature since it comes soon after the shortest day of the year — but not necessarily a bitter or pessimistic one. A feeling of fear lurks beyond the barrier of snow and lights. But whenever the dark becomes too much, there’s always a retreat into closeness and warmth only a door away.
I can trace this personal vision of the season to Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol, “A Ghost Story of Christmas.” (An old tradition, thank you Sue.) Leaving aside the wonderful tale Dickens tells about redemption and the human obligation to empathize and aid the destitute, A Christmas Carol is a thrilling haunting story where the play of light against dark and warmth against cold (that last dying coal in Bob Cratchit’s fire!) makes it a vivid read almost a hundred and seventy-five years later.
So why elevate a Batman film as my holiday movie perennial rather than one of the approximately eight gazillion adaptations of A Christmas Carol? Because I prefer to experience A Christmas Carol through reading the book, which takes only as long as watching one of the movie versions. There are numerous wonderful Christmas Carol adaptations; the 1984 Clive Donner TV movie with George C. Scott is my favorite. But Batman Returns is what lands in my Blu-ray player without fail every December when I want a similar feeling to A Christmas Carol, but without an attempt to imitate the sentimental power of Dickens. Outdoing Dickens is impossible, so I’ll take the modern noir equivalent without the moral lesson.
Batman Returns contains many oddball connections to Dickens, most of them visual. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is a Dickensian grotesque, a mutant Fagin who retreated to the sewers and attracted a Victorian circus to follow his Rat King scheming. Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck is a more familiar Scrooge figure, a heartless millionaire with a mane of gray hair that comes from no time period at all. The hero is an orphaned child who sits alone inside an empty castle, waiting for an omen in the sky to tell him he means something. Gotham City is Dickens’s London grown out of control into the twentieth century; you can almost sense the child labor factories crammed together right off screen.
I understand why many comic book and Batman fans have distaste for Batman Returns. Admittedly, it’s not much of a “Batman” movie. Director Tim Burton has little interest in Batman’s heroics to pump cheers from an audience. Comic fans who dislike a Batman who has no qualms about killing aren’t happy to see their hero flat-out murder at least two people: torching one circus goon with the Batmobile’s rocket exhaust and exploding another with a comical clock-bomb. Batman/Bruce Wayne seems almost as unbalanced as Catwoman/Selina Kyle, although I love this character parallel since it creates the only romance in a Batman film that engages me. The plotting is as sloppy as that of Batman ‘89. The hero easily bests Penguin’s plans three times without much fuss: first crushing his mayoral campaign by hacking into his microphones, then stopping the baby-kidnapping train, and finally using radio jamming to turn back the rocket-armed penguin legion of death.
But I forgive all this, and not just because the sight of an army of metal-helmeted penguins, each with a candy-cane striped rocket on its back is hilarious and charming. And not just because the film is utterly bonkers from fade in to fade out. You grind up those stuffed animals, Selina! Batarang-resistant poodle! Get in the duck! My nose could be gushing blood! Oh, so much garish Gothic whimsy…
No, I forgive Batman Returns its flaws most of all because it’s a dark Christmas experiment willing to allow tragedy to overtake it at the end. The former Oswald Cobblepot slides to a watery grave with king penguins for pallbearers and a haunting Danny Elfman eulogy playing on the soundtrack. Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are unable to live together happily ever after in his castle, the personality split is too strong. “I just couldn’t live with myself,” Selina shouts before taking the last step to oblivion. We end with Bruce alone once more. He sits in the back of a car prowling empty snow-covered streets and quietly wishes for “goodwill to men… and women.”
I don’t need my Christmas stories to have a happy ending. I don’t need a moral or cuddly reassurances. I can always take those from Dickens. He did them best. All I want from my Christmas movie is to dwell for two hours in a world of snowflakes against night skies, chilly skyscrapers, colored lights winking from the dark, and Gothic castles where couples sit before Viking hall-sized fires and wonder if two broken weirdos might be able to work it out. That’s my perfect winter holiday romance. Batman Returns has it all (plus insane penguin military action) and therefore it’s my favorite Christmas movie.
Beloved Seasonal Runners-Up
In Bruges, Home Alone, Gremlins, the aforementioned George C. Scott A Christmas Carol, the MST3K versions of Santa Claus Conquerors the Martians and Santa Claus.
I have heard excellent non-ironic defenses of Exorcist II: The Heretic.
*Miracle on 34th Street was also originally a summer release.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is currently available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California where he works as a professional writer for a marketing company. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla in interviews.