Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, and Michelle Pfeiffer
When most people think of Tim Burton and Christmas, they probably first think of The Nightmare Before Christmas (which he didn’t actually direct). They’re wrong, because Burton already made his ultimate Christmas movie a year earlier with the Dark Knight masterpiece: Batman Returns. Burton teams up with his everyman Bruce Wayne actor Michael Keaton fresh off the heels of their smash hit Batman in 1989.
The basics of the movie are that the Penguin – a malformed little man with flipper fingers played by Danny DeVito – rises from the sewers after being raised by the sewer penguins of Gotham (apparently a thing) to exact revenge on the society that casted him out with an army of essentially circus freaks. Meanwhile, an overused and abused secretary Selina Kyle – played by the Michelle Pfeiffer – gets pushed too far by her boss (out of a window) and gets back up and the sultry Catwoman. Michael Keaton’s Batman is now being pulled between the two as the city he protects turns against him. Oh, and also Christopher Walken just because. And it’s set at Christmas.
Burton’s Batman films haven’t held up so well in public opinion in recent years, with much of the favor given to the Christopher Nolan films. Burton’s Batman films are seen in retrospect to be full of the typical Burton trappings that saturate his more recent films: a gothic noir surrealism with more style and camp over the substance of complex characters and intricate plots. While the style is definitely there with Batman Returns, Batman is very much at home in that environment. Burton’s interpretations of the Penguin and Catwoman characters, while more supernatural than typically imagined, are captivating and enduring. Michael Keaton’s Batman has a dark humor about him that you can’t help but enjoy when he beats up the bad guys, and his Bruce Wayne is a likeable guy you earnestly want to see have a happy ending (unlike the cheerless Christian Bale).
When you stop and think about it, Batman Returns is a great Christmas story. Two orphans find true love at Christmas. One of them just happens to be with a crazy cat lady and the other with a bunch of penguins and raw fish. The settings are all decked out with holiday cheer with snow, Santas, parades, parties, and tree-lighting ceremonies. Penguin searches for his family, and when they’re gone, he tries to create a surrogate family. Albeit by kidnapping children, but then he is finally reunited with the family he had all along – actual penguins. Batman and Catwoman share intimate moments under mistletoe, as two damaged individuals find solace with one another.
Batman Returns still holds up over two decades later, a great mix of action and heroism expected in a superhero movie with a dark humor and surrealism that Burton and Keaton can’t help but bring. It’s got a good emotional center that befits its seasonal setting, and that makes it a great watch for the holidays.