The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors in paintings of Santa Claus and pulling out stale chocolate the manufacturer couldn’t sell four years ago, then eating it and pretending we’re having a good time. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. We’ve got the usual suspects, some of the worst specials, and some surprises for you, and we’re hoping you’ll join us every day to get in the holiday spirit. This week’s theme: the holidays where you least expect them.
Like so many Shane Black-authored films before it, this past summer’s Iron Man 3 takes place around Christmas. But two decades earlier, another high-profile superhero sequel was set during the holiday season despite a summer-tentpole release date: Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which came out more or less concurrently with Black’s screenwriting dominance but takes a different approach to his favored juxtaposition of firepower and Christmas lights.
Even without the snow and the ornaments, Burton’s Batman movies seem, in retrospect, like odd fits for summer. Unlike the brightly colored Marvel adventures, they’re painted with a dark, chilly palette and a mood to match. Batman Returns re-establishes that chill in its opening moments, where a woman in a snow-covered mansion gives screaming birth to an unseen, presumably hideous penguin creature. The holiday setting is established almost as quickly. The first spoken words are “Merry Christmas,” exchanged hurriedly between a happy couple and the Cobblepots (played by Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger, better known as Pee-Wee and Simone from the Burton-directed Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) as the latter rush their newborn’s stroller through a park, en route to casting him into the sewer.
When the movie skips ahead to Gotham City’s Batman-protected present, the holiday celebrations continue: more snowfall, a giant Christmas tree, and a big red box that springs open to reveal a marauding circus-themed crime gang, because if you’re a traveling circus that dabbles in terrorism, the sewers of Gotham are probably the best possible home base. After all, Gotham is a place where Christopher Walken, playing a mogul named Max Shreck, can pass as an avuncular Santa Claus figure.
Though often cited as one villain too many in a movie that already gives ample screen time to the grown-up Penguin (Danny DeVito) and a newly minted Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Shreck provides a vital through-line in a story that concentrates more on mood and imagery than breakneck plotting. In fact, he’s the only character who meaningfully interacts with all of the other leads in their various guises: Bruce Wayne and Batman; Selina Kyle and Catwoman; Oswald Cobblepot the human-interest story and Penguin the grotesque crime boss. Shreck even owns a department store, the business perhaps most classically emblematic of Christmas and its accompanying commercialization. Behind that store’s smiling cat logo lurks a fright-wigged murderer, plotting to push through an unnecessary power plant and consolidate his power in Gotham—or something. His plot almost doesn’t matter—Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters made the rare superhero movie that’s more about character and behavior than headlong plotting.
Shreck, then, is a stand-in for the potential despair of Gotham at Christmastime. Bruce and Selina first meet at Shreck’s office and instantly bond over their dislike of him. Later, they turn to their mutual distraction and loneliness. Their first big conversation takes place on a busy Gotham street as they walk past shops and shoppers. These holiday trappings give some extra weight to all that brooding that Bruce Wayne does in his downtime. (The first time we see Wayne in this—the highly anticipated sequel to one of the biggest summer movies of all time—he’s literally sitting in the dark, staring at nothing.) In some of the best out-of-costume superhero interactions ever put to film, Bruce and Selina reveal themselves as figures of whimsical depression: funny, tentatively excited to connect with each other, but afraid to reveal the full extent of their neuroses.
To combat or indulge those neuroses, most of the characters play various games of dress-up that might seem better suited for Halloween. Despite the intrusion of Christmas music into October and a widening tent of what’s meant by “holidays,” Halloween isn’t often lumped into the end-of-year corridor, beyond its use as a reference point for sad encroachment. Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas would cleverly bridge that October-December gap in 1993, but Batman Returns did it first, and with more complex feelings about the season.
There are a lot of routes into depression in the waning months of each year. Even the most dedicated Christmas celebrators may also be reminded, by virtue of its omnipresence in American culture and despite the war supposedly waged against it, that time is passing and another year is coming to a close. This in and of itself can be cause for celebration, whether you’re especially forward thinking or had an especially shitty year, but holiday rituals can also accumulate, over time, into a series of snapshots focusing on unavoidable changes—or the lack thereof.
Fear of aging or trepidation over annual parties are not precisely in the text of Batman Returns, but its mood of holiday melancholy offers a transition from the childlike fun of a kid at Halloween and the more adult-like potential disappointment of the bustling months that follow. Burton even throws in an Election Day of sorts, with a mayoral recall campaign mounted by The Penguin. (His evil scheme is weirdly and delightfully civics-oriented.) From the frightful masks and misbegotten creatures to the election politics to the festive decorations, Burton’s film takes place not just in December but also in a perpetual fall-to-winter jumble of unease.
Batman Returns relies on more than seasonal sadness; in Burton’s hands, the mélange of holidays is eye-popping and a lot of fun, like a deranged Batman Christmas special. Between the missile-armed penguins, machine-gunning organ grinder, and The Penguin’s giant yellow duck-car, the movie hits the sweet spot in the progression from Jack Nicholson’s 1989 marveling over where Batman gets “those wonderful toys” to Joel Schumacher’s more “toyetic” approach in the back half of the ’90s. If anything, Batman Returns proves that even a darker, more personal Batman was already pretty damn toyetic, which may explain why the Schumacher movies felt like such overkill. (Full disclosure: I got a sweet Batman/Penguin racing set for Christmas in 1992. I still have the cars.)
Still, as powerful as toyeticism is, it has limits. Burton appreciates the whimsical side of adults dressing and sometimes acting like animals, but he stays attuned to their outsider status and communicates it visually, as with an early Penguin-POV shot of Gotham’s Rockefeller Center-esque Christmas tree viewed through sewer grates. Later, the image is revisited with a shot of the bat signal from a similarly bar-laden vantage point. Batman, Catwoman, and The Penguin may struggle most outwardly with their personal problems, but really, Gotham City as a whole just can’t catch a break: Repeatedly during the movie, Gotham attempts to have a nice, celebratory town-square tree-lighting, and its citizens are met instead with murder, scary clowns, and bat attacks.
Batman defends them, even as his city-protection duties sometimes seem secondary. But while Burton and Keaton’s version of Batman sometimes places less emphasis on the character’s traditional mix of detective work and heroism under a strict code (plenty of bad guys appear to die in Batman Returns, though most of them are scary clowns), this movie maintains an awareness of the humanity lurking beneath Batman/Bruce Wayne. His first response to seeing The Penguin on TV, vamping about the search for his parents, is quietly compassionate: “I hope he finds them,” he says to his butler Alfred. Though Bruce quickly becomes suspicious of The Penguin and regards him as an enemy, his empathy returns in the movie’s last line—which also echoes its first, with more sincerity. In his limousine, after a climactic bit of destruction, Bruce responds to well wishes from Alfred: “Merry Christmas, Alfred. And goodwill towards men… and women.”
It’s hard to imagine a big-ticket summer movie in 2013 ending on either an out-of-season holiday greeting or such a quiet, melancholy note. Even Shane Black’s use of Christmas in his action pictures, delightful as it can be, feels more ironic. Batman Returns doesn’t use Christmas as mischievous window dressing or, for that matter, for bah-humbug bashing. I love it for the same reason I love to hear Bob Dylan sing carols with his latter-day ravaged voice: It better reconciles a warm, genuine holiday spirit with how freakish, worn-out, or unsatisfied we may feel the rest of the year.
Tomorrow: One of the world’s biggest bands has some Yuletide fun.