Welcome to WWAC’s Merry Scary Christmas: twelve days of thrills, chills, deadly santas, melancholy, and murder. In this first part, Kayleigh looks at perennial Christmas favourite, Batman Returns.
Starring Michael Keaton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny DeVito, Christopher Walken
Directed by Tim Burton
Batman Returns is the scariest superhero film ever made. Dissect the plot of Batman Returns, Tim Burton’s sequel to 1989’s Batman, and you have enough material for several horror films. A young boy, traumatized by the murder of his parents, grows up to disguise himself as a creature who will terrify the criminal underworld. Inside a Gothic mansion, a monstrous child is born and swiftly abandoned; he grows up in the sewers, swearing revenge on the city’s privileged, beloved firstborns. An innocent woman is murdered, then mysteriously resurrected by cats and given nine lives to exact her revenge. Uniting all of these plotlines is a ruthless businessman whose name, taken from a vampire, hints at how his crimes suck the lifeblood from Gotham City.
Despite its Christmastime setting, Batman Returns is a dark, melancholy film. The retro, Art Deco set design makes the city feel impossibly out of time, as if it were constructed by Dr. Caligari and the mad scientist from Metropolis. It’s a city of labyrinthine sewers and abandoned theme parks, and though Gotham is perpetually covered in snow, it never feels like a winter wonderland. Even the mayor’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony ends with a murder and a colony of bats unleashed on the unsuspecting crowd. (Batman’s failure to save the Ice Princess from her fatal plunge still feel shocking for a superhero movie. Iron Man would have saved her while effortlessly drinking a bourbon and playing a Judas Priest song.)
In my piece on Batman‘s 25th anniversary, I mentioned seeing Batman Returns in the theater with my mother. It’s the first movie I vividly remember watching on the big screen, and I remember enjoying it immensely (I soon had a Catwoman action figure of my very own), but my mother was horrified. She found it extremely dark and disturbing and was afraid it’d have a traumatizing effect on me, but I was too distracted by the coolness of Batman and Catwoman to be scared. (A year later it was a different story, and Jurassic Park had me hiding behind the theater seats.) I was much too young to appreciate the creeping, adult dread of Batman Returns. In retrospect, what probably disturbed my mother most are the constant threats against young children in the film. Batman Returns plays into every parent’s worst nightmare about villains stealing away their children in the night. If Danny DeVito’s snarling, raw fish-gobbling Penguin wasn’t creepy enough, he has an army of baby-snatching clowns. Fucking clowns. The clowns of the Red Triangle Circus are the grimiest, saddest, scariest sewer-dwelling clowns since IT.
But even more than the nightmare of baby-snatching clowns (and how great is the one clown who steals the mayor’s baby and then says “Thanks!” into the mic?), Batman Returns taps into a more emotional, existential fear of being alone during the holidays. Christmas is a time for family and friends, and the characters of Batman Returns are all fundamentally lonely, emotionally-ravaged people. Batman and the Penguin are dark reflections of one another. As Max Schrek points out, Bruce Wayne and Oswald Cobblepot could have been, in another world, kids at the same prep school. Both came from wealthy parents, but Bruce had a loving family that he lost as a child, while Cobblepot had hateful parents who abandoned him as a child. Both men are shaped by the loss of their families, and their emotional wounds are so open they might as well be gushing blood.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is introduced as a lost soul, trapped in a nightmare of pink 1950s hyperfeminine submissiveness. She mutters to herself constantly, greets her empty apartment with “Honey, I’m home,” and her mother and an ex-lover exist only as voices on her answering machine. Her only friend seems to be a pet cat that, in her mind anyway, has a much more interesting life than she does. She finds some angry, feminist liberation when she becomes Catwoman, smashing her pink “HELLO THERE” neon sign so that it reads “HELL HERE,” but it’s not enough to quell her self-loathing. The only character in the film with strong family ties is the man who deserves it the least, Max Shreck. He seems to have a good relationship with his son, the amazingly-named Chip Shreck, but Chip is so thinly-drawn as a character he’s barely worth mentioning.
It’s best not to analyze the film’s plot too closely; the timeline and character motivations are as stitched together as Catwoman’s costume. Better to view Batman Returns as a dark fairytale that operates by fantasy (if not comic book) logic. There’s a lingering sadness to the story, but it’s not without hope or love. Bruce Wayne is the lonely prince alone in a dark castle, but he still opens his heart and his home to Selina. It’s an emotional outreach that seems even more amazing for Bruce considering his relationship with Vicki Vale imploded between films, despite his complete honesty with her. When he greets a forlorn Selina on the street and asks her if she’s feeling “Holiday blues?” we of course know there’s more to her emotional turmoil than that, but it leads to moments of genuine connection. Pfeiffer and Keaton have fantastic chemistry, and what really sells the Bruce/Selina relationship for me is that unlike the polished, bantering, glamorous couples in modern superhero films, they are both awkward, weird, even a bit creepy. (“You’ve got kind of a dark side, don’t you?” “No more than yours, Bruce.”) They’re kindred spirits, but not because they’re vigilantes in black fetishwear. Bruce and Selina are two very strange people who are perfect for each other. Christmas can be the loneliest time of the year, and for a little while they have each other.
But, as Selina says, the fairytale doesn’t have a happy ending. Selina must kill Shreck, leaving behind his blackened, pop-eyed corpse. (Merry Christmas!) The Penguin dies, mourned only by the birds who raised him. Batman is apparently the lone survivor of their final confrontation, and the film ends with Bruce being driven through another dark, snowy night, a bandage covering the wound Selina gave him. Though Bruce still has Alfred’s comforting companionship, it’s a somber, chilly ending, full of loss rather than holiday cheer. But then the Batsignal lights up the sky, and, true to any superhero — or horror — film, we see that Catwoman is alive after all.
Catwoman saved one of her nine lives for next Christmas.