Christmas is a time for joy, light and happiness. A time of celebration and reflection, a time to eat so much you put yourself into a food induced coma, but with 2017 being nearly as mind-numbingly awful as 2016, maybe it’s time to reflect on an unconventional, but nevertheless relatable Christmas fairy tale (more nightmare). Less joy, more cynicism, less giving, more greed. Less fantasy, more reality. So, apologies to those who were looking for 200 LED lights wrapped round a tree, because this article isn’t it (you may get hit with said tree though).
Rather, we delve into the twisted mind of Tim Burton, and the soon to be, although not quite, Christmas classic that is Batman Returns. I can smell the confusion from here, but if Die Hard can be classed as a Christmas movie (ignore recent polls), then so can Batman Returns.
Released in 1992 as the unforeseen Burton sequel to 1989’s Batman, Batman Returns (please count how many times I say ‘Batman’) is the equivalent to all that Christmas scepticism and anarchy many hold dear. It’s Burton at full throttle too, taking one the most loved superheroes, and superhero franchises, and turning it into a feast of nastiness. I should say as well that it’s set during Christmas, which is my get in and get out clause as to why this is to be classed as a Christmas movie (unconventional though, remember that).
Taking inspiration from German Expressionism, which was made up of gothic undertones, weird angles, absurd settings and the continual interplay between light and dark, Burton portrays on screen the nefarious underbelly of Christmas in Gotham City, and although not-knowingly (I assume), creates a sort of Christmas film for ‘our’ current climate, for 2017 (and probably 2016, and more than likely 2018). It’s dark times people, and Burton loves it.
Starring Batman, (obviously), as played by Michael Keaton, as well as Catwoman, acted out of the park by Michelle Pfeiffer, it’s really the villains of Batman Returns that make it such an unfortunate, yet deliciously relatable tale of Christmas woe. I should note that Catwoman is essentially a villain, but here, she pales in heinous comparison to the other two weaved into the narrative; Penguin, played by Danny DiVito, and Max Shreck, (not to be confused with Shrek, the ogre), portrayed by Christopher Walken. If you’re on the hunt for a Putin/Trump political election mess, played out on screen by some comic book villains and directed with nihilistic tendencies, then, Merry Christmas, you’ve come to the right place.
Shreck is Putin (and Trump too). Although, in reality, Shreck is basically every big office bully boy multimillionaire who steals from the poor, steals from the middle class, then steals from the rich too, and keeps it all to himself. Penguin it turns out, is a deformed pawn in his game, used and abused all for financial and political gain, just as he uses and abuses Shreck as well (did Burton, and writers Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm, have the ability to look into the future?).
Shreck is just the right amount of corrupt businessman that Penguin needs in order to be resurrected, adored, and to lead Gotham into the light. Penguin, on the other hand, is just the right amount of gullible and desperate to believe it all. Shreck is also known as the ‘Santa Claus of Gotham’, although maybe in this case he is the literal opposite of Santa Claus. His name is everywhere, from department stores to high rise buildings (someone edit in Trump Vodka, Trump Steak, Trump Tower, Trump Hair Transplants), but where Santa gives gifts, Shreck charges you double the cost and then threatens you in the process.
There too, are some theological themes let into the light. In fact, the first shot of the film is the moment that Oswald Copplepot (Penguin) is abandoned by his parents. Left in the Gotham River before floating towards a zoo and being adopted by a group of penguins (yes, really), Burton dishes out the ‘Moses’ undertones, as Oswald returns some 33 years later as the outcast of the city. It’s twisted for sure. He doesn’t heal the sick, or tend to the needy, although he claims those are his intentions, but it’s all oddly biblical nonetheless.
Elsewhere, Catwoman is batting against the patriarchy, against the misogynistic world of Shreck and co (sound familiar), seeking revenge after he tried to kill her by pushing her from his building (a nice guy). She transforms on screen, and takes all the conventions thrown at her to be a ‘pretty woman’, to be quiet, unassuming, willing to do whatever her male superior tells her, and smashes them up her apartment, waving a manic goodbye to her soft toys and becoming Catwoman in every sense. She seduces Batman under the mistletoe too, and shows that our beloved superhero has a Christmas themed kinky side (sorry, but he wears a rubber suit, so….).
Batman Returns delivers a range of seasonal based messages too, both good, but more bad. Consumerism, capitalism, greed, these are part and parcel of Christmas, and of Christmas in Gotham (I’m not Scrooge I assure you), but the movie also ends, in the same way most of Trump’s administration is more than likely going to go, on some leaked video footage.
Batman, ever the hero of the hour, broadcasts a recording of Penguin slagging off the people of Gotham at a press conference organised by Shreck, resulting in Penguin high tailing it back to the sewers, credibility in tatters (they also throw food at him, high drama). Shreck gets his comeuppance too, thanks to Catwoman delivering a literal kiss of death, and all is once again right in the world. Glad tidings one and all.
But, and aside from the farcical but utterly enjoyable rampage on screen, what Burton does so well is less obvious than perhaps first thought. He takes an unrealistic city, and comic book flashiness, and reduces it, or perhaps, expands it, to its characters. They are, although it may seem odd to say so, three-dimensional.
Although they are all weird, and again, from a comic book (I know, I know), the fact that you can see the political nuances of our current climate in Penguin and Shreck, and the women’s movement in Catwoman, says a lot about the power of letting characters who were created to reflect the real world, actually do that. Comic book characters are all fashioned from real life. They contain multiple facets of human nature and society, it’s just rare that it’s done in a way that predicts the future where Trump is president, Putin is his overlord, and Christmas is just around the corner.
Metaphors abound, and good will to all men and women in short supply, Batman Returns is a Christmas film for our current troubled times. Forget Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life, no one is that kind, and if there is ever a time for miracles, send one over to those negotiating Brexit, not that they deserve it (bah humbug!).
Make sure to watch with a glass of skepticism, a mince pie of abject but nevertheless delicious terror, await the moment some bats fly out of your Christmas tree, and pray that Catwoman kisses you under the mistletoe (or maybe not). Merry Christmas everyone.
Article by Emily Harrison
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