Some films are obviously Christmas movies, like The Muppet Christmas Carol. But that designation is not so clear cut for others. They may be set during the holiday season, and they may even touch upon Christmas themes, but does that mean they truly qualify in the traditional sense? To find out we’re putting those movies on trial and laying out all the evidence for and against them by answering some pertinent questions, just as we did with Die Hard, Gremlins, Edward Scissorhands, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Rocky IV. And the latest movie to take the stand in our great Christmas movie debate asked for a courtroom in Gotham. That’s right, it’s time to send up the Santa-Signal for Batman Returns.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, ask yourself…
How much of Batman Returns takes place at Christmastime?
Outside of the opening scene, all of Batman Returns takes place during the Christmas season. Oswald Cobblepot is not born during the holidays, but by the time his parents decide to abandon their cat-eating newborn in the sewers their giant tree is already up. When his circus gang then attacks Gotham 33 years later it’s during the city’s big tree lighting ceremony. The entire movie, which is full of seasonal decorations, presents, and snow, then ends by Christmas Day.
Would Batman Returns be fundamentally different if it were set at any other time of the year?
The film features major scenes connected to the fact that it’s Christmas. There’s actually two big tree lighting sequences. (RIP Ice Princess who was also an actress.) Mistletoe also ends up playing a significant role in the development of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s relationship. And just like the North Pole, it’s full of penguins who shouldn’t live there. Yet, if you moved the film to any other time of year and slightly changed the details/décor you would still have the exact same story. The movie takes place entirely during Christmas. It’s just not really connected to Christmas beyond scenery. The tree lightings could just as easily be the opening of a new building. The mistletoe could be a star constellation.
The only thing you couldn’t change without ruining everything was how the city made workers clean up after a terrorist attack while dressed as elves. There’s no equivalent indignity.
Do any of the film’s major themes apply to Christmas?
Batman Returns is about the duality of self and identity, isolation, and acceptance. Batman, Catwoman, Penguin, and Max Shrek all have two different identities—their public persona and their secret self—and they struggle to find a balance between the two. Interesting, but not very Christmas-y. The movie’s also about revenge, power, greed, and class. The closest any of those come to being traditional holiday themes are greed and class, but considering Bruce Wayne is the film’s hero, it’s not exactly Gotham’s take on It’s A Wonderful Life. The billionaire is the guy we want to see come out on top.
Does watching Batman Returns at Christmastime enhance the experience?
Even though the film’s plot and themes have nothing to do with the holiday, the film is so specifically set during Christmas that watching it in December does enhance the experience.* It’s easy to get caught up in the characters’ lives while also personally surrounded by a Christmas tree and festive lights. And when Bruce Wayne ends up alone at the end you feel a little extra sting because you know it will be another lonely holiday for him. You can really feel the holiday blues in the moment.
*This was obviously not the case when it first came to theaters. Batman Returns premiered in June 1992.
Has this film been accepted as a Christmas movie tradition?
Some fans consider Batman Returns a Christmas movie, but not enough. The film also has yet to break into the holiday movie zeitgeist the way a movie like Die Hard has. Since it didn’t before the streaming era began we can’t imagine it will anytime soon. If will likely need to start airing on basic cable a lot more in December to do that. If/when it does we’ll reevaluate this section. For now it’s simply a niche Christmas-adjacent movie.
THE FINAL VERDICT
We love Batman. He’s also provided us with lots of great Christmas memories over the years. For those reasons and more it would make us very happy to judge this film a true holiday entry. We just can’t do it after looking at the evidence objectively. Because while this movie embraces the feel of the Christmas season, it’s not a Christmas story. Not by its plot, themes, or characters. And since it hasn’t established itself as a holiday viewing staple, there’s only one verdict we can give.
Turn off the Santa-Signal, because Batman Returns does not qualify as a Christmas movie.