Christmas time is here, which means holiday movies are all the rage. But some of the best holiday movies aren’t uplifting tales of the triumph of the human spirit. Welcome to Dysfunctional Holiday Theater.
Coming off the heels of the wildly-successful BATMAN in 1989, director Tim Burton’s second movie about Gotham’s Dark Knight takes all of Burton’s craziest tendencies and amplifies them like the Bat-signal shining brightly in the sky. And the movie manages to tell one of the greatest superhero love stories in the history of comic book movies.
And it’s all set at the most magical time of the year: Christmas!
After taking down the Joker in the first cinematic go-round, the Caped Crusader is met with a different kind of villain this time around. Actually, he faces multiple villains. From the evil business magnate Max Schreck to the hideously-deformed Penguin to the acrobatic Catwoman set on revenge, Gotham City turns into a free-for-all at Christmas. Schreck (Christopher Walken) sets it all in motion when he tries to kill his assistant, Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfiffer), by pushing her out a window.
Kyle, though, is resurrected by a bunch of cats licking her face in the alley and heads back to her apartment, wrecks the place and sews a leather body suit out of things she had lying around. Oh, and her near-death turns her from a nebbish assistant, scared of her own shadow, into a deadly femme fatale who can backflip down the street, go toe-to-toe with the Batman and can crack a whip like nobody’s business.
Shreck also uses the Penguin (Danny DeVito) as a patsy in his scheme to remove the mayor in order to get his power plant pushed through the city council. He manipulates the newly-surfaced Oswalk Cobblepot and reinvents him as a tragic figure, a forgotten son of Gotham looking to regain his birthright. But really, all Penguin wants is to take revenge on the city for his parents dropping him into a sewer as a baby because of his disfigurements.
Catwoman and Penguin are the recognizable villains that sold the film, but make no mistake about it, Walken’s Max Shreck was the true big bad of this movie.
As cheesy as most of Batman Returns’ story is, the way Walken, DeVito and Pfiffer overemote throughout the film’s 126-minute runtime make this a near cinematic classic. The three villains seem to compete throughout for who can chew the scenery more. Christopher Walken always seems to revel in this sort of role, but Pfiffer and DeVito adapt nicely into the craziness that is Tim Burton’s Gotham City. You barely need Batman in this movie. In fact, much of the time, when Batman is on the screen, he’s merely watching what’s unfolding in front of him.
Much more important to the plot of the film is millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who takes a shine to the new and improved (and possibly undead) Selina Kyle when he meets with Shreck about the power plant. Like in the COMICS, the pair are attracted to each other both in and out of their layers of leather and latex, flirting unabashedly even while they fight on the rooftops.
Once they figure out each others’ identities during Shreck’s Christmas masquerade ball, Bruce decides to try and save Selina, though she’s too far gone to accept a life of decadence in Wayne Manor. After Bruce takes off the cowl in Penguin’s lair – after the Penguin dies from internal injuries caused by a bunch of trained penguins setting off explosive rockets – to try and pull Selina back to him, she instead chooses to kiss Shreck with a stun gun, which blows up the whole penguin exhibit at the zoo.
I have always loved Michael Keaton’s performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Of the three actors to play the role in the 90s, Keaton managed to play both halves of the identity perfectly. Even though he was essentially just an observer here, a supporting player in the triangle of terror that is Shreck, Penguin and Catwoman.