At Christmas time, the signs of the seasons don’t just cover streets and department stores. They also cover our TV sets, as networks produce holiday specials and films galore (one beingBATMAN RETURNS, more on that in a bit), whether it be tried and true fares like CHARLIE BROWN, or newer material like Netflix’s THE CHRISTMAS CHRONICLES and the endless parade of Hallmark movies. As you might expect, the newer fares get held to high standards every year, as people can argue for years whether or not it’s actually a ‘Christmas film.’

There are all sorts of genres for this — is the action classic DIE HARD a holiday film because it happens at Christmas, or is it a thriller with no real ties to the season? Does the horror-comedy GREMLINS fall under the same scrutiny? Do the Hallmark movies count even though they’re incredibly predictable and light? Every genre gets this argument, but there’s a comic book film in there too — 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS.

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This film was a financial success but has become something of a mixed bag over the years. It’s darker than its predecessor and was thought to be too gruesome for children thanks to Danny Devito’s portrayal of the Penguin. The tragic and sexualized Catwoman from Michelle Pheiffer didn’t help; however, it does hold a unique distinction as it is the only superhero movie set at Christmas. While there are some superhero holiday stories, a big screen adaption hasn’t been attempted since. So does BATMAN RETURNS use the holiday to its benefit, or is the setting just a coincidence? For me, the answer is yes; the film is a dark ride, but still very much a Yuletide movie.

And if you don’t believe me, here are five reasons why.

5. Christmas is Everywhere in the Film

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Okay, so I’ll fully admit BATMAN RETURNS makes no attempt to boost Christmas spirit in the traditional ways. There’s no Santa, no talk of cheer, not even Bruce Wayne having eggnog. However, Christmas acts as the setting for just about everything the film. Gotham is decorated with lights, the characters mention the holiday multiple times, and the start of the action happens at a tree lighting ceremony. So yes, Christmas may not be discussed very heavily, but the holiday image is a constant presence throughout the film. And it’s a good thing too, because…

4. The Movie Wouldn’t Work at Any Other Time

Remember how I said the film’s action really begins at a tree lighting ceremony? Well for those of you that haven’t seen it, this is how it starts:

At what other time of year would something like this work? The villains’ entrance is perfect; it sets their oddball aesthetic and makes them a stark contrast to the merriment of the times. That’s not the only instance of the holiday being crucial either. BATMAN RETURNS heavily uses the Christmas season to build it’s story. The kidnapping and eventual murder of the Ice Princess? Wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t a need for a model to light a tree.

Penguin’s birthday and the timeframe for his plan of revenge? All based around Christmas. Even Penguin’s mayoral run gets more weight because it’s in December and it shows just how much influence Penguin has collected in a short time. Simply put, this movie would not work if it was in July or on Halloween. Christmas is what makes BATMAN RETURNS run, and it just wouldn’t be the same without it.

3. The Villain Owns a Department Store Chain

Max Shreck might have been created for the film, but he leaves a solid mark on it. Part of this is the performance given by the great Christopher Walken, but the rest is the marketing of Shreck’s industries throughout the film. Nowhere is this more apparent than his department stores, which play host to Catwoman’s spree of destruction.

This scene may not seem very Christmas at first, but it does tie into a part of the holidays. This film happened before online shopping, so facing the department store crowd was the only way to get presents. That explains the setting, but there’s another meaning as well. Shreck caused Selina Kyle’s transformation into Catwoman, so this scene is very much a disgruntled employee getting back at her boss. And as someone that has worked retail at Christmas time, I can tell you the stress does make you fantasize about causing store-wide destruction. So this scene plays up an unseen element of Christmas — the workers that make it happen, and need to let off some steam.

2. It Showcases the Evils of Greed

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Speaking of Max Shreck, he also fills the role of Greed in the film. We’ve all heard about materialism running wild at Christmas, but Shreck does it like no other. His big goal is to get a power plant built that will somehow stockpile energy for him. When he can’t get that legally, he tricks the Penguin into running for mayor, then abandons him when things go wrong. And that’s still not counting Shreck throwing Selina Kyle out the window when she learns what he’s doing. Shreck spends the entire film as a greedy, self-centered, uncaring and unrepentant narcissist. But, Shreck shows everything that’s wrong with greed, and his final fate is as much a Christmas victory as George Bailey defeating Old Man Potter.

1. BATMAN RETURNS Is A Counter and Enhancement of the Film’s Darkness

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I’ve said throughout that BATMAN RETURNS is a dark film. However, that darkness is precisely why it’s such a great Christmas film. The lights and trees and everything else seem brighter and more festive because of the darkness surrounding them. They’re essential because they act as a counter to everything else in the movie. We need a break from the Batcave and Penguin’s lair every so often, and because of that, we’re more grateful for the bright lights of Christmas.

The holiday also makes the film darker when necessary. The Penguin’s parents toss him into the river at Christmas, and it’s even sadder because of the holiday. You may feel that Batman and Catwoman can overcome their problems and get together in the spirit of the season, but they don’t. These events become more tragic because Christmas implies a happy ending. Yet the end of the film still holds to that sensibility, as Alfred’s small bit of holiday greeting leads into hope for the future. It didn’t happen for this film series, but it’s a good thought to end on.

A Dark Christmas Ride

BATMAN RETURNS is never going to be at the level of RUDOLPH or FROSTY as holiday viewing. It’s a dark film that isn’t for kids raised on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, that doesn’t mean it fails to capture elements of the holidays. It’s a darker viewing that both skewers Christmas and uses it to elevate itself. So if you’re an adult comic fan, and you’re tired of the same old holiday specials, give this film a try, and try to have a happy season.

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