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Blast from the Past: Batman Returns 

When? 1992

What's it rated? PG-13

Where's it available? DVD, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play

click to enlarge GO BATTY Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) form a deadly alliance in Tim Burton's Batman Returns. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.
  • Photo Courtesy Of Warner Bros.
  • GO BATTY Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) form a deadly alliance in Tim Burton's Batman Returns.

It's hard to pin down what makes Batman Returns my all-time favorite Christmas movie (sorry Die Hard), other than the fact that it's the only live-action Batman film set during the holiday season. Yes, there is snow in The Dark Knight Rises, but the time of year is ambiguous. Am I even justified in labeling Returns as a Christmas movie? Is a Christmas setting all it takes? That leaves room for other outliers to sneak their way into the genre, like Eyes Wide Shut, Prometheus, and Rocky IV.

In Returns' defense though, it does open with a nativity scene of sorts. The opening sequence could be considered a dark mirror of Christ's birth. Fade in: A baby boy is born in the master bedroom of a Gotham City mansion, quite opposite to the humble surroundings that housed Christ's manger. We never see the boy up close, only glimpses of his flipper-shaped hands.

Oh, I forgot to mention: This baby is in a cage at the center of the living room, in between the fireplace and the Christmas tree. Why is this happening? We don't know for sure, but the next shot implies that the flipper baby somehow pulled the family cat into the cage and viciously murdered it. The boy's parents proceed to take the baby to a bridge where they purposefully throw the carriage into the river under them. This is all within the first three minutes of the film. And no matter how dark it sounds so far, keep in mind that there were Happy Meal toys based on it.

The carriage ends up in the sewer, which leads to an abandoned zoo where the baby is found by a renegade colony of penguins. They raise him as their own. The child of course grows up to be the villainous Penguin (Danny DeVito), who blames the human race as a whole for rejecting him and vows revenge. His plan to achieve this goal changes on a whim, however, from seizing control of Gotham by legitimately running for mayor, to killing all of the city's firstborn children.

"I was their firstborn son, and they treated me like number two!" the Penguin says of his parents at one point. Get it? Because he ended up in the sewer. Number two.

The only thing standing in the Penguin's way is the brooding, mysterious Batman (Michael Keaton), of course. Three quarters of the way into my column and I'm only now mentioning the titular character. In my defense though, both Bruce Wayne and Batman have less screen time than the villains combined, who also include Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and corrupt business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).

Batman might get overshadowed by the bad guys during this outing, but it's the world these characters inhabit that makes Batman Returns' structural shortcomings easy to forgive. Call it style over substance, but Tim Burton's gloomy, macabre Gotham City is never boring to look at. The flawless production design, combined with a score by Danny Elfman at the height of his career make this film a treasure to behold and one I revisit every holiday season. (126 min.) Δ

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