12 Days of X-Mas: Batman Returns
In 1992, Warner Brothers released Tim Burton’s blockbuster follow-up to 1989’s Batman, titled Batman Returns. Rather than a direct attempt to rehash his successful first effort, Burton took similar themes he had based his Bruce Wayne around (played by Michael Keaton) and baked them into his enemies for this arguably superior sequel.
The winter holiday season, for many who celebrate them, brings with it specific expectations and harkens to certain feelings. We find an almost instinctual need for togetherness, belonging, and acceptance amid the winter’s cold weather and long, dark nights. This vulnerability drives us in pursuit of warm refuge and welcoming acceptance. Not everyone finds it, and not everyone who does can hold onto it. The pang of need we feel to belong, to be needed and loved by those we need and whom we love can drive us to desperation. And in our desperation, we can make choices that hurt us or those around us.
The basics of Bruce Wayne are in Batman Returns as they always were—an orphan with a 1% lifestyle, seeking to make sense of his largely unjust world through contained but bombastic uses of violence.
But everyone needs to be loved and accepted. Few things make people, even Bruce Wayne, feel that need more so than the Christmas season. Burton knew this, and structured his film to demonstrate it for us. Most of Bruce Wayne’s or Batman’s scenes show him entering rooms or going about his life in isolation—the first time we even see Keaton in the film, he’s spotlighted in a darkened study within Wayne Manor. As he makes his way through a costume ball looking for Selina, he’s conspicuously the only unmasked person at the party until he finds her. Wayne and Kyle both find in each other someone who understands them, though neither may properly be able to express it.
The need for family and acceptance are most tragically found, though, in Danny DeVito’s turn as The Penguin. Born into the same 1% as Wayne, but cast out by his parents at an impossibly young age, The Penguin (Oswald Cobblepot) yearns for the life he could and should have had. They literally cast him out—throwing his bassinet into the river near Old Gotham Zoo, after his deformities and conduct repulse them. Most sympathetically, Oswald just desires to be accepted among the citizens of Gotham. But his own baser instincts and inadvisable alliances drive Gotham away.
Seeking polite society’s acceptance is what ultimately undoes the goodwill Burton’s characters work hard to build up. Burton singularly has an affinity for the outcasts, the freaks and the spurned in the world. Every conflict in Batman Returns spurs from a loss of that security.
With The Penguin, it’s he and Max Shreck’s mayoral recall and image campaign that first builds up Cobblepot beyond even his own aspirations. His eventual fall feels even lower than he thought himself, when a sound bite turns the city against him. Gotham’s hard-earned acceptance turning to cruel rejection leave The Penguin feeling hopeless, again cast out into the harsh cold of winter.
Without love, without Shreck’s false friendship, and with no further to fall, Penguin’s desperation to feel secure turns violently outward: he decides to go biblical. Old Testament, to be specific— blitzing every family in Gotham, killing their children with an army of rocket-armed penguins from the Old Gotham Zoo. Cobblepot aims to cause the same fear, pain and anguish he wishes his own parents had when they coldly sent him floating like baby Moses down the river.
Catwoman and Batman’s misguided attempts for acceptance also cause conflict. Catwoman forges an uneasy alliance with Penguin to strike back at the Caped Crusader after he rejects her as a criminal. When Oswald mistakes this partnership for romance, Catwoman rebuffs his advances. He tries to kill her, basically complaining about “the friend zone.” Chalk it up the ‘90s.
Selena, blaming Shreck for Penguin’s rise to prominence, decides to murder him-- again a character turning pain outward.
Bruce tries to dissuade her from killing Max Shreck, twice, with both Kyle and Wayne recognizing the comfort they each find in the other cannot bring the acceptance they each seek. In her resigned final act in the film, Selina turns away from the solace the holiday season brings us to seek, even as Batman offers it to her explicitly.
Bruce makes himself the most vulnerable the character has ever been, here, in a desperate grasp to bring Selina back from the threshold he knows she can’t return from. He offers her shelter, safety, and love. He pleads, knowing that with her so goes his own hope for complete acceptance. But Catwoman’s want for vengeance on Shreck overpowers her desire for such love, because her outwardly-turned pain leads her to believe she wouldn’t be worthy of it.
This irony is at the heart of a great lot of Burton’s characters—though imperfect or scarred, they all seek a solace and acceptance that, upon finding it, weigh the costs of finally achieving to be too much. That tragedy hits strongest during a season of the year when we almost preternaturally seek out such warm refuge. Burton clearly holds a special place in his heart for those who cannot bring themselves to find it, even among each other, even at Christmas.