clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The best Christmas rom-com is actually Batman Returns

Tim Burton’s superhero classic is Christmas rom-com you don’t realize is a Christmas movie or a rom-com.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman crouched face to face on top of Michael Keaton as Batman, who is flat on his back on the floor.
Batman and Catwoman want you both to know that eating mistletoe is a poison risk.
Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

While the winner of Best Christmas Movie is up for debate, the undisputed best Christmas movie genre isn’t: It’s Christmas romantic comedies. And in this exceptional genre — which includes the likes of The Holiday, Little Women, Love Actually, and Moonstruck — there is no better Christmas rom-com than Batman Returns.

You might not think “Christmas” or “rom-com” when you hear Batman Returns, but that’s what makes it so fun. It tops this list of fantastic movies because it feels as though it’s getting away with something — you’re getting a holiday romance smuggled into a Batman movie.

Stylistically, Tim Burton’s 1992 movie is unmatched. The set pieces — giant evergreens, rollicking fires, cartoonish amounts of ice and snow — and costumes evoke a surreal, maximalist take on the holiday’s mash of inviting warmth and bitter cold. Also, somehow, mistletoe is a central figure in the film. Chekov’s mistletoe!

Batman Returns goes out of its way to establish rom-com lore, like the idea that no one should be alone at Christmas, especially Batman. Think Christmas time can be hard for single people? Think about poor, rich Bruce Wayne! He’s an orphan! He’s so alone!

It also plays with the idea that there’s no better time to tell the truth than at Christmas. Movies always tell us that Christmas is the time we let our masks fall and our guards down. In Batman’s case, this means it’s the perfect time to admit that you love, or, at the very least, are a little horny for, one of your enemies — who also might be your soulmate (yes, this applies to many Batman villains).

In Gotham City, the Christmas spirit might be the only thing more powerful than Batman himself.

Batman Returns is a Christmas movie, the best Christmas movie

The thing about Batman movies is that they’re Batman movies. Things like setting and supporting characters tend to melt away or bleed into one another because Batman, in all his mythos and popularity, can’t help but eclipse them. Gotham is always dark and rainy. Batman is always brooding, with that hefty origin story about his parents’ murders never far from mind. Without Googling, I couldn’t tell you in what time of year the most recent iteration, Matt Reeves’s The Batman, takes place. But I could tell you that Robert Pattinson is very good, and his Batman is extremely sad.

That’s not the case with Returns.

Danny DeVito as Penguin in Batman Returns. He is surrounded by penguins, wading out of a penguin pool and carrying a bucket.
Penguin’s antics, including actual penguins, wouldn’t fly in summertime.
Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Burton loves a loopy, unconventional Christmas, as he shows in Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas. And the director plunges Gotham into that outré Christmastime spirit. The city is freezing, but smoke billows up from the street and snow’s almost always falling. There’s an enormous fire in the Cobblepot mansion, one of the first shots of the movie. Blazing logs crackle in their massive fireplace. The only thing bigger than the yawning inferno is the Cobblepots’ gorgeous Christmas tree. It’s lit in warm gold, draped in monochromatic, uniform ornaments — the kind of tree that extremely rich people who loathe multi-colored lights and tacky handmade things have.

Burton’s focus on the Cobblepots’ luxury is deliberate because, despite this enormous wealth, they aren’t the best people. Mrs. Cobblepot has given birth to a baby boy, what should be a joyous occasion. But there’s an unseen horror about the newborn that causes his doctor and nurses to scream in terror. Whether it’s for their own safety or because they don’t want to look at him, they keep the child in a boxed cage, although that doesn’t stop him from eating the family cat. Fed up one night, Mr. and Mrs. Cobblepot abandon their son, dumping him over one of Gotham’s bridges, an act that’s somehow more sinister in winter, when this city, famous for its inhospitality, is crueler and chillier than usual.

It’s a yuletide miracle that baby Cobblepot a.k.a the Penguin (Danny DeVito), survives the frigid dumping and emerges at Christmastime 33 years later (the number 33 can’t be a coincidence). It makes symmetrical sense that the Penguin would wreak his havoc during winter. His goons pop out of giant presents! Some of his henchmen are literal, very cute penguins! His antics wouldn’t work during summertime. Does Gotham even have a summer?

Penguin’s dastardly deeds center on Gotham’s holiday events like its annual tree lighting, the crowning of the city’s Ice Princess, and Gotham’s masquerade ball. Gotham becomes a different place during Christmas, and like so many cultures, it has its own Christmas traditions.

Returns’s holiday setting also drives home some of Batman’s most pronounced personality points. Batman a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is already a solitary figure. Loneliness and brooding is his entire deal. He’s isolated by his family dying, but also because he needs to operate in secrecy to protect his city. Christmas, when everyone is together (even the Cobblepots abandon their cat-eating baby as a family), makes his cold remove from anyone who isn’t his loyal butler Alfred even clearer.

More than any other Batman movie, Returns gives you the feeling it’d be nice if, for once, Batman/Bruce Wayne weren’t so alone. Especially on Christmas.

Batman Returns is a rom-com, anchored by Michelle Pfeiffer

There is no Batman Returns without the performance of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman a.k.a. Selina Kyle. Sexy, campy, lethal, and vulnerable, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the one all modern Catwomen are judged against. What makes Pfeiffer’s performance so effective is that she’s as good at playing bad as she is playing the character as a charming, sweet, rom-com lead.

At the beginning of the movie, Selina is Max Shreck’s (Christopher Walken) overlooked secretary. She’s pouring coffee for some corporate jerks, awkward and smarter than she appears. Selina knows this too, beating herself up and calling herself a “corn dog” for trying to speak up during one of Shreck’s meetings.

Later, she’s caught up in one of Penguin’s attacks on the city and meets Batman for the first time. He saves her life, which, because it’s her life, she takes to be very important. But it’s no big deal for the Caped Crusader, just one of the many people he’ll help that night. Pfeiffer plays it like a meet cute, frazzled and tingly. She carries the entire scene, trying to charm the hero by asking him if he prefers to be called “Batman” or “The Batman.”

He doesn’t reply because Batman is Batman. She bumbles because she’s Selina Kyle. He runs off, nonplussed. She’s charmed. “Well, that was brief. Just like all the men in my life,” Selina tells herself, exasperated, and picks up a taser. “What men?”

Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman dancing close with Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman.
KISS! YOU LOVE EACH OTHER!
Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Like any good rom-com heroine, Pfeiffer’s Selina gets a makeover. Unlike good rom-com heroines, this one requires her death. Shreck pushes her out of a skyscraper and leaves her for dead, a snow angel made of snapped bones. He doesn’t stick around to see a herd of cats gather and bestow some kind of feline magic upon her corpse. Selina’s brought back to life, but not quite the same. She destroys all remnants of the woman she was. She trashes her apartment, cramming stuffed animals into the garbage disposal and taking a cast iron pan and black spray paint to the walls and frames of her cozy apartment.

As Catwoman, Selina gains an electric, crackling confidence. At the brink of death, she jolts to life. She whips some loser cops while yelling at them that they’re overpaid. She enters scenes via back handspring. She slithers, licks Batman’s face, and blows up a Shreck department store. No longer is this woman a corn dog, if she ever really was. Even if she was a corn dog, the woman she is now would never call herself one.

Like Batman and Bruce Wayne, the line between Catwoman and Selina thins as the movie goes on. That’s a bad thing, Batman tells us and her, because Catwoman is so bent on payback. She’s so charged up with vengeance that she doesn’t see how it consumes her. Yet, Batman, Bruce, and the audience watching at home can’t help but be attracted to both Catwoman and Selina. Returns’s gimmick is that we know who these people are underneath their masks but they don’t, and so they play this game of wait and see, hide and seek, of refusing to show the other who they really are even though they just want to tell the truth.

How much of Batman being attracted to Catwoman is because she’s a mystery that he, the city’s greatest detective, can’t figure out? Is Catwoman attracted to Batman or to the lure of finding out his identity? Are they really the same person, split down the middle?

Selina and Bruce find out about their secret identities because they both take turns saying a corny line: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it, but a kiss can be deadlier if you mean it.” It’s a testament to Keaton and Pfeiffer that this poison control fact comes out so sexy. They say it once during a fight between Catwoman and Batman, and again, to each other, as Selina and Bruce, masks off, during the masquerade ball. If not for pesky mistletoe, their secrets would still be safe.

The devil works hard, but apparently, Christmas magic works harder.

While all these holiday hijinks lead to the inevitable will they or won’t they, the yuletide spirit isn’t strong enough to give us a traditional merry ending. Had this been any other Christmas rom-com, we’d get our happily ever after. Returns give us the closest thing to happy Batman can get: justice. Christmas, while romantic, is sometimes also a little bit about making sure bad people know they’ve been bad.

Selina rejects Bruce’s offer of companionship and a normal life in that big Wayne mansion. They won’t be kissing under a mistletoe, opening presents, or cuddling next to one of Tim Burton’s gigantic fires because Selina’s too obsessed with killing Shreck. Shreck, an asshole of exponential proportion, does deserve it, and someone needs to take him out because Bruce has gone soft. Selina gets her Christmas wish, and Bruce goes home alone. They’re both lonely again but maybe next year, next holiday season, things could be a little better.

Batman Returns is streaming on Max.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.