Long before there was the MCU vs. the DCEU, superhero movies were so fitfully made you wouldn’t dare call them a genre at all. A Superman here (1978), a Batman there (1989) — Spider-Man wouldn’t come until the next century had dawned. But into this dearth of superpowered spectacle came a film so singular that it’s not only my favorite superhero movie, not only my favorite Batman movie, but also my all-time favorite holiday movie. Of course, I speak of the cinematic wonder that was 1992’s Batman Returns.
Hot off the success of Batman, director Tim Burton and his leading man Michael Keaton reteamed for a sequel that made Gotham more gothic, made Batman more likely to kill rampaging clowns in the street, and made the sexiest Christmas movie ever to light up the silver screen.
It all began with a story of bat meets girl.
Sullen but smoldering billionaire bachelor Bruce Wayne (Keaton) is smarting off the (predictable) end of his romance with photojournalist Vicki Vale. Frazzled but determined secretary — pardon me — executive assistant Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is fresh off being tossed off a skyscraper by her merciless industrialist boss (Christopher Walken). Their meet-cute arrives in an uncomfortable office encounter, which involves some blatant lies, a tale of a day without panties, and a none-too-subtle clue that Selena is not to be toyed with. Still, sparks fly as snow falls outside.
His stare, which was cold moments before as he discussed business and corruption, is now alight in awe of this smirking smoke show before him. Unbeknownst to her, they’d met before her post-brush-with-death glow-up. But Bruce was unrecognizable in the batsuit. Besides, she’s a new (cat)woman now. When she dons a skintight super-suit of her own, things only get hotter.
Catwoman and her kinky, sexy, cool costume are timelessly alluring.
Selina’s makeover scene as she transforms into her supervillainess persona Catwoman is iconic for its ferocious fashioning of her Frankenstein-stitched suit and her demolition of the pretty pink accoutrement in her cramped, girly apartment. When she ascends reborn — high-heeled, red-lipped, and ready to tear to shreds any fool who crosses her — she is a vision of female rage and an intoxicating power fantasy, all wrapped up in a glossy black bodice.
For a baby bi like me, it was impossible to know what a formative moment it would be as I watched Catwoman in all her DIY-catsuit glory battling with Batman on a rooftop. They were hurling themselves into hand-to-hand combat, but beneath it all burned a need to pull closer to each other. Behind the masks, they saw a twin flame, burning hot and ardent. All these years later, that heat still sizzles. (And I’m still not sure who I want to be, or be with, as I watch.)
Burton’s later films (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) would be criticized for their fumbling approach to sexuality. Yet Batman Returns oozes with lust. Both Penguin and Batman yearn for Catwoman’s touch, even if it means being clawed. (Perhaps especially then!) For her part, Pfeiffer leaned into the sex kitten allure, lounging across beds in that leather-fetish suit, giving herself a bath with a long pink tongue, and snarling that blood-red lip in such a way that she and her whip launched countless crushes.
Sure, the closest thing we get to a sex scene in Batman Returns is a couch make-out abruptly foiled by the Penguin’s evil plot (and Bruce and Selena scrambling to hide battle scars). But that’s fine because this is just the beginning. The sexiest scene comes later, when the pair are fully slicked in leather and saliva.
Batman Returns made mistletoe a foreplay prop.
Once Catwoman and the Penguin have successfully sabotaged the tree-lighting ceremony, the vixen and her dark knight in rubbery armor reconnect on a rooftop once more. Fallen hard, he’s flat on his back when she straddles him. Her theme song stings like a sultry threat. It’s a moment where he is helpless, easy prey. And yet, he notices that above them hangs some festive mistletoe.
“Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it,” Batman says, his voice deep and stirring. It doesn’t feel like he’s trying to distract her. It feels like a Christmas wish he can’t bring himself to speak directly.
With a purr, Catwoman responds, “Mmmm. But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”
Then, slowly, she descends on him, not kissing his lips, but running that long tongue across them, from his dimpled chin up to the nose of his dark cowl. In response, he licks his lips, as if he cannot wait to get a taste of her.
What Christmas movie compares with this level of lust? Christmas in Connecticut? Love Actually? The Holiday? Nope. And Netflix or Lifetime — try as they might — couldn’t come close. Holiday romance is often cute and sweet, but too rarely sexy as hell.
This rooftop licking is a scene so sexual it’s shocking now because superhero movies have become ridiculously squeaky clean. (DC’s most provocative shows won’t allow Batman to get down.) But even then this movie — which was meant in part to sell merchandise to kids — was considered astounding in its sensuality. Of course, it needed to be.
Let’s bring sex back into the superhero genre.
Amid its so muchness of three villains, four storylines, a horde of missile-strapped penguins, a carload of killer clowns, a deceitful powerplant, a festooning of holiday decorations, and a justice-craving vigilante — and her new, brooding boy toy — Batman Returns‘ center was a love story between two deeply passionate but wounded souls.
With a PG-13 rating, the movie couldn’t show Bruce and Selina ripping the clothes off each other. But Burton was so savvy we didn’t need to see skin to feel the full swoon of this “it’s complicated” relationship. Their chemistry crackles like a yule log.
Of course, that rooftop wasn’t the end of their story. There would come a dance floor confession with more smoldering, smiles, and a heart-wrenching realization. When they remove their masks and see each other, that yearning radiates from the screen, not only warming our cold hearts but also making our skin slick with sweat as our breath catches.
A final showdown would follow, complete with a plea to run away together. Sparks will fly once more, but not in the way we might wish. Then — thanks to a stirring final shot that still makes my heart soar — there’s still the hope to see what might come next for these chaotic lovers.
With James Gunn heading a DCEU reshuffle, who’s to say if Pfeiffer and Keaton might ever reunite to give a final chapter to this burning winter romance? But come what may, we’ll always have Christmas in Gotham.