In a real world full of darkness, the wicked camp of Batman Returns is a safe cocoon
Curling up with an over-the-top tale of good vs. bad has brought Sarah MacDonald comfort since childhood
Warm Blanket is a series of personal essays from Canadian writers and artists reflecting on the pop culture that has brought them comfort and coziness during one year of the pandemic.
After the attack on the Capitol in Washington, watching the former president's cabinet members resign and Republican hangers-on dodge accountability for the insurrection, I thought of a moment in Batman Returns. Near the end, when Danny DeVito's megalomaniac Penguin watches his soldier penguins strapped with explosives turn around and not blow up Gotham City, his gang of clowns fades away. He panics, aggressively grunting as we see his crew cartwheel into the shadows, avoiding liability. Then, The Penguin has a villain-sized temper tantrum before his downfall. (I have imagined Trump, too, having similarly chaotic tantrums.)
Of course, the reality of the attack was much more insidious and serious than a film from 1992, but disassociating from Trump's actions to refer to this scene was a normal way for me to cope. It wasn't the first time I've done so, and it won't be the last. The exaggerated portrayal of corruption and villainy in Batman Returns heals me more than anything positive in nature. It's not exactly escapism, but it is comforting: the good guys win and the absurd bad guys get demolished in a way that's not satisfied in real life.
I have a long history with Batman Returns. When I was four, I had a poster on my bedroom wall of Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman standing in front of a lit "hell(o) (t)here" sign. I carried a magazine of behind-the-scenes images and stories that became ratty and torn because I took it everywhere. It was a security blanket.
I had plenty of reasons to search for escape. I grew up with an abusive father — something I'm still untangling — and putting on Batman Returns on days when his anger loomed overhead felt safe. Because I had a difficult childhood with very real awfulness living in my home, watching this inflated dramatization of good versus bad always made me feel better. It's something that I still find warmth in to this day when the world seems to dim and grow cold.
I'll never understand why my mother let me watch Batman Returns over and over when I was so young, but I thank her now, very publicly, in this essay, because it gave me a way to lean out of the real-time violence and aggression I lived in with my father. It also gave me Catwoman.
I could dedicate thousands of words to Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle, a stinging portrayal of a young woman so familiarly used and let down in a world of gruesome men. Over the years, I've found myself metabolizing Pfeiffer's scenes differently. The Pepto-Bismol pink apartment she lives in, a grim symbol of femininity and supposed goodness; her screaming in a greenhouse full of red roses after the Penguin tries to kill her, glass collapsing overhead. Recently, I was drawn to the scene when she whips security guards in a department store, telling them they are overpaid and to hit the road. It's soothing, hilarious, and darkly close. Catwoman isn't a feminist; she's not even a perfect representation of feminine justice toward men (that's not her point). Instead, she's rage personified. She is the id: primal, instinctual, reactionary. However you do or don't relate to Catwoman, this universal truth remains: Pfeiffer as Catwoman, holding a young woman's face after saving her from an attack, saying, "Always waiting for some Batman to save you," can change your life.
Batman Returns has provided me this safe cocoon, even in its grandiose violence and noir — at times very campy — storytelling. For all that might negate its captivating charm (a man living in the sewers with dozens of penguins and a giant motorized duck? Really?), it is still perfect. The themes at the heart of the film are very real: violence against women, cronyism, authoritarianism. This winter, like most winters, and any other time in a calendar year when I need a boost, I put on Batman Returns. I see all the ways The Penguin is a hyperbolic mirror image of any of our current political figures and I feel better watching him get served an extraordinary and dramatic kind of justice. It's soothing to see, knowing so many real-life villains never face accountability.
For over 25 years, I've dimmed the lights, curled up under a thick, soft blanket, even in the dead heat of summer, and braced for the familiarity of Danny Elfman's iconic soundtrack — and then I'm gone, spellbound by a wintry Gotham City.
Read all 12 essays from the Warm Blanket series here.