There are classic Christmas movies like "It's a Wonderful Life," or "The Muppet Christmas Carol." Then there are weirder, darker movies that involve Christmas tangentially — "Die Hard" being one classic example.
Then there's "Batman Returns" — a Christmas movie, sort of. Wreaths, Christmas trees and gifts appear throughout the film. But in its lead villain, there's a strange and potentially anti-semitic allegory.
Released in 1992, Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" was a sequel to the 1989 "Batman." It is not a great Batman movie, but fans of Tim Burton can at least take comfort in knowing he does everything he can to remind you you're watching a Tim Burton movie. Everyone — even the extras — wears funhouse-goth costumes while the camera glides quickly over cityscapes, parks and cemeteries with Danny Elfman's score in the background.
Michael Keaton reprises his role as Batman and faces Danny DeVito as the Penguin. The Penguin is the classic villain from the comics and TV show, but now he's more grotesque — he's introduced to the film as a deformed and vile mutant baby. His crib cage sits in front of a giant flocked Christmas tree in the first scene.
He's soon abandoned by his wealthy parents — who send him in a basket down a narrow river in a Gotham zoo like Moses down the Nile. This won't be the only time "Batman Returns" refers to Moses.
Flash forward a few decades and the Penguin has grown into an evil, sewer-bred freak with an unsettling resemblance to the caricatures of Jewish businessmen you'd see in Nazi propaganda. He's short and fat. He has a giant hooked nose and wears a top hat and fur coat. For the good people of Gotham he has nothing but contempt.
His first act of mayhem is at a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Gotham. This is the first of two tree-lightings the Penguin ruins. Literally, he has declared a war on Christmas.
The Penguin finds an ally in Max Shreck, the scheming businessman played by Christopher Walken and the Aaron to the Penguin's warped Moses. Together, the two conspire to take over Gotham with a charm offensive: the Penguin runs for mayor, engineers publicity stunts with Shreck, gives emotional press conferences, challenges the sitting mayor and even rescues a baby.
But the plan backfires. Batman releases a tape where the Penguin shows his true colors:
In a rage — and this might be the weirdest part — the Penguin retreats back to the sewers and orders his army to kidnap and murder the first born son of every Gothamite. Why? It's a little hard to understand:
This didn't go unnoticed back in 1992. Two Columbia University seniors wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling the movie out. They didn't pull any punches. They wrote:
Batman's new adversary, the Penguin, played by Danny DeVito in "Batman Returns," is not just a deformed man, half human, half-Arctic-beast. He is a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face, and lust for herring.
The charges piled up: Danny Elfman composed a score with transparent homages to Richard Wager, the anti-semitic German composer; the name of Christopher Walken's villainous businessman character — Max Shreck — sounded Jewish. The article is no longer on the New York Times website, but appears here in an archived version from the Gainesville Sun.
So is "Batman Returns" anti-semitic? Abraham Foxman and Melvin Salberg — both prominent members of the Anti-Defamation League — wrote a letter objecting to the op-ed, arguing:
We must not squander the precious currency of concern, as well as our limited resources, on nonsense like the authors' convoluted misperceptions of biblical imagery or Wagnerian chords in the film score.
The Times also published a response from Wesley Strick. It was Strick — the only Jewish person among the film's directors, producers and writers — who added the Penguin's campaign against Gotham's first born.
"I remember, I went to Ralphs to pick up some groceries," Strick said. "And while in the Ralphs parking lot, I actually, I was walking my cart to the car and I thought of Exodus. Just 'cause of, it was already, it seemed to me, kind of hidden in the script, or suggested. In that first image of the baby Penguin floating down the river."
Strick also said he was mortified when that column came out — what would his family think?
"My father was one of those people who read the New York Times from cover to cover every morning," he said. "So I knew he would read this op-ed. I worried that he would believe these charges. So I was afraid that he would put two and two together that I had fallen into this trap of leaving my Jewish roots behind and writing anti-semitic pop movies. So I really felt like I had to defend myself in print, and preferably in the New York Times."
He argued the authors read too much into the movie. He added that if you pronounce "Batman" right, the Dark Knight's name sounds just as Jewish as "Shreck."
It's very likely all the symbols and allegory in "Batman Returns," and the resulting dust-up came together in a perfect storm of bad coincidences. The film did not get made easily — both Keaton and Burton were reluctant to return to the subject and the script underwent several rewrites. Characters were added in, taken out.
Strick agreed, adding he hadn't seen what DeVito's Penguin would look like until after the script was finalized.
"Batman Returns" would be Burton's last time directing Bruce Wayne and company. The franchise lingered for two more films until Christopher Nolan's reboot of the series in 2005. The Joker returned, Catwoman returned, but the Penguin was never resurrected.