I’ve not seen Batman Returns recently enough to weigh in on this season’s round of the annual argument about whether or not it’s a Christmas movie. But if Batman fans are looking for holiday-themed adventures, I say they need look no further than “Christmas With the Joker.”
Since I’m watching Batman: The Animated Series 30 years late, I only recently saw “Christmas With the Joker” for the first time. I’d assumed this episode introduced Mark Hamill as the Joker. It’s the first episode featuring the Clown Prince of Crime on my Blu-ray set. As it turns out, this episode was the second produce but the 38th aired. Hamill’s Joker actually debuted on the air some two months earlier.
Even so, Hamill’s vocal work here is so excellent, it would have made an outstanding first appearance for him.
Eddie Gorodetsky’s script gives the Joker a treasure trove of outstanding moments. There’s the childhood playground holiday standard, “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.” There’s the Joker’s marvelously menacing introduction to his pirate TV broadcast: “the show that nobody wants to see but everyone will watch!” And there are generous helpings of maniacal laughter. What’s more, Hamill plays the Joker as not only the Joker but also as “Mr. Angry Face” and “Laffy,” puppets made from the Joker’s chin and hand, respectively.
But more than Mark Hamill’s talent that makes “Christmas With the Joker” a standout episode. As The World’s Finest website notes, the episode showcases “strong character development … in both Batman and Joker ….” The episode never mentions the murder in Crime Alley that led to Bruce Wayne adopting his Batman identity, but it puts it front and center for anyone who knows the character’s lore.
“Christmas is a Time to Share With Family”
“Rumor has it,” the Joker says as he begins his televised “special, “Christmas is a time to share with family. And since I don’t have one of my own, I decided to steal one!” After removing and replacing (strangely effective) candy cane gags from the mouths of Commissioner Gordon, Summer Gleeson, and Harvey Bullock, the Joker adds, “I’ll bet Batman wishes he had a family just like mine.”
What motivates the Joker’s incredibly elaborate schemes in this episode? Nothing, it appears, beyond a desire to wreak havoc—“to watch the world burn,” as Michael Caine’s Alfred said of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. But framing his hostages as a “family” the Joker is attacking the idea of “sharing with family” itself. Calling them the “Awful Lawful” family is a clever rhyme, but it’s also a rejection of the family as part of the foundation of law-abiding society.
Does the Joker in B:TAS know or suspect Batman is an orphan? If so, he may also think he is pouring salt on the traumatic wound in Batman’s past. For his part, at least, Batman confirms a lack of biological family as something he and the Joker have in common. When Dick tells Bruce, “Even scum spend the holidays with their families,” Bruce responds, “He [i.e., the Joker] has no family.”
But the Joker shows he has too narrow an idea of what constitutes family. Families are often related by blood or by law, but they need not always be. Families can be found and chosen—as is the “Bat-family.” (Notably, this is the first episode produced to feature Robin.)
Were the Joker not a criminal sociopath, he might realize: If our life’s circumstances haven’t given us families of our own, we can forge them for ourselves. We don’t have to “steal” them.
A Life That Has Its Moments
As you might expect “Christmas With the Joker” contains several holiday treats.
The final showdown with the Joker at the Laffco Toy Factory—the episode’s most impressively animated setting, with a colossal, creepy clown face outside and sinister, shifting shadows inside—is a joy, thanks largely to an arrangement of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite that begins as diegetic music but quickly becomes a rollicking and raucous orchestral score.
And how can anyone who’s familiar with the Joker’s origins—or, at least, with the version presented in Batman (1989)—fail to appreciate the significance of Batman saving the Joker from falling into another vat of acid? It’s a moment of mercy entirely appropriate not only to Batman’s character but also the spirit of the season.
But my favorite through line in the episode is Bruce Wayne’s discomfort with It’s a Wonderful Life, which Dick wants to watch at Wayne Manor on Christmas Eve. “You know,” he says, “I’ve never seen that. I could never get past the title.” That’s a laugh-out-loud line that also speaks volumes about Batman’s psyche.
And it pays off richly at the end. With the Joker safely back in Arkham Asylum—for the time being—Bruce and Dick settle in to watch the perennial holiday classic, thanks to the recording of it given them by Commissioner Gordon. (Ah, home media before streaming services.) Clearly expecting Bruce to agree with him, Dick quotes the film’s title: “It is a wonderful life.” With the slightest of smiles, Bruce replies, “It has its moments.”
I appreciate the fact that even though Batman has seen and experienced too much of life’s pain and sorrow and ugliness to call it “wonderful” without qualification, he can still say “it has its moments.” However you are feeling about your life, may this holiday season contain some of those moments for you—moments that can remind you that light shines in darkness, even if only sometimes faintly, but darkness can never completely overtake it (John 1.5).