You can tell Peyton Reed is a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer from the moment Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania starts. The actress appears in the opening sequence, demonstrating more vitality and giving a more believable performance in front of what is obviously a green screen than most Marvel actors half her age. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who Marvel recruits because of the gravitas they lend to their otherwise simplistic efforts, yet are given virtually nothing to do, Pfeiffer plays a large role in the movie. In fact, she might be the Wasp in the title, with Evangeline Lilly giving what is basically a supporting, underdeveloped, and nearly mute performance — seriously, if she speaks five lines in the movie, it’s too much.
Pfeiffer is magnetic on-screen, elevating everything she’s in. If a film is too excessive, like Grease 2, she grounds it; if it’s too caustic, like French Exit, she modulates it; and if it’s too ridiculous, like Quantumania, she dignifies it. No matter who her co-stars are or how thankless her role is, no one else stands a chance when Pfeiffer is around. Nowhere is this unique, scene-stealing quality more obvious than in Tim Burton’s 1992 superhero dark fantasy Batman Returns, a film that challenged the superhero genre and cemented Pfeiffer as a timeless cinematic icon. It’s a timeless role, one that the actress can and should still play, in a genre still in need of female-centric movies.
In 1992, Michelle Pfeiffer was already one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actresses. A two-time Oscar nominee robbed of a 1990 victory, Pfeiffer was famous worldwide for her talent and excessive beauty. But Batman Returns was a major shift; the film was a turning point in her career, taking her from movie star to icon status. Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle, a meek secretary who gets killed by her greedy boss, a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken. Revived and given nine lives by a bunch of stray cats, Selina returns transformed into a femme fatale donning skin-tight latex and a whip, ready to claim revenge against the man who wronged her.
Although ostensibly a film about Batman, Batman Returns is more concerned with the freaks that terrorize Gotham instead of the Dark Knight who protects it. Michael Keaton is still the best live-action Batman we’ve had, but the film isn’t about him. Instead, it’s about Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, a beauty and the beast pairing right up Burton’s alley. Batman Returns is a dark fantasy exploration of sexual liberation, identity, and belonging, anchored in Pfeiffer’s deliciously chaotic and DeVito’s grotesquely compelling performances.
Yet, it’s Pfeiffer who walks away with the film. The superhero genre is often associated with underdeveloped and flat characters who fly and shoot laser beams; in the eyes of many, it’s no style and no substance, only bright lights and men in tights. Burton’s film challenges those notions, offering a bleak, horny, and melancholic version that still very much embraces its source material’s strange over-the-top quality. At the center is Pfeiffer, giving an unhinged performance that stands among the comic book genre’s best.
Catwoman has had many lives, but Pfeiffer portrays the character’s best version. Sexual, sensual, lawless, and hypnotic, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is an ode to the 1990s zeitgeist. She’s selfish and reckless, caring little about anything else than revenge, self-preservation be damned. In Pfeiffer’s hands, Catwoman is a rebel, a feminist rampaging and showing just how dangerous a pissed-off woman can be.
To say Pfeiffer was Oscar-worthy is an understatement. Her transformation scene, accompanied by Danny Elfman’s thunderous score, is among the most iconic moments in superhero cinema. It’s camp brilliance, a tour-de-force performance that stays with you for good. You could ask a thousand actresses to pull this scene off, and a thousand would fail. There’s a method to Selina’s madness, and Pfeiffer nails it while making it seem effortless.
Batman Returns received mixed reviews. Critics found it too dark and too ghoulish, while kids felt it wasn’t a movie for them — you’re right about that, 10-year-old movie critic Danny Slaski. DeVito was infamously nominated for the Razzie, and the film underperformed at the box office, leading to the Batman franchise’s reinvention under Joel Schumacher’s neon-lit, nipple-suit vision. However, even in 1992, critics couldn’t help but be enthralled by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Entertainment Weekly called her “a sexy, comic triumph,” while the Chicago Tribune said she gave “the film’s most passionate and memorable performance.” Every critic admitted that Pfeiffer was the undisputed star despite the film’s flaws. And such a star deserved a film of her own, right?
Rumors of a Catwoman solo film starring Pfeiffer went around Hollywood for years. Pfeiffer herself expressed interest numerous times, with Burton signing on to direct and Pfeiffer then staying with the project even after his departure from the main Batman series. Batman Returns writer Daniel Waters penned a screenplay that saw Pfeiffer’s Selina traveling to “Oasisburg,” a Las Vegas-like vacation spot for superheroes, where she challenges the male superheroes after discovering their dirty side hustles.
The film sounds, for the lack of a better word, nuts. Waters let his freak flag fly with it, and it shows. Per his own words, the Catwoman film he wanted to make wasn’t the one Burton wanted to make. Their visions clashed as the ’90s continued, with Pfeiffer and Burton eventually moving on to other projects and losing interest in the Catwoman adventure.
The project lingered in development hell, changing hands, writers, and directors. The studio even considered recasting the role, with Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman becoming attached to the film at one point or another. The project finally came to fruition in 2004, with Oscar-winner Halle Berry playing the iconic character. Alas, the less said about 2004’s Catwoman, the better.
In Hollywood, nothing stays dead. Michael Keaton is back as Batman for the upcoming The Flash. Hugh Jackman is back as Wolverine for Deadpool 3. Patrick Stewart will never stop being Professor X. Thus, it’s about damn time Michelle Pfeiffer returns as Catwoman.
Let’s be real here. Try as they might, no actress has ever topped Pfeiffer in the role. Not Halle Berry in Catwoman and not Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises. Zoë Kravitz came close in The Batman, but she was still no match. Pfeiffer’s performance is engraved into the pop culture’s subconscious, an idol against which we measure not only every other Catwoman, but every female villain (character) in comic book movies. Pfeiffer is the definition of iconic, and we must stop denying it.
We live in the age of nostalgia. As things get bleaker every day, the past becomes shinier and more inviting. There’s no better time for Michelle Pfeiffer to return as Catwoman than now. Even now, 40 years into her career, the actress is at the top of her game. Whether she’s single-handedly carrying television train wrecks like The First Lady, stealing focus in small supporting roles like in mother! or delivering career-best work in films like French Exit, Pfeiffer is still at the height of her acting abilities.
More importantly, she’s due for a high-profile comeback as a box office draw and an awards darling. She needs her Tár; how cool would it be that it was a Catwoman movie? Pfeiffer objectively deserved a Best Actress nomination for Batman Returns — I don’t think anyone doubts that more than 30 year later. Given enough room to explore Selina Kyle’s layers, Pfeiffer can deliver the performance to end all other comic book performances.
So what are we waiting for? Why aren’t we, as a society, making it happen? DC is a mess right now — sorry, James Gunn, but it is. However, even the most hardcore haters would let bygones be bygones if Michelle Pfeiffer returned to the role of Catwoman to break some stuff, hurt some men, kick some ass, and crack that whip. And how cool would it be for the 64-year-old Pfeiffer to get the chance to lead a superhero movie where she got to be confident, sexy, and free to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting masses? If the 71-year-old Michael Keaton can be Batman, surely we can let Pfeiffer be Catwoman.
Catwoman is a timeless character, yet she still plays second fiddle to Batman in live-action and animation. What better way to bring her into the spotlight than with the actress who immortalized the role on the silver screen? Pfeiffer and Catwoman deserve their time in the sun. And Catwoman still has one life left — she saved it for the next Christmas. Well, it’s been 30 years since then. Enough hibernating, Selina. It’s time to hear you roar again.
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