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The nine lives of Catwoman

Who is Catwoman? Is she comic book’s ultimate femme fatale, a Barbara Stanwyck-type clad in tight latex and always on the run? Is she a misunderstood antihero, a criminal by circumstance more than by choice? Is she the unobtainable romantic interest, sneaking through alleyways and rooftops, destined to always run faster, jump higher, away from men’s reach? The answer is as elusive as the character herself; how could it not be, after 82 years of history in a genre characterized by its ever-changing sensibilities?

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane to appeal to female readers and provide Batman with a clear love interest, The Cat, as Selina was first known, represented Kane’s skewed views on the female sex. To the writer, women were treacherous, distant, inviting puzzles meant to trick and torture. Kane made no effort to hide his dubious biases against the opposite sex, declaring in his 1989 autobiography that “We don’t want anyone taking over our souls, and women have a habit of doing that.”

Catwoman’s nine lives (and counting)

9 different versions of Catwoman pose in a DC comic book.

In Catwoman, Kane created his ultimate vessel of treachery: A woman that was enticing, beautiful, elusive, and dangerous. Her characterization stood in stark contrast to Batman’s other villains; whereas Joker was deranged, terrifying, and unstoppable, Catwoman was seductive, inviting, irresistible. Her villainy wasn’t apparent, and that made her much worse: She was a trickster, a liar, a master of seduction and disguise whose influence was strong enough to make the Dark Knight betray his moral code and overlook her transgressions.

Catwoman has led many lives throughout her existence, becoming whatever she needs to keep up with the times. She was a femme fatale in the age of film noir, a misunderstood criminal in the age of amoral heroes, and a feminist role model in the age of female liberation. Catwoman has always had a way of embodying whatever ideas of womanhood prevail at any given time.

A femme fatale for the post-war age

Catwoman sneers at batman in a Golden Age Batman comic book.

During the Golden Age of comics, Catwoman stayed true to Kane’s initial characterization. She could be vulnerable around Batman in one panel, then become aggressive and distant the next. Tensions with the developing Comics Code Authority of the mid-50s stunted her growth, but Selina proved her resistance by enduring. Her storylines revolved around her duality and the metaphorical chess game she and Batman often played when confronting each other.

Like many of the Bat’s biggest enemies, her backstory was fluid. Catwoman was everything from an amnesiac flight attendant to a cheating criminal mastermind. Nothing was black and white with her; she inhabited the purest grey. Still, there was only so much territory to cover with a chaotic characterization that remained simplistic. Fortunately, Catwoman’s fate would change thanks to the intervention of three women who redefined the character for years to come.

Catwoman as camp

Split image of Lee Meriwether, Julie Newmar, & Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the Batman TV show in the 1960s.

The 1960s Batman series was camp escapism at its purest. Excessive, ridiculous, and impossible to resist, the show embodied 1960s sensibilities that favored simplicity and wholesomeness. Actress, dancer, and singer Julie Newmar played Catwoman during Batman‘s first two seasons, offering an unapologetically horny take on the character. Newmar blended elements of the traditional femininity expected of female television characters with the transgressive ideas inherent to Catwoman herself. The result was a surprisingly versatile portrayal that easily balanced comedy and seduction. Newmar came off as bubbly, spontaneous, unassuming even, despite being in very clear control of the situation.

In between seasons one and two, a Batman movie premiered. Because Newmar was unavailable to reprise the role, Lee Meriwether stepped into Catwoman’s spiky heels. Her take on the role kept Newmar’s sexual approach but abandoned all trace of playfulness. Meriwether played the Cat as a straightforward femme fatale, much like the character’s Golden Age persona. People often forget about Meriwether when discussing Catwoman, and it’s easy to understand why. She didn’t do much to establish her own defining take on the role, and she’s sandwiched between two iconic takes of a character that would keep reinventing itself in far more interesting ways.

Newmar’s return for the show’s second season further diminished Meriwther’s contributions. However, the actress left Batman at the end of season two, opening the door for Eartha Kitt to wear the catsuit. Kitt was already a major star thanks to her singing career, and her casting was a major event. Still, many reacted negatively, especially considering the previous will-they-won’t-they dynamic between Catwoman and Batman. And because 1960s America was a time of intense racial divide, a Black woman in a romance with a white man was too much for some. As such, Kitt’s Catwoman came with significant changes.

Gone was any suggestion of a romance between the Bat and the Cat. Instead, Kitt’s Catwoman became an ambitious and often ruthless crime lord, adopting an overtly antagonistic role. Kitt’s high-pitched voice and use of purring sounds are already legendary, but her performance went beyond the superficial. She inhabited the part, using her entire body to tell the Cat’s story. She didn’t just walk but glided through the scenes, using her words and eyes and hands and hips to express the sexuality and sensuality the character demanded, but television censored.

Batman ended after season three, closing the door on another live-action Catwoman for twenty-four years. In the meantime, the character remained a constant presence in the comic books, albeit under a deadlier approach. In tone with the darker climate of the Bronze Age, the Catwoman from the early ’70s became more bloodthirsty, cruel even, committing a series of crimes and murders that threatened to send her past the grey and into the utter black.

The Bat and the Cat

Batman and Catwoman embrace in a DC comic book.

The late ’70s and ’80s saw Catwoman going straight as Selina entered a relationship with Bruce Wayne, with their Earth-1 counterparts even getting married in DC Super-Stars #17. This was the first time that the two characters attempted traditional romantic bliss, and while the experiment didn’t last, it did provide insight into the complexities of their attraction. Bruce and Selina have a natural distrust in each other that makes their dynamic inherently chaotic. He loves her but is always waiting for her to turn on him; for her part, she struggles with self-doubt, always questioning whether she can truly turn over a new leaf.

Frank Miller’s seminal comic book storyline Batman: Year One provided arguably the best-known version of the character’s backstory. Turning Selina into a dominatrix actively fighting against “the man” while protecting a helpless young girl, Miller redefined Catwoman as a liberator, a fierce disruptor of the system operating outside the law. Whereas Batman fought to restore power to the institutions, Catwoman sought to relocate it to the people. Flawed and unhinged, this modern-age Catwoman paved the way for the most iconic live-action take on the character.

Hell(o)  (T)here

A smiling Catwoman peers through a glass window in Batman Returns.

In one of the best superhero films of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns features Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle, a meek and helpless secretary, “meaningless” in her own words. Burton was much more interested in the villains than in the Bat himself, resulting in a movie where the protagonist’s typical journey of liberation and self-discovery goes to the antagonists. Pfeiffer’s Selina literally dies, pushed out of a window by the glove-covered hands of a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken. Reborn as Catwoman, she seeks revenge against the men who wronged her. And in Burton’s world, every man does. Max Shreck underestimates her, the Penguin uses her, but it’s Batman who makes the most egregious mistake; he refuses to see her for who she is, idealizing her as someone he can save.

But Pfeiffer’s Catwoman has no use for a savior. She cares little for redemption or even survival. Batman Returns is a revenge story, and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the original “good for her” heroine — Amy Dunne with far more lives and far fewer limits. Pfeiffer reunites all of Catwoman’s trademark qualities — overt sexuality, duality of intentions, shifting allegiances — and flaunts them under a banner of liberation and empowerment that would become crucial to Catwoman’s characterization going forward.

The 1990s and the Girl Power era

Catwoman raises her whip in a 1990s Catwoman comic book.

The next few years saw the character rise to the peak of popularity. Catwoman received a solo series, becoming an international criminal with a decidedly amoral code. Because the ’90s were the time of the powerful businesswoman in media (Heather Locklear in Melrose Place, Vanity Fair‘s Tina Brown, etc.), Selina also had a stint as CEO of a major NYC corporation. In the meantime, she also played a crucial role in two of the Bat’s most iconic storylines, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, in which she’s implied to be Carmine Falcone’s daughter.

With her role as an independent force free from the Bat’s influence cemented, Warner Bros. began exploring the idea of a solo Catwoman film. Initially, Pfeiffer was to return in a story that would see an amnesiac Selina travel to Oasisburg, the DC version of Las Vegas. The project spent years in development hell, with Pfeiffer eventually exciting. Actresses like Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman were then rumored to be taking over the role, but nothing concrete materialized. Halle Berry ultimately won the part, leading to the now-infamous 2004 film Catwoman.

Losing Patience

Catwoman cocks her head to the side in Catwoman

Berry, fresh off her 2002 Oscar win for Monster’s Ball and riding high on a wave of commercial successes that included Die Another Day and the X-Men franchise, seemed the perfect choice for the role. She was physically stunning and athletic and a gifted actress with a slew of awards under her belt. With a supporting cast that included Law & Order‘s Benjamin Bratt as the love interest and ’90s femme fatale Sharon Stone as the antagonist, director Pitof’s Catwoman promised to be a worthy addition to the blossoming superhero canon of the new millennium.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Berry, playing an alternate version of Catwoman named Patience Phillips, leaned heavily into Eartha Kitt’s style, even incorporating her iconic purrs. However, whereas the 1960 Batman series acknowledged and celebrated the kitsch in Kitt’s performance, the 2004 movie failed to stand beside Berry’s performance. Audiences laughed along with 1966’s Batman but laughed at 2004’s Catwoman. Stale dialogue, clumsy action scenes, and a truly inexplicable take on the Cat’s costume (complete with shredded pants, an exposed midriff, and open-toe high heels) rendered the film nearly unwatchable.

Catwoman was bad enough to derail Berry’s career for a while, but the character itself came out relatively unscathed. Following the 2005 Infinite Crisis event in the comics, Selina abandoned her costumed identity and threw herself into the role of devoted mother. Future storylines would see her acting as an ally to Batman; she still inhabited the grey, even if she took a new step towards the white with each new issue.

Catwoman rises

Catwoman crouches in front of a safe in The Dark Knight Rises.

Selina returned to the big screen with Christopher Nolan’s 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises. Played by Anne Hathaway, Nolan’s Selina is the perfect embodiment of the idea of Catwoman without ever becoming a truly three-dimensional character. Like most of Nolan’s female characters, Hathaway’s Selina never quite rises above superficial characterization and mainly exists in service to Batman’s story, acting as a foe in the beginning before becoming an unlikely (and improbable, given the story’s thin characterization of her) ally in the third act.

Still, there’s something impressive about Hathaway’s take on the role, to the point where she might be the most comic-book accurate live-action version of the Cat. Hathaway’s Selina is Kane’s initial idea to a tee: A dangerous woman who uses her female attributes to emasculate and trick the men around her. Unlike Pfeiffer and Berry, Hathaway is shy on purpose; unlike Newmar or Meriwether, she’s sexual only when necessary. Her performance perfectly fits Nolan’s hyper-realistic approach while still finding ways to embrace the character’s nature.

Vengeance is hers

Selina wears a white tank top and looks over at someone in The Batman.

It has been 10 years since Hathaway’s Selina appeared on the big screen, and Catwoman is more relevant than ever. Her comic book persona is currently engaged in a torrid affair with Batman, with the two expressing their love on every rooftop in Gotham. The latest live-action version, now played by Zoë Kravitz, will make her anticipated debut with Matt Reeves’ The Batman. This iteration seems inspired by the others that came before her: Kitt’s steely exterior, Newmar’s easy sexuality, Pfeiffer’s violent independence, Berry’s soft playfulness, and Hathaway’s blunt ambiguity. Yet Kravitz adds a melancholy not present in any others. This Selina has witnessed too much violence in her life, and she’s determined to do something about it.

So who is Catwoman? The answer may vary depending on which one is conjured. Yet every single incarnation shares a common trait that unites them all: Perseverance. In short, she’s a survivor. The character has been everything under the sun and then some, yet her appeal remains constant. Selina Kyle is both hero and villain; she’s Robin Hood and Phyllis Dietrichson, beauty and beast. Vulnerable but never weak and unapologetically self-serving, Catwoman can be everything fans want her to be, but above all, everything she wants to be. Therein lies her magic and her appeal. Heroes come and go, but Catwoman remains, always having the last word with a sly smile on her face.

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