Catwoman has always been the most underrated character in the Batverse
From Michelle Pfeiffer to Zoë Kravitz, Batman’s lover and adversary has always brought a much-needed dose of style and sauce to a grim Gotham City.
Collage by Róisín Lanigan
It’s the archetypal opposites-attract story. The streetwise hustler and the privileged billionaire, the sadist and the masochist; the superhero and his one true Kryptonite. First introduced in the comics to sprinkle a little sex appeal into the mostly male-dominated stories, Catwoman has evolved through the years on the page into one of Batman’s greatest foes – not merely the other half of an enemies-to-lovers plotline. She’s been a jewel thief, a mobster, a protector of orphans and an avenger. She steals from the rich to give to herself: a protective and destructive force who understands the power of money more than anyone else. Catwoman is the greatest villain in the Batverse. Come at me, Joker-bros.
The first screen iterations of Catwoman appeared on the 1966 Batman TV show, in which she was a sultry mobster played by three iconic actresses: Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriweather in the show’s film adaptation. The campy, colourful, kapow-heavy series had her character concerned with crime first, fashion second, and flirting with Batman last. The show leaned heavily into the cat-ness of it all, with Catwoman living on 32 Pussyfoot Road and making her villainous speeches into a teal-coloured phone shaped like, you guessed it, a cat. Newmar would slink into every scene with Batman raring to take him back to hers, while Meriwether lounged around, barely tolerating the rest of the Batman villains.
Eartha Kitt’s casting for the third and final season of the show came along in 1967, the same year as the United States Supreme Court moved to strike down anumber of anti-interracial marriage laws. Even so, Kitt’s Catwoman and Adam West’s Batman weren’t so much sexual interests as they were professional adversaries. At a time when roles for Black women on television were exceedingly rare, the actress cemented her status as a television icon with powerfully animated line deliveries. Kitt, famously a cat-lover before her turn as Catwoman, was a confident villainess revelling in her own badness (“queen of criminals, the princess of plunder, yours untruly”) and purring in lieu of saying goodbye. Incredible.
It wasn’t until 1992’s Batman Returns that Catwoman made the silver screen again: this time in patent leather, red lipstick and completely, deliciously unhinged. At this point, everyone wanted to be Catwoman. It was a boldly written female villain, of a rare kind that could exist in a mainstream blockbuster and not just thankless, underpaid indie fare. National treasure Annette Benning was initially cast in the role but, after she became pregnant, was replaced by a now-irreplaceable Michelle Pfeiffer, who as a young girl had become enamoured with the character as a viewer of the 60s TV show. As uncomfortable as the patent leather suit was for the actress (they had to “powder me down, help me inside and then vacuum-pack the suit”, she’d say years later), she approached Catwoman with an intensity and dedication that translated to, let’s face it, the sexual awakening of a generation. Batman may have been the original furry, but he’s by no means alone in his tastes.
“If Selina was a woman on the edge, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is one who has leapt right off it into the abyss, determined to remake herself into the opposite of everything she was told she was supposed to be: quiet, obedient, servile.”
In Tim Burton’s grotesque, gothic imagining, Catwoman gets her own murder-tinged origin story, pushed off a building and creepily resurrected by a swarm of stray cats. “Honey, I’m home,” she sighs to no-one, stumbling into her (soon-to-be-spray-painted) candy-pink apartment. After her re-birth as Catwoman, Selina Kyle’s demeanour changes too; not so much unhinged as she is unleashed. As a mere human, Selina was easily dismissed, ignored and, eventually, killed. Max Shreck, the Gotham businessman who nonchalantely throws her out a a high-rise window after she stumbles on his nefarious plans, literally shrugs after he murders her. But transformed into Catwoman, she’s unfettered and confident, catching the eye of Bruce Wayne as well as Batman in a way the old, meek, corduroy-wearing Selina could never.
Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, whip-skills aside, contains in her a rage that only gains in relevance on rewatching. If Batman’s superpower is fear, Catwoman’s is anger. She is not made by the cats, she makes herself. While we love to talk about the sexy patchwork jumpsuit (who would’ve thought those words would go together in a sentence) and the sly naughtiness of BDSM imagery in a PG-13 superhero movie, it’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s intensely hypnotic commitment to the darkness in Selina that’s the hardest to turn away from. In many ways, her Catwoman doesn’t care about coming across as beautiful or desirable. Returning from the scene of her murder, she screams her heart out and starts trashing her prim little apartment; milk, sweat and blood dripping from her face. If Selina was a woman on the edge, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is one who has leapt right off it into the abyss, determined to remake herself into the opposite of everything she was told she was supposed to be: quiet, obedient, servile.
The popularity of the character was a blessing and a curse. Burton and screenwriter Daniel Waters were working on a spin-off film with Pfeiffer that meant that her character was excised from the follow-up entries in the franchise. Sadly, the project never came to fruition, axed by studio executives in 1998. That’s Hollywood, baby. She wouldn’t return to the big screen until the 2004 CGI monstrosity Catwoman, starring Halle Berry. Fresh from her historic Best Actress Oscar win, Halle did a lot with very little script. While the two characters are constitutionally similar, her Catwoman is not Selina Kyle, but rather an original character named Patience Phillips, a graphic designer unable to stand up for herself until she is transformed (again, by stray cats, but this time they’re CGI and 200% creepier). Berry sashays her way through the film, seemingly enjoying the eccentric acting exercise of a grown woman trying to play an actual cat, going nuts over things like canned tuna and catnip.
While earlier versions elect to gloss over her past, Batman Returns establishes a vital precedent between the Bat and the Cat: Batman is rich, and Catwoman is not. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Anne Hathaway plays Catwoman as a master thief able to camouflage herself among the social elite. She deliberately steals from the über-wealthy and even gives Batman a sorely-needed socialist lecture (“You're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us”). Hathaway’s Catwoman zeroes in on this divide of privilege between her and Batman, moving away from the feline puns and leaning into the slink of a master of theft and deception (when she’s clocked by a housebound Bruce Wayne, her entire performance shifts in a shrug and an ironic ‘oops’). This Selina Kyle is angry, but methodical about it. She can camouflage herself amongst the rich folk of Gotham, but she can barely contain the disgust when speaking to Bruce. They are framed as direct opposites, aligned on one key thing: both are trapped by their past.
“Class guilt or no, Catwoman has always called out Batman for who he really is and the privileges that allow for his moral high ground.”
In Matt Reeves’ The Batman, Zoë Kravitz’s take on the character channels the femme fatale energy of both Eartha Kitt and Michelle Pfeiffer, purring her lines, exuding so much old-school movie star power it makes the eyes water. In this new take, Selina is not yet a fully-fledged Catwoman, but she’s on her way. For now, though clearly skilled, she’s not really using her abilities for all that much. Instead, she’s burdened by her past, stuck in a low-paying waitressing job at a dodgy club (The Iceberg Lounge is at least known to play some banging tunes) just to be close to the ghost of her mother and waiting for the right moment to confront her mobster father. Much like Batman, she’s living a solitary double life, trying to quietly shield others from the city’s true villains.
Time and again, the Bat and the Cat are shown to be two sides of the same coin. Selina is unfettered while Bruce is restrained, in life and in bed (show me a more iconic moment of confused horniness than when Michelle Pfeiffer licks Michael Keaton’s masked face). She enjoys her power while he resents it — maybe, as she reminds him in 2022’s The Batman, because “he talks like someone who grew up rich.” There’s been a predictable backlash to this line but the fact is, it’s always been there: Catwoman is always presented as working class in her normal life, often in roles that primarily serve men. Along with Zoë Kravitz’s bottle service girl, Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina is a secretary, Anne Hathaway's masquerades as a catering waitress.
Class guilt or no, Catwoman has always called out Batman for who he really is, and for the privileges that allow for his moral high ground. Her villainy is complex but it is never disguised; she’s not meant to be aspirational or cat-lady-goals. If he is vengeance, then she is anger personified. It’s magnetic, repulsive, and often wrapped in leather. What more could you want?