Villain-Lover-conflicted Hero-we examine the exquisite evolution of Catwoman
Long before Deadpool donned his tight red leathers and made being the antihero ‘cool’ and fun, there was another character flying that flag and wearing that mantle proudly. Dressed in all black leathers with a whip to match, Selina Kyle aka Catwoman has been walking the fine line between hero and criminal for many years. She made her debut in Spring 1940 as ‘The Cat’ in Batman No1 which makes her one of the longest running and enduring comic book characters. But just who is behind the mask?
To be fair, Catwoman debuted as a villain, a well-known honorary member of Batman’s infamous ‘rogues gallery’. There was no ambiguity to the character. She was a talented high stakes burglar/thief with a taste for expensive things and deep connections to Gotham’s underworld. After her initial run ins with Batman, creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger saw an opportunity to create something more than a villain- a weakness Batman had trouble defending.
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Batman has a long history of being a great fighter, a master detective and even greater than that, being incorruptible. With the introduction of ‘The Cat’, Batman faces a foe who was beautiful, Intoxicating, seductive and highly skilled. Her weapon of choice (a whip) indicated that while she was willing to inflict pain and punishment, much like Batman himself, she had little interest in killing.
What they invertedly created was a foe that Batman couldn’t simply defeat with muscle, skill or intelligence. She spoke to Batman’s core; he couldn’t figure her out. Being an orphan meant he felt an even deeper connection. She very quickly became the ‘one that got away’, or more like the one he lets get away. The Bat and the Cat have tangled and tangoed almost as many times as the Joker over the years. The difference being Batman sees her as an equal, a potential partner he could still save and have a future with. While she sees the potential of corrupting Batman, or at least making sure he has a bit more fun!
‘The Cat’ was always a heroine way ahead of her years. Whilst the other female characters had bosses or men they worked under (i.e. Harley Quinn and Joker), she was one of the original female characters, unattached to any hierarchy and only answered to herself. In terms of sexuality, she was one of the first characters to, while not necessarily declaring her preference, continuously toyed with the idea of same sex attractions and flirtations.
This was teased in The Batman ‘Hush’ graphic novel as well as in The Dark Knight rises movie. It wasn’t until 2015 in the Catwoman #39 comic that she actually kisses a female character called Eiko. The writer confirmed this was less of a revelation and more of a confirmation of her Bisexual status.
Much like the Joker, Selina’s past is riddled with inconsistencies and alternate versions. Unlike Batman, there isn’t one definitive version of her origins. The comic book versions have produced various stories about the origins of Selena Kyle. Most centre around the idea of her being an abandoned orphan, with an alcoholic mother who died and an abusive father she ran away from. One story hints she is the illegitimate child of crime boss Carmine Falcone. Others state while living on the streets, she worked as a dominatrix and occasionally as a prostitute as a means to identify ‘marks’ suitable for robbery.
Her true link to Cats is also shrouded in mystery. Was it the orphanage administrator who trapped 13yr old Selina in a bag like a cat and threw her in a river? Was it the ‘Cat o’ 9 tails talisman’ she received from a client while combat training under the Armless Masters of Gotham City? Or simply a nick name she was given while training as a thief under Mama Fortuna? The much-lauded Halle Berry movie goes all out with the supernatural by saying she got her ‘powers’ from a magical Egyptian cat!
Her portrayal on screen is another area where the character was ahead of her time. The actors who have played her on screen have always been fluid and very different in terms of look and style, making the character adaptable to each particular actress. Julie Newmar played the character for two seasons of the ‘Batman’ show. Lee Meriweather featured in the role for a few episodes as well as in the 1966 Batman movie. Eartha Kitt took over the role for the third and final season 3 of the tv show. Since hitting the big screen, the Cat has been portrayed by Hollywood legend Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman returns) as well as Oscar winners Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) and Halle Berry (Catwoman).
Halle Berry’s film is the only solo movie to feature the character. It was disconnected from the rest of the DC mythology and takes the opportunity to redefine the mythos. Halle’s Character isn’t Selina Kyle but Patience Phillips who is quite different to any of the previous portrayals. Despite being universally panned by critics and a failure commercially; the film was the highest grossing female led superhero movie until 2017’s Wonder Woman. Even though I feel that has less to do with the quality of the film and more to do with the lack of female led superhero movies at the time.
The casting of Eartha Kitt, a black woman, in the third season of the Batman tv show was hugely controversial at the time and surprisingly still raised some eyebrows in 2021 with the casting of Zoe Kravitz. While some have referred to Zoe’s casting as ‘race bending’, the casting of Eartha Kitt in the 60s was entirely based on her talent as an actress, her look, and her persona. The show’s executive producer Bill Dozier stated:
“She was a cat woman before we ever cast her as Catwoman. She had a cat-like style. Her eyes were cat-like and her singing was like a meow.”
Despite this ‘progressive’ thinking, the flirtatious relationship and romance between Batman and The Cat which was teased in the second season of the show was dropped, most likely due to Eartha’s race. Eartha’s portrayal of the character therefore became a much more serious and ruthless criminal
So, what does the future hold for this highly skilled, fiercely independent, sexually fluid and morally ambiguous character? As Zoe Kravitz prepares to don the mask, leathers and iconic whip, her performance in ‘The Batman’ will most definitely determine where the fabulous feline goes next. While its likely she is part of all 3 movies in Director Matt Reeves ‘The Batman’ trilogy (unless she gets killed), she could feature in the Gotham PD spinoff show, as that will undoubtedly focus on Gotham complex underworld. Is there even the possibility of another solo movie to make up for the sins of the first?
Whatever happens, this character has been intriguing and entertaining enough to survive in comic books and popular culture just as long as Batman and handled right, will undoubtedly carry on for years to come.
Zoe Kravitz will appear alongside Robert Pattinson in ‘The Batman’- Coming March 4th. Official Trailer here