During the lead-up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I was among those bloggers out there speculating on director Christopher Nolan’s casting choices for his Batman sequel. His inclusion of Tom Hardy as Bane had quite a few eyebrows raising, but not as much as his choice to cast fresh-faced Anne Hathaway as the seductive Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. Every time a photo came out, people dissected her costume, her hair, and wondered whether she could hold up the legacy of Catwomen going back from Michelle Pfeiffer to Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt.
Now after the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I feel ready to call this one on behalf of Christopher Nolan and his incredible eye for talent. In this thoroughly modern Batman retelling, Anne Hathaway is the complex and captivating Catwoman we have been waiting for.
(Warning: Dark Knight Rises spoilers within!)
The character of Catwoman has done a lot of evolving over the years, and she’s changed in large part due to the times in which she’s written. As women in comics evolved from mere love interests and sex objects into their own fully fleshed characters, Selina Kyle went from a beautiful cat burglar out to flirt with Batman into a woman with her own internal world and history. A girl from the wrong side of Gotham, Selina lived through a rough childhood and became a hardened survivor, out to use her talents to keep her and anyone she cared about alive. Yet underneath was a core of a woman living by her own principles that she was unwilling to compromise, principles challenged by Gotham’s dangerous underworld and her numerous run-ins with the Batman. While Gotham and the world of crime threatened to drag her down, Selina’s relationship with Batman gave her the chance to believe that she could be more than just a thief.
It is this evolution that Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman follows in The Dark Knight Rises. Introduced with whip sharp confidence, Hathaway’s Selina is immediately intriguing and thoughtful. She draws Bruce Wayne out not only with her beauty but with her poise and strength. Here is a woman that is unapologetically herself and Hathaway owns that competency with a power that keeps your eyes glued to her on screen. While the main storyline often diverges away from her, Selina’s character evolves as she slips behind the scenes of the main plot, caught up in the machinations of Bane and his plans for Gotham. This theme of Catwoman being caught up in events bigger than herself is classic to her story in the comics, and Hathaway portrays the conflict within Selina with every look and gesture.
The other important theme captured so well for Catwoman in Dark Knight Rises is that of self-interest versus involvement in the lives of others. A fundamental challenge Selina faces in the comics has always been balancing her need to self-protect versus her need to protect and provide for those she cares for, even and including Batman. That battle between her need to survive versus her impulse to do good is the heart of Selina’s story in the film. Selina is faced with the dilemma of saving her own skin at the price of Batman’s and when she makes her choice, the consequences are brutal and impactful on Selina’s conscience. Hathaway conveys that evolution brilliantly in her performance and sells Selina as a deeply thoughtful woman conflicted by her situation and circumstances.
That thoughtful portrayal also lays at the heart of what sets apart Hathaway’s Catwoman from previous iterations of the character. Most previous Catwomen have been sex kittens, bombshells out to tease Batman with playful banter and physical appeal. And why not? Most of the time Catwoman has been presented as a femme fatale, a rework on the old whore-with-a-heart-of-gold trope. Hathaway’s Catwoman however is something entirely different. Right from the start she is poised, elegant and classy, sexy without being over the top. When she dons the cat suit it’s for practical reasons. She is not out to display her body, she needs clothes that will protect and not get in the way during physical altercations. When out of the cat suit and out on the town, Selina is sexy in a natural, classy way many Catwoman portrayals were not. Her dance scene with Bruce Wayne may be a direct homage to the Batman Returns Selina/Bruce dance, but where Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina had an almost manic slink to her formal attire, Hathaway is effortlessly graceful and composed. She does not need the over-the-top vamp to make her mark but instead utilizes all her faculties to be the perfect female foil for Batman.
It’s that equal footing between Batman and Selina, characterized by their comfortable banter and magnetic connection on screen, that sells their relationship for me. Where in most of the previous iterations of their relationship there was a definitive difference between how Selina and Bruce interacted versus how Catwoman and Batman interacted, in The Dark Knight Rises the two meet and remain on an almost constant level of transparency throughout the film.
They both see one another in large part for who they really are and that builds an open kind of back and forth between the characters regardless of persona. It allows for an emotional growth that is fun to watch as Hathaway’s Selina struggles with her obvious attachment to Bruce/Batman. That relationship throws aside the cliche “will they discover each other’s identity?” story and instead gets right to the heart of the matter. It is a relationship not based on bombastic sexualization but honest connection and that’s what makes it so engaging. In her attraction to Batman, Hathaway’s Selina is every woman who has ever been intrigued by a complicated guy who throws their world upside down.
Overall, the name of the game in Hathaway’s portrayal of Catwoman is competence. Even when she is seemingly off-balance, Selina is a thoughtful and ambitious woman out for control over her own life. She fights for the chance to make her own decisions and chart her own course, a theme that has been missing in some of the previous incarnations of Catwoman, and Hathaway is able to translate that beautifully through her performance. I came away from the film sure that I could watch an entire Catwoman film without much problem. There is enough depth in Hathaway’s Selina to fill up an entire two hours.
Mostly I came away from the film content that the character was rescued from the pigeonhole I felt she’d been trapped in as Batman’s sex kitten foil. In The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle has been transformed into a well-developed character all her own with a capable star filling her boots. Well done to Anne Hathaway for the performance, and I await the day when she might don the boots again.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.