Batman Returns has become a perennial Christmas favorite of mine. It serves as a yearly shot of pure, sex-positive, unapologetic feminism, and it goes great with spiked nog. This year as I looked back at this 24-year-old movie, I remembered how revolutionary Selina Kyle felt to me watching it in the theater, and how I was sure there would be other fictional women who would resonate for me. But I have to think long and hard before I come up with any. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman went back to the Miller prostitute/thief role; Halle Berry’s is best not spoken of. And if you don’t mind me jumping comics worlds: we’ve checked in with Natasha Romanov in four separate MCU movies, but we’ve never gotten an exploration of her inner life that matches that scene in Selina’s apartment; Gamora would never say anything as dark and interesting and weird as “We’re gonna have a hot time in the old town tonight”; Pepper Potts may have had superhumandom forced on her, but she had to borrow one of Tony’s suits rather than making her own.
What, then, made Selina Kyle and Batman Returns so special?
I watched the original Batman on a VHS months before it was officially released for home video. I don’t know what the story was there—my dad came home with an unmarked video cassette, put it on after dinner, and as soon as Danny Elfman’s theme started I began yipping like a terrier. (We didn’t go out to movies much, so I’d been wanting to see it.) I have an intense memory of sitting on the floor about three inches from the TV for the next two hours. I watched it a lot over the next few months, and each time two moments jarred me. First, an early scene where Batman teases Vicki Vale for lying about weighing 108 lbs. Later, more problematically, Bruce Wayne flips out on Vicki Vale. He ghosts after they sleep together, and when she confronts him his response isn’t to explain but to say, “You’re a nice girl, and I like you, but for right now, shut up.” Since this is Michael Keaton, always an intense actor, this moment is actually frightening. To my child’s eyes, I was watching a superhero yell at a girl for no reason, and it struck my justice-obsessed heart as intensely unfair.
Three years later, when Batman Returns came out, things had changed. I had friends (not to brag, but I had more than one friend. It was extraordinary!) and we could talk parents into dropping us off at malls. By then I knew who Tim Burton was, and that he was responsible for several movies I loved, and since I’d decided I wanted to be a director, I was trying to watch movies analytically. We went to see Batman Returns on opening night, expecting another rollicking action movie. In retrospect I don’t remember if I was nervous about the gender politics. None of us had read Dark Knight Returns yet, but we knew that Tim Burton had promised people a darker, grittier Batman, and that Catwoman was one of the villains. What we got instead was astonishing — a story of feminist awakening, identity crisis, identity acceptance, and an interplay between a male and female action hero, that, for me at least, wasn’t matched until I saw Mad Max: Fury Road last May.
What is essentially a subplot—Selina’s transformation into Catwoman—is treated as the main emotional arc of the film. Tim Burton didn’t waste much time on Batman’s origin story in the first film—we see young Bruce witness his parents’ murder, and then we jump to the adult, thirty-something Batman, already capable and walking the line between superhero and vigilante. In Returns, we see Penguin’s birth, and then we check back in with him 30 years later. The origin story we do get is Catwoman’s—and for all that Burton paid lip service to Frank Miller, this is not Frank Miller’s Catwoman. She’s not a prostitute, and she’s not a jewel thief. She begins the film as an underpaid assistant to evil businessman Max Shreck, and she ends it as an anti-patriarchy terrorist.
They sketch an amazing portrait of a woman’s life in only a few minutes that even I as, a barely pubescent kid, recognized already. (It might be worth pointing out that when I saw this movie I had four feet of blonde hair, that I grew up in Florida, where it’s customary to wear shorts and tank tops 10 months out of the year, and that I’ve been a 36C since 7th grade… I know from harassment.) Like a lot of women, she turns her anger on herself, calling herself a corndog and berating herself as soon as the men are out of the room. The men laugh at her ideas (which she phrases as questions to avoid angering the men), but they compliment her coffee. A few scenes later, she’s literally murdered for being too smart. Having figured out that Shreck is scheming to funnel power away from Gotham’s infrastructure with his supposed power plant, she confronts him, but again frames the confrontation as a question, hoping that will soften her intelligence enough, and save her life. It doesn’t work. Shreck threatens her because he sees her potentially standing in the way of his legacy, specifically the inheritance he wants to leave his son Chip. Selina tries to plead for her life by reassuring him that she’s not important: “I’m just an assistant. …a secretary…. How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless?” He laughs at her and pushes her out a window. In the original script, Selina sees Batman drive by obliviously as she lies dying in the snow, and Max looks down at her body and says, “Let the police find her. Make sure the funeral is on me” to which Chip replies, and I am not making this up: “She wanted it.” In the film he just shrugs casually s he looks down at her broken body.
After her cats bring her back to life, she doesn’t simply lash out at Shreck, and she doesn’t even lash out at all men. What specifically catalyzes her transformation is the terrible answering machine message from Gotham Lady perfume. This is the second such call she’s received that night—it’s so goddamn invasive. After messages of her mother’s nagging voice and her ex-boyfriend’s whining, she hears this terrible, robotic female voice encouraging women to get ahead through sexuality. What she reacts against is this notion of monetizing her sexuality (you know, like Frank Miller had her do) or using her wiles to get ahead (you know, like the 1960s Batman series) and she reacts in a profound way.
She digs through her clothes for a black latex catsuit—the sort of thing that you wear to a Halloween party if you want to be slutty—and uses the typically feminine art of sewing to turn it into a superhero costume. There’s no Frank Miller pimp here, obviously; the suit is Selina’s choice from the beginning. She breaks the hot pink neon sign with the chirpy, welcoming greeting “Hello There!” She sees a pink dream house and wants it painted black, and uses the lower-class “street” method to destroy it by tagging it with spray paint. (Is this a working class, underpaid service industry-type woman lashing out at the suburban American dream of being a wife in a perfectly appointed middle class house? I’d say yes.) When the camera swoops out and shows you that her pink sign now reads “Hell Here”—reader, I gasped out loud in the audience.
I might have cried a little. I still do, when I watch it each year at Christmas. But again, not in a sad way—in a cathartic way, because she’s found a way out. All she had to do was die.
The first thing she does as a super-normal personal is rescue a woman from rape. The second thing she does is berate the woman for acting like a victim. She’s not a hero, she’s furious with the culture, as angry with the women who allow it to continue by being weak, as with the men who perpetuate it. Again, to point out the parallels with Fury Road, this is the flip side of Furiosa’s realization that Nux and Max are as much victims as Splendid, Capable, and the other sex slaves—as she sees that they are all being exploited by Immortan Joe, so Selina sees that all of society supports the oppression of women. This is a fascinating moment in the film because it draws such a line—you can admire Selina, you can even relate to her, but don’t expect her to be warm and fuzzy.
This is brought home even more a few minutes later, when she becomes an anti-capitalist terrorist. When she goes skipping into Shreck’s department store, most viewers were probably expecting her to head straight for the jewel cases. Instead she finds the most flammable things she can and stuffs them all into a microwave. She doesn’t want to kill anyone (except Shreck) and even takes the time to order the guards out of the store. She chooses a whip as her weapon, rather than Penguin’s guns and Batman’s potentially lethal arsenal. She’s not a villain.
This film can’t pass the Bechdel test, but that’s part of the point. Selina is an intelligent woman surrounded by men who ignore her or want to possess her. Just compare her relationship with the Penguin to that with Batman. Penguin immediately tries to possess her, telling Batman “I saw her first.” He continues this pattern, sating “You’re Beauty and the Beast, in one luscious Christmas gift pack,” and including her in his anti-Bat scheme only after assuming that their partnership would be romantic as well as criminal. The second she tells him no, he says, “You sent out all the signals!” and “You lousy minx! I oughta have you spayed!” and finally attacks her, costing her one of her lives. Bruce, on the other hand, respects both of her identities. As Batman and Catwoman, they fight like equals. She tricks him one time by replying to a blow with “How could, you—I’m a woman!” before turning on him again. After that they simply attack each other with full force—“As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.”—and their fighting is a constant push/pull of attraction and anger. (There’s only a millimeter of latex stopping them from beating Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to the “first onscreen superhero sex” honors. They also enact a startlingly frank consensual S&M relationship, while all that latex works as an early 90s advertisement for safe sex. What I’m saying is, there’s a lot going on here.)
As Bruce and Selina, they accept each others’ dark humor. They give each other space, respect boundaries, and in the final, heartbreaking scene, reveal themselves. Where Vicki Vale only learned Bruce’s secret identity because of Alfred, here Batman unmasks himself to Selina. As a kid watching the film, I expected this to be the moment that Batman and Catwoman work as a team to defeat Shreck. That the path would be happily paved for sequels. But no:
Catwoman: “Bruce… I would—I would love to live with you in your castle… forever, just like in a fairy tale.”
[Batman caresses the back of her head]
Catwoman: [she claws Batman on the cheek] “I just couldn’t live with myself. So don’t pretend this is a happy ending.”
She kills Shreck then, like she’s planned to all along. The film strongly implies that she escapes after his death. And the best part is that she’s never punished for this. She lashes out in anger, and it’s OK. She fights with Batman, and they each hurt each other, but they also each love the other. In the end she gets to avenge herself on Shreck on her own terms, while Penguin fails to kill Batman because, in their final fight, he mistakenly picks a “cute” umbrella. As with the previous summer’s problematic feminist film, Thelma and Louise, Selina still has to die to get her revenge. But unlike Thelma and Louise, she has at least one life left.
Watching Batman Returns now as an adult, I am astonished each time at how heartbreaking the film is. The way Selina downplays her own competence and pain, the constant drum of society telling her to make men the center of her life, the hum of violence and sexual threat, and the way she’s finally forced into becoming a vigilante—not, as Batman did, to seek justice for the downtrodden, but just to be heard at all. Earlier this month, we at Tor.com gathered up some of our personal MVPs of 2015. Furiosa was obviously going to make the list, and I was honored that I got to write about her. I said then that thought her character would echo forward through new creators’ writing, and I hope that it’s true, but I could have just said that I loved her because she reminded me of Selina Kyle in all her complicated glory.
Leah Schnelbach has still never learned to sew, so when she finally receives her superpowers, her costume will have to consist of a t-shirt and jeans. Wait…Jessica Jones already did that. Crap. Come give her sewing tips on Twitter!