4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Purr-fectly Mediocre — Catwoman

Catwoman made her initial appearance in the very first issue of Batman’s solo title in 1940 as “The Cat.” A cat-burglar named Selina Kyle, she quickly became a popular member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, and the most prominent female member of same.

The main difference between Catwoman and Batman’s other foes, like the Joker, the Penguin, and so on, was that there was a certain amount of sexual tension. Mostly that was expressed in the middle of the 20th century as good old-fashioned sexism, as Batman treated Catwoman with more respect and a lot of drooling because she was a girl.

Then Catwoman appeared in the 1966 TV series starting Adam West, and her popularity as a character skyrocketed.

Portrayed by Julie Newmar in the first two seasons of the show, by Lee Meriwether in the movie released between those two seasons, and by Eartha Kitt in season three, Catwoman was the unexpected hit in the TV series rogues’ gallery. Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredith appeared in multiple episodes each of the first season, but Newmar only appeared in one two-parter. She created enough of an impression that the character was used in the movie alongside the big three (re-cast due to Newmar’s unavailability), and she then went on to make more appearances in season two than anyone not actually listed in the opening credits.

In the comics, Catwoman was never a killer, and never 100% evil, but always in it mainly for the money. Based in part on Jean Harlow, she was someone to whom Batman was attracted, whom he tried to reform rather than simply capture, and whom he would sometimes let escape.

When DC rebooted their heroes in the 1950s and 1960s, with new versions of Flash and Green Lantern, they established that the older heroes were fictional—at least until the Golden Age Flash met up with Barry Allen in 1961’s infamous “Flash of Two Worlds” in The Flash #123, making it an alternate timeline. It was later established that the Golden Age, or “Earth-Two,” versions of Batman and Catwoman that were active during the second World War eventually married after Selina Kyle retired.

As time went on, Batman and Catwoman’s relationship became more and more complicated. In 1987, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s retelling of Batman’s origin in the “Batman: Year One” story in Batman #404-407 gave Kyle’s background as a sex worker with an affinity for cats. This led to Catwoman’s first miniseries, by Mindy Newell and J.J. Birch in 1989, and in the 1990s, Catwoman got her own monthly series, initially by Jo Duffy and Jim Balent, and she has had her own titles on and off ever since. She’s been portrayed as more of a morally dodgy hero, or an antihero, since getting her own series two and a half decades ago, and her origin has been reinterpreted and retold many times, including connections to the Gotham City mob in The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Recent reboots of DC have made Batman and Catwoman into an actual couple, complete with a marriage proposal in Batman #32 released late last year.

The next time after the Adam West series that the character appeared onscreen was in 1992’s Batman Returns, with Michelle Pfeiffer playing a radically different version of Selina Kyle. A mousy secretary who is killed after discovering corporate espionage by her boss, she’s seemingly revived by a bunch of cats and becomes an Olympic-level athlete with a taste for revenge. She’s seemingly killed along with that boss, but is seen in the closing shot of the movie, implying that she’d appear again.

While Tim Burton was removed from the Bat-franchise after Batman Returns, he was nonetheless interested in doing a Catwoman spinoff. Initially, it was to be directed by Burton, written by Returns co-writer Daniel Walters, and Pfeiffer was to reprise the role. But it languished in development hell, Burton and Pfeiffer moved on, and eventually—after both Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman were announced as playing the part—a movie called Catwoman was released in 2004 starring Halle Berry, playing a woman named Patience Phillips, who is transformed into Catwoman. While Walters wrote a script, which he turned in to Warner Bros. in 1995, none of it was used, with numerous hands working on it (including John Rogers, creator of Leverage and developer of The Librarians, and also a former comic book writer). French visual effects guru and second-unit director Pitof was brought in to helm it, only his second feature film in the director’s chair.

To call this movie a flop undersells it. It swept the Golden Raspberry Awards, with Berry being one of only half a dozen people to win both an Oscar and a Razzie (the former for Monster’s Ball in 2001). It has been pretty universally panned. And it never made back its budget, even including international receipts.

Despite this, the character has continued to be popular in the comics and on screen. Kyle appeared in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion of his late 2000s Bat-trilogy (which we’ll get to in this rewatch in a month or two), played by Anne Hathaway, and a younger version of Kyle is played by Camren Bicondova in the FOX TV series Gotham. The character has also been seen extensively in animation, going all the way back to Filmation’s two Batman series in the late 1960s and mid-1970s (voiced by Jane Webb and Melendy Britt, respectively), and also regularly appearing in Batman: The Animated Series (voiced by Adrienne Barbeau), The Batman (voiced by Gina Gershon), and Batman: The Brave and the Bold (voiced by Nika Futterman).

 

“You’re not a hero, you’re just a little girl playing dress-up”

 Catwoman
Written by Theresa Rebeck and John Brancato & Michael Ferris and John Rogers
Directed by Pitof
Produced by Denise Di Novi and Edward L. McDonnell
Original release date: July 23, 2004

Patience Phillips is an artist who does design work for a cosmetics company, Hedare Beauty. Hedare is about to release a new skin cream, and they’re also unveiling a new model. Owner George Hedare announces that his wife, Laurel, will be stepping back from her role as spokesmodel for Hedare.

Hedare is also displeased with Phillips’s latest designs, saying it wasn’t what he wanted. Phillips is too much of a shrinking violet to tell Hedare that she gave him what he asked for. Laurel talks him out of firing her, and she has one day to fix it.

That night, she sees a gray cat on the ledge outside her apartment. She climbs out to rescue the moggy, but then the cat disappears—and Phillips is stuck standing on an unstable air conditioner. Detective Tom Lone sees this, assumes she’s a jumper, and dashes up to save her. He breaks into her apartment and pulls her in—where they both see the cat sitting in Phillps’s apartment like she owns the place. Lone didn’t believe there was a cat until he saw her, and he apologizes. She rushes off, as she has to get to work, but drops her wallet.

As she plugs away at the artwork, Lone shows up at her office and gives her the wallet back, and also asks her out to coffee the next day. Encouraged by her coworkers, she accepts.

Burning the late-night oil, Phillips gets the art done at 11:43. Unfortunately, all the messenger services are closed, and so she has to get it to the manufacturing plant herself.

When she arrives, she overhears Dr. Slavicky, the scientist who developed the new face cream, getting cold feet. He’s okay with the headaches and addictive properties of the cream, but if women stop using it, their skin gets all yucky. He’s okay with pain and addiction, but draws the line at looking ugly. Swell guy.

Phillips overhears this, and security is all over her. They shoot at her and lure her into a spillway, which they then flood. Phillips drowns, only to be rescued by the gray cat and several dozen more cats, who manage to pull her from the river and revive her. She stumbles back to her apartment on foot, moving like a cat.

She wakes up sleeping on a shelf, having apparently bathed herself and changed clothes. (The clothes she drowned in are in a heap under the broken window.) There’s a message on her answering machine from Lone—she missed their coffee date. She has no memory of anything that happened the previous day. The gray cat is there, and she has an address on her collar.

Going there, Phillips meets Ophelia, your prototypical crazy cat lady, who explains that the gray cat—whose name is Midnight—is an avatar of Bast, the Egyptian god who has endowed various women over the centuries with special abilities after resurrecting them. She shows Phillips clippings and photos of other “catwomen” throughout the ages. (One of the pictures looks a lot like Selina Kyle in Batman Returns….)

When she shows up at work, finally, Hedare yells at her for disappearing and not knowing where the art is. Phillips is timid at first, then mouths off at Hedare, who fires her for her impudence. The long-suffering staff all applaud her.

She tracks down Lone, who’s giving a talk to some schoolkids. She gives him a cup of coffee with “sorry” written on it. They go out to the basketball court and the kids encourage Lone and Phillips to play one-on-one. Phillips kicks his ass at ball.

Phillips becomes more and more outgoing, changing her hair, actually wearing the leather outfit a coworker got her, stopping a jewel heist just so she can steal a jewel herself, and tracking down the guys who killed her. She finds one at a club, and he reveals that they were just under orders.

She goes to the manufacturing plant only to find Slavicky’s dead body. A maintenance worker sees her standing over the body, and he sounds the alarm. The press now believes that some “Catwoman” killed Slavicky.

Catwoman then goes to the Hedare mansion, where Laurel lays the blame for Slavicky’s murder on her husband, from whom she is long estranged. Laurel tells Catwoman where to find Hedare and his new model. She goes to the play they’re attending, and torments Hedare, but is interrupted in her attempt to kill him by the cops—including Lone. They fight backstage, and Catwoman gets away.

Back at the precinct, Lone realizes that the handwriting on a bag left behind at the jewelry heist (which contained all the jewels the other thieves intended to steal, save for the one gem Catwoman was after) is a close match with the writing on the cup Phillips gave him. After another date with Phillips, he brings evidence from her apartment to the lab, and confirms that Phillips is Catwoman.

Laurel contacts Catwoman and summons her to the mansion. It turns out that Laurel is the real bad guy here. Hedare knew nothing about the face cream’s negative side effects, nor one other salient point: consistent exposure to the cream turns the skin marble hard. Catwoman arrives to find Hedare’s body, his face scratched, and his body full of bullets from a weapon that Laurel tosses at Catwoman right before she calls security and starts crying.

Catwoman is now accused of Hedare’s murder, and Lone shows up at her apartment to arrest her. Heartbroken, she goes quietly, but also tells him during the interrogation that things are not what they seem. She reminds him that when they first met, all the evidence pointed to her being a jumper, but she was really a person trying to rescue a cat.

Midnight shows up in her cell, squeezing through the bars. She realizes that she can do likewise, and escapes by squeezing herself through the bars. She then confronts Laurel, but her marble skin makes her a difficult opponent. Eventually, though, Catwoman is triumphant when Laurel falls out a high-story window—even hard skin won’t save you from that kind of fall.

Catwoman goes free, exonerated of her accused crimes, but she refuses to get into a relationship with Lone, as she needs to be free to do as she pleases. Y’know, like a cat.

 

“What are you? A hero? A thief? A murderer?”

I never actually saw this film before. I chose to believe the hype and did not see it in theatres, nor did I ever get around to watching it on home video until this week.

Here’s the thing: it’s not as bad as everyone says it is.

This is mostly because it’s not really possible for it to be as bad as everyone says it is. I mean, this is a movie that has a decent budget, camerawork that is done in a professional manner, and actual good actors. Not that this is the best performance by any of them, but still, at least they’re capable.

All this is damning with faint praise, of course. While the movie isn’t as dreadful as everyone said, it also isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, good.

Let’s start with something that rarely gets play: holy crap, the CGI is horrendous. Early 21st-century CGI was always hit-or-miss, but it’s fascinating to look at Spider-Man, then Daredevil, then Hulk, then Catwoman—the movies were released in that order, yet the CGI work for each one is noticeably worse than the previous one, with Catwoman being the worst offender, as the CGI version of Catwoman is awkward and stilted. It looks more like a video game than a person, it’s just horrible.

The plot shines a bigger light on the fact that Tim Burton evinced no interest in the comics version of Catwoman, as the character Michelle Pfeiffer played bore no resemblance to any of the versions of Selina Kyle we’ve seen in four-color form since 1940. And this movie takes as its inspiration, not any of the comics versions of Catwoman, but instead the 1992 Bat-film, as Patience Phillips’s storyline follows the exact same beats as Pfeiffer’s version of Kyle.

There is a comic book that it does take inspiration from, though, and it’s The Crow. Both this movie and that 1994 film (along with its three virtually identical sequels) share those story beats with the Catwoman portion of Batman Returns. But where Returns had a whole bunch of other things going on (not to mention Michelle fucking Pfeiffer), and where The Crow at least had some serious style, this movie has nothing. (Though, amusingly, Michael Massee is in both The Crow and Catwoman.) Halle Berry is a very good actor, but while she didn’t deserve the Razzie, she is very flat in this movie. The performance is all surface. She goes through the (literal) motions of acting cat-like, but only sometimes. She acts like a badass, but only sometimes. We get no sense of the pain she suffers, no sense of any kind of agony. She’s shy and retiring, but it’s nowhere near the crippling social anxiety that Pfeiffer portrayed in Kyle.

Worse, the script doesn’t commit to the transformation. Even after she’s resurrected, she still acts just like Patience Phillips sometimes, and Catwoman other times. There’s not enough depth of performance of either one to really make into a proper split personality, it’s just different facial expressions. And while Berry does the cat-like movements well when she’s called upon to do so, she’s only so called sometimes. It’s just a maddening performance, one that refuses to commit.

One of the reasons why The Crow and Batman Returns worked is that Eric Draven and Selina Kyle were completely transformed into the forces of vengeance. Patience Phillips is still mostly Patience Phillips, except when she’s Catwoman, kinda.

The “surprise” that Laurel is the real bad guy is less of one because Hedare is played by some French dude and Laurel is played by Sharon bloody Stone—of course Stone’s character is the bad guy! And her motivations are poorly explicated. Why is she so willing to commit murder to cover up the problems with the face cream? Why commit the worst possible felony when you can just, I dunno, do a little more R&D and not make a face cream that will open you to all kinds of lawsuits down the line? It might have been cool to give Laurel an empowerment agenda, wanting to make women physically stronger than men, thus negating that particular advantage that the male of the species has. However, we never get that, we just get Stone being evil. Snore.

And then there’s Benjamin Bratt, who looks very pretty but, as usual, brings no depth to his character. I first saw Bratt on Law & Order, and I thought he was a decent actor, but everything I’ve seen him in since made me realize that standing next to Jerry Orbach’s magnificence was making him look better than he was.

Ultimately, though, the main culprit is director Pitof, whose direction is, bluntly, awful. The action is poorly visualized, the performances are lifeless and one-dimensional, and the look of the movie is bland as hell. Pitof’s background is visual effects, so you’d think he’d lens a better feast for the eyes than this irritatingly bright movie.

Is it the worst superhero adaptation ever? Not really. While it bears no resemblance to the comics character, it’s very much a sequel to Batman Returns, as it’s taking its cues from that version, and gives Catwoman a history that could be interesting in a better movie. The movie’s failures are directly related to a script that goes through the motions and does nothing interesting with the concept, a director who gives us nothing visually or performance-wise to sink our teeth into, and actors who don’t go past the surface of their characters.

 

Next week, we’ll look at another movie that (a) has some serious miscasting but (b) also isn’t anywhere near as bad as everyone says it is, the movie Constantine.

Keith R.A. DeCandido is one of the author guests at Balticon 52 this weekend in Baltimore, Maryland. He’ll be spending lots of time at the eSpec Books table hawking his wares (most notably the re-releases by eSpec of Dragon Precinct, Unicorn Precinct, Goblin Precinct, and Tales from Dragon Precinct), and he’ll also be doing panels and things. His full schedule is here.

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