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The Batman movies’ most important villain isn’t Joker, it’s Catwoman

From Tim Burton’s Batman Returns to Matt Reeves’ The Batman, she’s more complex, nuanced, and meaningful

Michelle Pfeiffer, sprawling on a white fur in the Catwoman suit and smiling at the camera in a PR still for Batman Returns Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Every cinematic incarnation of Batman seems to agree on one thing: The Caped Crusader’s most consequential and marquee-friendly adversary is the Joker. Various Batman-related movies over the years have expressed this in different ways. 1989’s Batman cast megastar Jack Nicholson as Joker right out of the gate. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight use Joker as a movie-ending teaser in preparation for wildly anticipated sequels. 2016’s Suicide Squad gives him a showcase cameo to lure audiences into another sub-series. And 2019’s Joker gives him his own stand-alone, off-continuity feature. Even when the character isn’t a focal point, he looms large. In 2022’s The Batman, the Riddler cribs heavily from the Joker playbook, even as the movie hints that the original maniac may be waiting in the wings for a sequel.

Yet even as The Batman tees up yet another Joker running around Gotham, it helps make a case for a decidedly different member of Batman’s rogues gallery. In fact, when director Matt Reeves lets the fans have a little Joker as a treat, he only drives home how a different costumed weirdo is actually more consistently vital to these movies. It’s Catwoman.

Fans who primarily know Catwoman from the movies may not even clock her as a villain. (Or as “Catwoman.” Only 1992’s Batman Returns and 2004’s Catwoman really call her by her famous nickname. In most Batman movies, she goes by her alter ego, Selina Kyle.) The Batman completes the gradual progression Selina has followed onscreen, from Michelle Pfeiffer’s unpredictable, sometimes Penguin-allied version in Returns to Anne Hathaway’s self-interested, briefly Bane-allied version in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises to, finally, Zoë Kravitz’s undercover avenger in The Batman, where she’s just as vengeance-minded as the Bat who warns her about the moral quagmire of delivering fatal justice. In the newest film, she’s more wild card than bad guy. All the people she wants to rob are worse villains than she is, and they probably deserve worse than what they get from her.

Robert Pattinson as Batman and Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman face each other in The Batman Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros. Pictures

This evolution hasn’t followed the same version of Selina Kyle, and the character’s development over time doesn’t necessarily mean the Kravitz version is better than those that came before. But The Batman continues to build the case that Catwoman complements and complicates the Batman character in ways the Joker can’t always accomplish.

This has been the case nearly as long as Batman has been a big-budget marquee film series. Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman was sold on its big showdown between Jack Nicholson’s Joker and upstart Michael Keaton, playing a lovably odd, low-key Batman. It’s a Batman movie where the guy playing the Joker gets billing above Batman. Yet perhaps because the movie tinkers with both characters’ origins, their symbiosis comes across as contrived. In Joker’s pre-clown days, he “created” Batman by murdering Bruce Wayne’s parents. (Why was a dapper young career-criminal doing a quick stick-up job? But Joker claims Batman “created” him by letting him fall into a vat of chemicals during a scuffle. (Except Joker was already a casual murderer, and the acid apparently just added some manic self-pity and nihilism to his personal recipe.)

Catwoman, however, makes a far more compelling mirror to Batman in Burton’s sequel Batman Returns. The whole movie is a more successful house of cracked mirrors: Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Danny DeVito) is a rich kid like Bruce Wayne, separated from his parents because of their cruelty, rather than fate’s cruelty. Selina (Michelle Pfeiffer), meanwhile, is part of an oppressed underclass, toiling for rich industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), and so meek that her self-loathing manifests in calling herself a “corndog.” (She can’t even work up the boldness to swear to herself.) She mirrors Bruce Wayne/Batman through her newfound Catwoman persona, which she uses to run wild, rather than restoring order to the city. Though Penguin is a memorably grotesque version of a Wayne-style scion, it’s Catwoman who lays bare the turmoil Batman keeps inside.

Pfeiffer’s performance, like Heath Ledger’s in the Dark Knight trilogy, goes beyond those of her talented co-stars — and at times, beyond what’s been available on comics pages. One of her best scenes is itself a mirror: After Burton shows Selina running through her lonely evening routine, he repeats the scene after she “dies” and is “resurrected.” (The specifics of that are left wonderfully, impressionistically unclear.) After her transformation, Selina instinctively returns to her apartment and attempts to go through her usual motions, then breaks free and destroys what’s in front of her. In the fervor that takes over, she turns an old vinyl jacket into a second skin, and is reborn as Catwoman.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns, standing behind a cartoony cat-head image painted on glass Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s a more harrowing bit of operatic anguish than almost anything else in a superhero movie, and it echoes in the background of the subsequent scenes where Pfeiffer vamps and quips. In spite of Selina’s formidable sewing skills, the uneven seams of her psyche keep tearing, something Burton visualizes at the climax of the film, where both she and Bruce Wayne half-emerge from their costumes, willing to reveal themselves if it means getting what they want.

For Selina, it’s revenge. For Bruce, it’s Selina. The two characters date during Batman Returns, both unaware of each other’s costumed identities for most of the film. Entwining their stories never reduces Selina to a mere love interest, it only makes her misbehavior as Catwoman feel personal and inextricable from Batman’s life in a way that the Batman/Joker melodrama in the earlier film never is. Jack Nicholson’s Joker does “unpredictable” stuff that mostly reads as the actor’s shtick: fun without the complexity of his best work. Pfeiffer, so funny and badass and full of hurt, keeps Batman (and the audience) guessing right up through the end.

Selina Kyle can’t triumph so handily over the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Heath Ledger’s version of the character became the definitive movie version, with good reason. It’s terrific work. Yet the function of Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is arguably just as important in the overall arc of the trilogy, if not more so. The Dark Knight Rises, the trilogy installment that features her, is, to date, the only Batman sequel to offer substantive and satisfying closure for her, and the tentative relationship she shares with Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a big part of bringing the material in for an affecting landing.

Unlike the Joker, the Nolan-verse Catwoman isn’t devoted to chaos. Unlike the various mobsters or League of Shadows members, she isn’t after power. This Catwoman steals as part of an exit strategy, something Bruce doesn’t have, and steadfastly refuses to develop throughout the movie. (Even though he begins it as a mostly-retired recluse.) Selina better understands the frustration over inequality in Gotham, and how it will continue to fuel unrest even as the crime rate goes down. She’s also, perhaps paradoxically, the one telling Bruce Wayne that he doesn’t owe his city anything.

While the movie may not agree that her points do dovetail — at least, Nolan may feel Bruce could give the city a little more, whether he owes it anything or not — Gotham City can’t rest on the actions of a single man. And that man needs an escape plan, especially if he wants other people to carry on his work someday. It’s a stark contrast with the trilogy’s version of the Joker, last seen musing that he thinks his conflict with Batman is destined to continue “forever.” That idea of their eternal struggle is accurate to the comics. But whether the point was forced by Ledger’s death or Nolan simply interpreting Batman’s fate differently, Dark Knight Rises up rejecting Bruce’s future with Joker in favor of his future with Selina.

Anne Hathaway in the Catwoman costume in The Dark Knight Rises Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Hathaway’s Selina seems more self-interested than truly wicked, but she does sell Batman out to Bane. On the other hand, pretty much everything Kravitz’s Selina does in The Batman is pretty sympathetic. Her “crimes” include investigating the disappearance of her friend (or girlfriend?), seeking revenge on her murderous father, and stealing from the mob. It’s fair to say that this Catwoman doesn’t especially belong in the same police lineup as the Penguin or the Riddler.

But that moral ambiguity — the grays and blacks of the shadows where costumed vigilantes hang out — is probably always going to be a part of contemporary Batman stories, so it makes sense not to focus on Catwoman as a committed career criminal. (A similar shift worked for Harley Quinn, who has also been a more interesting movie character over the past decade than the Joker.) For a movie where Batman only has a few notable scenes out of costume, it’s especially important to feature a character who can break through that barrier, and Kravitz’s onscreen heat with new Batman Robert Pattinson does that, however briefly. In a movie where Alfred is sidelined and James Gordon keeps calling his uneasy ally “man,” Selina Kyle provides a few important moments of genuine emotional intimacy, humanizing a particularly grim-faced Batman. If the sequel isn’t called The Bat and the Cat, as the movie itself practically suggests, something has gone wrong.

This newest Catwoman also arrives at a time when many of Marvel’s biggest superhero movies seem more reluctant than ever to depict romantic relationships, or even sensual chemistry. The honchos at Marvel are afraid of alienating international audiences and younger viewers, or providing openings for charges of sexism. The male-centric nature of so many superhero stories does often mean that cinematic Catwomen (sometimes the only major female characters in their respective movies) have to fulfill a lot of roles at once: part femme fatale, part earnest love interest, part sidekick. But this also gives Catwoman a dimensionality her more virtuous or more maniacal counterparts don’t often get.

Catwoman doesn’t need to be defined by her relationships to various Batmen, of course. She could easily support a solo movie, and the 2004 Catwoman with Halle Berry (playing a character named Patience Phillips, not Selina Kyle) feels like an exception that proves the rule. It has almost nothing to do with Batman on a narrative level, but its central problem is its conception as a simultaneous knockoff of the entire previous cycle of Batman movies: This Catwoman has a chemical-adjacent origin (like the Joker in Batman), is revived by cats (like Selina in Batman Returns), and inhabits a world of cartoon garishness and crazy camera angles (like the Joel Schumacher Batman movies).

Keep in mind, though, that Todd Phillips’ 2019 Joker is equally larcenous: It’s just more pretentious about ripping off vastly better movies like The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. Joker ends by steering the Wayne family toward their doom, indirectly reviving the same clunky symbiosis as the 1989 Batman. The Joker is a great villain, but cinematically speaking, has he actually pulled off a real surprise since The Dark Knight? For all that’s asked of Catwoman — to be a villain who isn’t all bad, to play love interest to a character who can’t fully commit to love, to fight with and against Batman in equal measure, to parallel his heroes’ journey and offer him different path s— she keeps finding ways to sneak into these Batman movies and steal them. Rococo psychos come and go, but Catwoman is indispensable.

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