A version of this review of the Catwoman movie ran several years back in the Chicago Reader.

Bad As It Wants To Be

Some of the earliest sexual fantasies I can remember involve Catwoman. Specifically, they center around a Batman audio recording I listened to when I was eight or younger. I can’t remember where I was at the time, and I’m pretty sure I heard the tape only once. Nonetheless, I remember the plot clearly; Catwoman had developed a kind of super-catnip, and she used it to control Bruce Wayne’s mind and force him to help her steal jewels. I could go on in detail; the story’s extremely muted eroticism was seared into my pre-adolescent brain, even though — or perhaps because — I didn’t know exactly what catnip was. From context, I vaguely assumed it involved needles, a misunderstanding that it took me at least another ten years to clear up.

The specific details of my, um, relationship with Catwoman are idiosyncratic, of course, but the fact that I have a relationship isn’t. She may not be Mickey Mouse, but it’s safe to say that a large number of people have thought about Catwoman in the 60-plus years since she was first invented by Bob Kane. She’s a firmly established part of what comic-book writer Alan Moore calls the “fictional planet — the place we have with us ever since we started listening to stories.”

Moore adds that “We spend a lot of time in these imaginary worlds, and we get to know them better than the real locations we pass on the street every day.” This is why making a movie about Catwoman — or Spider-Man, or King Arthur, for that matter — is such good business; the audience already knows and loves the people in the film. It’s almost like watching a friends’ home movies. Critics forced to sit through uninspired sequel after uninspired sequel often start moaning about late capitalism, or marketing machinery, or Hollywood’s general lack of daring. But the truth is that the public has always liked to hear about the same damn people doing the same damn things over and over and over. Today, we call these pulp stories; they used to be called myths.

The argument that super-heroes are somehow the latest incarnation of a universal, Joseph-Campbell-approved Bildungsroman is frankly preposterous, no matter how often it’s wheeled out by desperate comic-book fans. Superman is not Zeus, and the Elongated Man is not the holy lingam. But while the content of pulp and myth may be different, the way they are produced has some similarities. Myths had no single creator; they were group productions; lots of poets and singers and just ordinary folks told each other stories about the gods, adding to them as they went. But nobody owned them — they belonged to everyone. In pulp stories, of course, we generally do know the actual originator; we can point to Edgar Rice Burroughs and say, there’s the guy who made up Tarzan. Nonetheless, the creation often looms so much larger than the creator that it eclipses him or her altogether. Today Tarzan is as much a creature of Johnny Weissmuller as of Burroughs, and perhaps even more a product of the people who worked on that animated cartoon, whoever they were. He’s a composite creation, cut off from Burroughs in a way that Hamlet, for instance, will never be cut off from Shakespeare.

Super-heroes may be our cultures’ most communal possessions for the paradoxical reason that comic-books are so little read. For most people, if a movie or television character originated in a comic-book, he might as well just have sprung full-formed out of nowhere. This gives super-heroes a certain fluidity, which is, again, similar to mythological figures. Just as Argus had anywhere from four to a hundred eyes, so a single super-hero may change radically from story to story, depending on who’s doing the telling. In the first Superman comics, for example, our hero could only jump, not fly; in the Christopher Reeve movie, he can make time run backwards by reversing the direction of the earth’s rotation, a preposterous idea that I’ve never seen utilized in a comic-book. Sometimes Superman is married to Lois Lane, sometimes he isn’t. And what about the “alternate-universe” story where the infant child rocketed from Krypton is found, not by the Kents, but by an Amish family, and so becomes a pacifist, with tragic consequences for all?

If a major figure like Superman is treated with such freedom, a minor one like Catwoman must count herself lucky if she’s even vaguely consistent from appearance to appearance. In fact, as the excellent fan-produced Feline Fatale website amply documents, most aspects of the Catwoman character have been up for grabs over the years. Her origin has varied widely; at first she was an amnesiac stewardess (yes, that’s right, a stewardess), then an abused housewife, and now, thanks to writer Frank Miller, she’s a hard-boiled ex-S&M hooker who snaps out lines like “You know why I hate men?….Never met one.” Her powers, too, have come and gone; sometimes she has a whip, sometimes she has cats trained to do her bidding, sometimes she knows martial arts, and sometimes, of course, she has super-catnip. Even her costume has been reworked; early on she wore a full, furry cat-head replica; later she changed to a more manageable eye-mask and a purple knee-length dress with a green cape. Her most recognizable outfit — the catsuit — didn’t become de rigeur until Julie Newmar’s shiny, form-fitting debut on TV’s Batman series. In Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer moved the franchise more firmly towards fetish gear, with a notoriously uncomfortable latex get-up; Pfeiffer had to use powder to slide it on. More recently, the comic-book Catwoman has been wearing goggles, of all things.

But though one has a lot of leeway when telling a Catwoman story, the character still has to be recognizable. That’s the challenge of writing about pulp icons; you have to come up with a way to make the story your own while making sure it remains everyone else’s too. A current success is the WB’s popular Smallville. The show is about Superman as a teenager, before he got his costume and all his powers. The series works as decent melodrama, and it gains much of the weight it has from the audience’s familiarity with the details of the Superman narrative — heat vision, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, Krypton. In other words, its creators reference a shared body of knowledge, and by doing so, demonstrate their respect for both their material and their audience.

The same cannot be said of the people responsible for the new Catwoman movie. As an experience, the film is familiar enough, but it’s the familiarity of cliché, not archetype. One-named director Pitof’s visuals are relentlessly, anonymously stylish — one sequence on a basketball court could be mistaken for an exceptionally long and pointless soft-drink commercial, while another where cubicle workers speed up to show the passage of time looks like an ad for telecommunications software. The actors appear to be as non-plussed by the visuals as the audience; Sharon Stone is especially peevish, but everybody looks as if they wished they were someplace else. The plot, such as it is, involves toxic beauty cream and many, many shots of Halle Berry’s rear end. Among men, the financial success of the enterprise will clearly rest on the second of these; for straight women, the only possible attraction is the kitty cats. Be warned, however: there are many fewer cute feline reactions shots in the movie than you would have a right to expect from the previews.

Obviously, no one involved in this disaster cares anything at all about Catwoman. Even so, the script ignores the character’s legacy in a manner that can only be described as gratuitous For example, in all her previous incarnations, Catwoman’s alter-ego was named Selina Kyle. Now some secret identities — Dick Grayson, for example, or Oliver Queen — have aged poorly. But what on earth is wrong with Selina Kyle? Nonetheless, it’s gone; in the movie, Catwoman’s alter ego is…Patience Phillips. If that sounds a bit too much like Peter Parker, it’s no accident; Berry’s Catwoman has a lot more in common with Spider-Man than she does with the Batman villain. Just as Parker gains the proportionate strength and speed of a spider, Patience’s mystical cat benefactor grants her “fierce independence, total confidence, and inhuman reflexes.” With her super-self-esteem, Patience becomes Oprah Winfrey in a Mexican wrestling outfit, telling off all those who need telling off and boldly owning her consumer preferences. As an extra bonus, she gains many of the attributes of cats, such as fear of rain and — in a scene reminiscent of Splash — an unseemly appetite for raw fish. On the subject of litterboxes, however, the film is mercifully silent.

The one aspect of the traditional Catwoman character that the movie *does* seem interested in retaining is her moral ambiguity. In the comics, Catwoman began her costumed career as a burglar, and though she’s been reformed at various times and in various incarnations, she’s usually been kept at least a little villainous. Patience Phillips does, in fact, have a first-rate motive for turning to crime: she has just lost her job. Luckily, though, she is not the sort of girl who thinks like that or, indeed, who thinks much at all. When Catwoman does rather dutifully steal some jewels, it’s only because, you know, cats like bright, shiny things. In any case, Patience’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it — she almost instantly returns most of them in a bag marked “Sorry.”

Berry’s Catwoman, then, isn’t selfish or greedy or even especially angry. She just has poor impulse control. This neatly inverts the whole raison d’etre of the character. The old Catwoman was sexy because she was dangerous, skillful, and unattainable; Batman was attracted to her at least in part because she was a worthy foe. Berry’s version, on the other hand, is supposed to be appealing because she’s animalistic — i.e., sexually aggressive, spontaneous, and fun to be around. Most of all, she’s available: when a bartender leers at her, she doesn’t hand him his head, but instead almost purrs with appreciation. Berry’s up there to be eye-candy, and her desperate desire to be ingratiating makes all the tight leather and exposed collar-bones seem more than a bit pitiful. When Catwoman dumps Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) because she’s just gotta ramble, baby, it’s hard not to think that he’s well out of it.

At the film’s close, Berry’s Catwoman mews that she’s “bad as I want to be,” which is a little misleading In truth, Catwoman is as bad as *Warner Brothers* wants it to be; they’re the ones who made the movie and, moreover, the ones who own the rights to the character. That’s because even though Catwoman’s been around for more than half a century, and even though her creator is dead, she’s still under copyright. So are most super-heroes, which is a shame. At one time, tales involving communally created characters were told by whoever remembered and could best repeat them; nowadays they’re told by whoever happens to have the ear of a media oligarch. This produces some lame art, and it also keeps a lot of good art off the shelves; the excellent live-action Batman TV-show, featuring Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, has still not been released on DVD because of licensing disputes. More importantly, though, granting corporations the rights to ideas that have for all intents and purposes entered the public domain turns people into passive observers of their own culture, and of the insides of their own skulls. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want Time Warner claiming ownership of any part of my psychic space. It makes me feel a bit like Patience Phillips/Catwoman: torn between two identities, each one stupider than the other.

Tags: ,