All week long, we’ve been commemorating the 80th anniversary of Gotham City’s finest feline, Selina Kyle. So what better way to end the week than with a celebration of the one and only Catwoman movie? No, not the Halle Berry one… we’re talking about the REAL Catwoman story: 1992’s Batman Returns, starring Michelle Pfeiffer.
Sure, the movie might be NAMED after Batman, but make no mistake. This Christmas classic is a Catwoman story, through and through. While Michael Keaton reprises his role as Bruce Wayne from the genre-defining 1989 feature, the Batman who appears in this film is one whose journey is already complete. He’s already become the Bat, avenged his parents, and has become Gotham’s protector. Here he fights not to transform himself, but to maintain a status quo. He is literally a static character, often standing in place while battling goon hordes or literally trapped inside his Penguin-controlled Batmobile, experiencing the events of the film as if he were on a theme park ride. The two parts of the movie he has the most control over—sabotaging Penguin’s candidacy as mayor, and then sabotaging his army of radio-controlled Penguins—are really more Alfred’s achievements than his own. Heck, he barely even shows up during the first 40 minutes of the movie. The only narrative arc Batman really has to speak of is his romantic attraction to our new star… effectively casting Batman as HER love interest.
Catwoman, in contrast, couldn’t be more dynamic. As Selina, Pfeiffer’s range of emotion and transformation are unmatched in the Batman film universe. Like Batman in the preceding film, here, it is Selina who embarks upon the hero’s journey. Meet Selina Kyle: a shy, withdrawn secretary with a mind to speak, a domineering boss who won’t hear it, a secret, a wry sense of humor for an audience of only herself, and a housecat who gets more romantic play than she does. Thanks in no small part to Pfeiffer’s nuanced performance, we know more about exactly who Selina is within 15 minutes of her first appearance than we do about Bruce Wayne after two films. But just as we’re getting to know her, Selina accidentally discovers her boss Max Shreck’s secret plans to suck power from Gotham City, and she gets pushed out the office window for her insolence to her apparent demise.
What happens next is a matter of speculation. Selina’s body lands in the snow, a clowder of cats swarms over her, and Selina comes back… different. Is she brain-damaged? The Burtonian undead? Personally, I like to believe that in an Andrew Lloyd Weber-style turn, each of those cats recognized Selina as one of their own, and donated one of their own nine lives to her.
Regardless of exactly what happens, Selina returns to her apartment, acting out a grim mockery of the nightly routine she had played out moments earlier -- one which includes playing back her answering machine. When she hears a bafflingly sexist ad for perfume about seducing your boss, she finally takes pause. The fact that the ad is by the very company which employed her, though, is what causes her to snap. Accompanied by some of the best scoring Danny Elfman’s ever done, Selina blows up every part of her old, withdrawn life, literally taking a hammer to her own apartment and destroying all the things which remind her of the submissive person she used to be. Manically, she crafts a new persona for herself with an old jacket and some clever wiring -- one who can never be crossed again.
This is when Pfeiffer becomes the Selina we all know and love: confident, mischievous, driven -- all the things that make a Batman go wild. And it’s all in pursuit of one goal: vengeance on the man who destroyed her life, and would one day soon destroy Gotham. Along the way, Selina falls in love with the only man who can keep up with her, and is ultimately forced to make a choice between domestic bliss and the instrument of vengeance she forged on a sewing machine. But the time where Selina’s path can be dictated by the men around her is over. In one final, explosive act, Selina is killed forever, and only the Catwoman remains. The movie may open with Penguin’s childhood story, but it’s most revealing that the final shot is of Catwoman herself looking up into the night, her humanity hidden from view. And as the Batsignal shines overhead, one thing is clear: Gotham may be Batman’s city, but this night belongs to Catwoman.