The Nine Lives of Catwoman

A still from 'Catwoman'. Catwoman (Halle Berry) stands in the doorway of a metal chainlink fence. She is a Black woman, very athletic. She wears a skimpy leather and PVC outfit consisting of a bra and wrap around chain belts, elbow length black gloves with white claw tips and a latex cat mask that covers her scalp. She has heavy eyeliner on and red lipstick.
Halle Berry as Catwoman in Catwoman (2004) (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In 2019, four of the 10 highest grossing films worldwide were based on comic books. Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing release of all time, while Joker joined Black Panther as the second superhero film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Marvel and DC make up a vast percentage of the Hollywood market, attracting an ever-growing pool of Oscar winners and A-Listers to their line-up.

But, basked in the shadow of Tim Burton’s campy nineties Batman Series, the pre-Nolan superhero world of the early 2000s was vastly different. The record-breaking success of Spiderman had made clear that comic books movies were about to be huge, and its hotly debated age rating showed that superheroes weren’t just for families. Not all offerings from the time are as fondly remembered: despite big stars and bigger budgets, Daredevil, its spin-off, Elektra and Catwoman were all monumental flops. Since that low point, Affleck has won an Academy Award for his direction on Argo and helmed DC’s Justice League as Batman, but for Halle Berry, the legacy of Catwoman remains.

At the time of release, Halle Berry commanded incredible star power; she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2002 (she remains the only black woman to have won the award), following it with roles in blockbusters Die Another Day and X2. Catwoman should have solidified her place as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, capable of leading an action movie in the competitive summer box office.

Instead, Catwoman would sweep the board at that year’s Golden Raspberry Awards. ‘I never in my life thought I would be up here,’ Halle Berry said in 2005, holding her award for Worst Actress in one hand and her Oscar in the other. ‘I have a lot of people to thank. You don’t win a Razzie without a lot of help from a lot of people.’

At the time, I was 12, blissfully unaware of the critical response, and I unironically loved it.

A still from 'Batman Returns'. Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) is shown against a dark backdrop to the left of the image, in close up. Her blonde hair is matted and scraggly all over her head and face, sticking up all angles. You can just see dark eyeshadow peeking out from under the hair and a pink lipstick. Her homemade leather patchwork catsuit is ripped and torn at the shoulder and back.
Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Retaining some of the beats of Michelle Pfeiffer’s popular rendition of the character in Batman Returns, Patience Philips (Halle Berry) is a painfully shy and overworked underling, murdered when she becomes privy to the dark secret at the heart she works for, Hedare Beauty. Resurrected by the fish breath of a retired temple cat, Patience gains the agility, fearlessness and raw sensuality all housecats exude. In her quest to solve her own murder, Catwoman has run ins with Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), an unwillingly retired model who truly represents all possible meanings of the phrase ‘blue steel’, and Detective Tom Loan (Benjamin Bratt), who’s on the hunt for a cat burglar with a penchant for diamond claws.

With martinis, sex jokes at the office and a focus on Patience’s unfulfilling career as a graphic designer, Catwoman tries to firmly situate the action in a Sex and the City world: viewers may be reminded of SNL’s spoof Black Widow trailer, which sees Natasha Romanoff balancing her duties as an Avenger with her job at a NYC fashion magazine. Patience’s transformation is a not an act of desperation or rage, instead it’s a make-over: she cuts her hair, paints her toenails red and puts on the sexy leather outfit she’s saved ‘for a dating emergency’. These more rom-com elements at times make an uneasy marriage to the cat-themed gags, as Patience eats raw tuna and hisses at dogs.

However, where Catwoman succeeds in its depiction of Patience as part of a legacy of other women who are ‘not contained by the rules of society’, including Egyptian goddesses, lady knights and jewel thieves. Like anonymous women of history, house cats are underestimated and uncelebrated: this idea captured my imagination as a child and as an adult. Let’s be honest — it’s cool to watch a sexy lady beat up bad guys and not feel tortured over it, even sexier to feel like you could be like her. Patience experiences ‘a freedom other women will never know’, and her duty is not to save the world, but to liberate herself.

A still from the TV show 'Batman'. Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) is shown in close-up, grinning with blindingly white teeth, sat on a gold and leopard skin throne. She is a beautiful Black woman with heavy eyebrows and a black bouffant hairstyle with added cat ear hairband. Her catsuit is black and glittery with a gold chain around her neck.
Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in the 3rd season of Batman (1966-68) (Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution)

Another refreshing aspect of Catwoman is the relentless silliness of it. ‘White Russian, no ice. Hold the vodka. Hold the Kahlua,’ Catwoman says to a bartender, a moment among many which harken back to the campy fun of the original comic book adaptation: sixties TV Series Batman.

Though Batman would see three actresses step into the catsuit over the course of its 1966-68 run, it is Eartha Kitt’s rendition which remains most influential: Javicia Leslie, who will take over the lead role on CW’s Batwoman in 2021, cites her as a major inspiration. Kitt’s performance on Batman iscelebrated as an example of gleeful villainy with which she would become synonymous throughout her varied career. FromYzma in Emperor’s New Groove, to her joyfully sinful 1953 singles ‘I Want to Be Evil’ and ‘Santa Baby’: in many ways, Eartha Kitt was Catwoman.

The fact that mixed-race Kitt took over the role from white actress Julie Newmar ostensibly suggests a radical equality in the casting department. However, while it was undeniably ground-breaking, the recast saw a shift Catwoman’s role on the show. Any sexual tension between the character and Adam West’s Batman was written out, and the onus was on Kitt as a criminal mastermind. Unlike Batman Returns or Catwoman, this rendition of the character has no motivation beyond being bad: much like Catwoman‘ s lineage of magical women, she’s free, fierce and it’s so much fun to watch.

However, like Berry, Eartha Kitt’s career would also take a serious nose drive from which it wouldn’t recover. In 1968, Kitt famously addressed the President Johnson and the First Lady directly with her concerns about the USA’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Kitt had been invited to the Lady’s Luncheon at the White House because of her work with disenfranchised youth, which had shown her the devastating social effects of the draft on young Black men. ‘The children of America are not rebelling for no reason,’ she said.

Following this, Kitt was criticised widely in the press and she would undergo surveillance from the Secret Service: blacklisted, her career in the United States was derailed irreparably. In the current climate, Eartha Kitt’s trailblazing legacy has never been more relevant.

A still from the trailer for 'The Batman'. Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) is shown in close-up in a very shadow drenched shot. She is a burglar, wearing a cat-like black balaclava and black leather jacket. She is crouching and looking up to an out-of-shot figure, she looks like she's just been caught.
Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman in the trailer for the upcoming The Batman (2021) (Warner Bros. Pictures)

I hoped I could reclaim Catwoman not just for nostalgia but because, despite the plethora of Marvel and DC offerings, it remains the only superhero adaptation to feature a woman of colour in the titular role. But although it has its moments, the mixed bag of feminist thought, the S&M inspired costume and family friendly cat jokes all suggest that no one knew who they wanted this film to be for. What the enduring effect of the negative critical reaction on Halle Berry’s career suggests is that the standards imposed on Black women in the industry are unforgivingly high.

Catwoman’s latest vessel Zoe Kravitz has been a rising star in Hollywood for over a decade, balancing supporting roles in critical hits like Mad Max: Fury Road and Dope with roles in the Divergent and X Men franchises. Following on her role in the ensemble cast of Big Little Lies, Kravitz was the lead in High Fidelityan offbeat adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel which encapsulated the androgynous Brooklyn cool that Kravitz herself emanates. In the recently released trailer for The Batman, this Catwoman isn’t adorned in jewels, but wears a balaclava peaked into cat ears, the eyes beneath hungry. I’m hungry too, and hopeful for a Catwoman who is true to herself, who looks danger in the eyes and cackles, who defies complexity and challenges the notion of punitive Bat Justice. Todd Philip’s Joker was not just unique because of its unprecedented critical success, but because The Joker is a villain, one that audiences found themselves cheering on. With anti-police sentiment is high and the selfishness of the world’s billionaires brutally evident, one can’t help but wonder if Batman has the same popular appeal that he used to. The commercial and critical success of Black Panther showed that audiences are hungry not just for representation in superhero films, but for social commentary. I can’t help but think that if The Batman is to fully explore what it means to be a superhero right now, it is the complex, fearless and free Catwoman who is best equipped to do it.  

by Suki Hollywood

(She/her) Born on Valentine’s Day in Belfast, Suki Hollywood is a pop culture junkie first, a writer second. Raised on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her favourite films include Moonlight and The Wizard of Oz, but truth be told, television is where her heart liesA graduate of The University of Glasgow, she has contributed editorially to Knight Errant Press and had her creative work featured in publications such as From Glasgow to Saturn and clavmag. Find her at sukihollywood.com or @miz.possible on Instagram.

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