Forget Joker, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman Was the Batman Anti-Hero We Always Needed

The character was always the star of the show.


If you wanted to see a movie about an iconic Batman rogue reimagined as an easily pushed around chump who ultimately snaps when society pushes them a bit too far, you could go see Joker—or you could just stay home and watch Michelle Pfeiffer‘s take on Catwoman in 1992’s Batman Returns instead. She’ll give you everything you need without the threat of incel violence.

While critics at the time were quick to note that Tim Burton’s second Batman movie was light on Batman himself (he doesn’t even show up until 13 minutes into the movie, and doesn’t get much to do until the second act), it’s sort of amazing that none of those early ’90s (mostly male) critics didn’t figure out that that’s because the movie starred Batman in title and marketing only. Unlike his first flick, Burton brought on screenwriter Daniel Waters, who was then best known for his brutal subversion of teen flicks, Heathers. It no surprise then that the man behind that script locked on to the character of Catwoman as his vehicle to quietly subvert the mythos of Batman and superheroes in general. Truly, the movie only makes sense if you view her as the protagonist. This isn’t some “Squint your eyes and just go with us on this” hot take either. The movie features Catwoman’s origin story, keeps her one step ahead of every other characters, and in the end it’s Catwoman, not Batman, that defeats the film’s real villain. The last we see of Batman, he’s been forced to cat-sit Catwoman’s pet. The last shot in the film is of Catwoman herself, looming mysteriously over Gotham City (hinting at a spin-off movie that was planned but never came to fruition).

If there’s any confusion about this at all, it’s because Burton and Waters construct the film as a four-sided face-off between characters who are funhouse reflections of the others (we know this because they all go around saying things like, ‘We’re not so different, you and I’ and ‘Don’t you see, we’re the same?’).

There’s Michael Keaton’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, of course, who Burton has either grown bored of or actually grown to resent. The character just kind of rests on his own mythology for most of the film and pouts around his mansion. Boohoo, he’s sad, and rich, and there’s street crime he has to stop. Alfred is always meant to be the character who keeps Batman in check in the franchise, but in Batman Returns, working class Alfred seems to barely be able to stand his ward at times. Batman mostly just develops an obsession with the Penguin that Alfred starts to find silly. “Must you be the only lonely ‘man-beast’ in town?” the butler quips.

As for Penguin, Burton and Waters reimagined the character as something of tether of Batman himself. Where as Bruce Wayne was born into one of Gotham’s wealthiest families only to have his parents murdered when he was young, Penguin was rejected and thrown into the sewer by his wealthy parents due to his deformities and startling disposition. He grows up in a carnival sideshow, which he soon turns into a criminal gang under his control. Currently operating from the sewers which apparently connect to the penguin exhibit at a local abandoned zoo, he hatches a plan to reemerge on the surface to reclaim his apparent birthright as rich young boy and/or extract revenge for being cast of in the first place. Though, his plan gets somewhat sidetracked when he’s manipulated into running for mayor against the establishment incumbent as a charismatic outsider. Penguin (who briefly returns to his birth name Oswald Cobblepot Jr), goes along with the plan on the promise that he’ll be free to sexually harass young women. This was the early ’90s, so the word “poontang” is used.

Then there’s the guy who manipulates Penguin into running in the first place, and is really the film’s true big bad: Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck. The character, created for the film and not seen in any other Batman media since, was a purportedly self-made billionaire businessman with a knack for both self-promotion and scheming. He operates above the law, and indeed treats manipulating local politics as a side hobby. Secretly, he’s engaged in all sorts of various high crimes and misdemeanors. As a sustainable fashion pioneer he runs a “clean textiles” plant that secretly produces pollutant ooze. He owns half the slums in the city, and just for good measure he’s also killed his former business partner, a fact not even the local police seem aware of. If Penguin represents you typical comic book villainy in all of it’s zaniness, Shreck represents real world white collar crime and corruption in all of its many forms, albeit perhaps a bit simplified and amped up.

Two quick notes on Schreck:

Long before it became a meme that Jia Tolentino could expertly dissect, Shreck has a large adult son. How large was Shreck’s adult son? Burton cast 6’5 bodybuilder Andrew Bryniarski in the role of Chip Shreck. An absolute unit. One of the earliest and largest adult sons in the pop culture cannon. Chip, of course, is the only thing Max seems to genuinely care for (Mrs. Shreck being deceased).

Even at the time of the film’s original premiere, people were pretty quick to just assume that Shreck was a thinly veiled fictional take on Donald Trump. So much so that Walken at the time had to explain that he wasn’t purposefully channeling Trump in his portrayal. They’re just two guys from Queens who have similar dialects. Ironically, during 2016, many were quick to point out that similarities between Trump and Penguin’s own political pursuits in the film. There’s probably a reading of this film where you can view Shreck and Penguin as the two different sides of the Trump persona, like the devil and angel sitting on his shoulder, except, as Penguin points out on their first meeting, they’re both actually just monsters.

The three main male characters of the film all operate from motivations that are only slightly different form the others: Batman is the rich boy who was left orphaned, Penguin was meant to be a rich boy but rejected, and Shreck is the kind of man whose biggest motivation in life is to make his son a happy rich boy and the first in the line of mega-wealthy Shreck scions.

Catwoman then not only stands out as the film’s only main female character (and we should point out that despite all the feminist undertones we’re about to highlight, the film doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test unless you count an implied offscreen conversation), but also the only one who starts as essentially a normal working-class person.

When we first meet Catwoman, she’s still just Selena Kyle, reimagined from mainstream Batman lore here as a Shreck’s put upon secretary, or “executive assistant,” as she’s quick to point out. While pouring coffee for Shreck and the Mayor during an off-the-record meeting, she attempts to “lean in” to offer her ideas on a business deal. Sadly, Sheryl Sandberg was only 23 at the time the film came out, and had not yet perfected the technique of leaning in. Selena’s input is quickly debuffed, and she’s laughed at. At least she can make a good cup of coffee, Shreck points out.

After getting caught up in the melee initiated by the Joker’s gang and saved from an evil clown by Batman, Selena makes her way back to her charmingly soft-grunge apartment decked out in girlish charms and all pink walls. Her answering machine is filled with all sorts of indignations. Her mother castigates her for choosing to move to the big city and bother with the career thing in the first place. A man she was seeing breaks it off, apparently finding her a bit too intimidating. We’re clued in that Selena is a strong-minded, ambitious women with big goals who may be too much for fragile men to handle in her personal life, but an onslaught of micro-aggressions and general patriarchal bullshit have rendered her an anxiety-ridden mess with frizzy hair. So nervous, in fact, she’s forgotten an important file concerning Shreck’s upcoming meeting Bruce Wayne at work. So she hurries back the office to not only grab it, but also uncover’s Shreck’s big, secret plan to horde Gotham’s power supply in a giant convertor masquerading as a plant, presumably to drain the city of power and to sell it back to them at an increased rate. It’s a bit simple, but a good enough stand-in for general capitalist manipulations. Shreck finds her, threatens her in a moment that almost seems like it’s about to turn into sexual violence only to laugh it off and then quickly pushes her out of the window in an act of attempted (and on his part, assumed) murder.

She survives (with what may or may not be some supernatural assistance from stray cats who licked her back to life, but the movie is unclear on this point), and wobbles home to her apartment in a daze. Ultimately though it’s those messages on her answering machine that push her over the edge. Particularly one ad from a telemarketer hawking Gotham Lady perfume that not only glorifies workplace sexual harassment but uses it as a selling point (“One whiff of this at the office, and your boss will be asking you to stay after work—for a candlelight staff meeting for two!”). The revelation the scent is sold exclusively at Shreck’s department store is the final straw. What follows is what may still very well be comic book movie’s greatest costume creation scene in which Selena turns an old trench coats into that iconic Catwoman costume which all crescendos with the declaration of, “I don’t know about you Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier.” This is not so much a scene of hero being born, but a woman being radicalized.

Catwoman sets about testing her newfound powers. She saves a woman from a mugger, only to chastise her for not protecting herself first (it’s an odd aside, but could be explained by a studio intervention to remind people she’ll still be marketed as a villain). Then she trapezes over to Shreck’s Department store and decides to blow it up in a literal destruction of capitol. Tellingly, however, she insults the store’s security guards but allows them to escape. It’s an important part of the character’s moral outlook that she’s not into indiscriminate murder.

It’s that store explosions that first causes Batman and Catwoman to cross paths for the first time while they’re both in masks (the movie has a sly running joke about how important Batman considers minimizing property damage to his job; Bruce Wayne, of course, likely having a decent property portfolio himself). The script plays on some simmering sexual tension between the two as well as some overlaps in their general outlook, but a deleted Catwoman line from an earlier draft of the final script that has floated around online ultimately sums up the film’s general thesis about the differences between the two: “But bottom line baby, you live to preserve the peace, and I’m dying to disturb it.”

As their masked personas tangle, the civilian versions of Selena and Bruce have also become acquainted after a presumed dead Selena shocks Max Shreck by barging back into the office during Shreck’s meeting with Bruce. While Bruce is obviously wary of Shreck and his business practices, Selena seems put off that he’d even meet with him in the first place (by this point, the movie is basically begging you to note Batman’s differences of approach between criminals who roam the boardrooms and those who roam the streets). Despite this, chemistry prevails and flirtation pursues to provide the blockbuster film’s requisite romantic storyline even as Catwoman remains annoyed at the Batman.

To that end, there’s a brief interlude where Catwoman teams up with Penguin, whom it’s clear she abhor (she threatens to eat his pet bird and what not) in order to frame Batman for the kidnapping of the city’s “Ice Princess.” However, when the Penguin turns that kidnap into a murder, Catwoman is out. Again, she’s not out to kill innocent people.

After some wild Batmobile rides, assorted carnival-themed crimes, and a very Burton-esque masked Christmas gala, the film climaxes with a four person chase through Gotham. Batman, of course, is still hellbent on defeating the Penguin. His promise to “recapture” the “glory of Gotham” (essentially “Making Gotham Great Again”) through his mayoral run now scuttled, he turns at first towards a plan to kidnap all the first born sons in town but then just decides to kill everyone via missiles strapped to the back of actual penguins. This is a patently ridiculous evil plan. The kind you’d only ever find in comic books, and the kind only a traditional comic book hero like Batman could foil. Which, of course, he does. He then chases Penguin (riding in a giant fiberglass duck) with the Batmobile, and even though he could have stopped at any moment to deescalate the situation, Batman just kind of sits back and watches as Penguin is fatally injured.

Catwoman, meanwhile, is now on an all hunt to kill Shreck, who she feels actually deserves it, in the bottom of the Penguin’s zoo hangout. Batman, who may we remind you basically just watched the Penguin die, zooms in to try and stop her and instead tries to convince Shreck to turn himself into the police. “Don’t be naive. The law doesn’t apply to people like him!” Catwoman sneers. Batman tries to convince Catwoman that they’re basically the same, “split down the middle,” and imagine a happy ending where they live together in his mansion. Again, Catwoman isn’t quite convinced.

“Bruce, I could live with you in your castle forever. Just like in a fairy tale,” she snarls. “I just couldn’t live with myself. So don’t pretend this is a happy ending.”

She then kills Max, as intended before sauntering off into the night.

If we wanted to go full hot take—and what else is the internet for?—Catwoman basically represents the more radical left to Batman’s Democrat establishment. Batman is convinced they could work together if she’d just settle down, but Catwoman thinks Bruce is just too blind to the real evils of society. In the end, it’s she who prevails.

Indeed, Pfeiffer, Waters and Burton all intended to reunite for a Catwoman movie proper. A script was even produced (which still floats around online) in which Catwoman’s feminist underpinning are brought out even more to the forefront and improved upon. She’s helped along the way by characters who are explicitly written as women of color (in comparison to the almost completely white cast of Returns), and everything from workplace sexual harassment to the wage gap are mentioned. Her villains meanwhile are an anti-Feminist pundit and a corrupt superhero team who somehow manage to stand in for the excess of capitalism, the darkside of law enforcement, and even Charismatic organized religion (the superhero squad’s leader is named Captain God). It’s even less subtle about the political subtext of this iteration of Catwoman, and perhaps that’s why there’s little surprise it never actually got made. Especially as director Joel Schumacher took over the Batman franchise proper and took it in a lighter, more merchandizing opportunity-friendly direction (something directly satirized in Waters’ script).

Notoriously, a completely unrelated Catwoman movie starring Halle Barry (whose character wasn’t even the canonized Selena Kyle-version) eventually bombed, and the character wouldn’t pop up again on screen until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Played by Anne Hathaway, this characterization still finds her as an anti-hero to Batman’s left. Curiously, the new DC Extended Universe hasn’t bothered to introduce the character despite the fact it now includes two different Jokers, two different Batmans, and is likely casting around for a second Superman as well.

It’s curious treatment for one of the franchise’s most known characters, and there’s been three separate rumors cycles that she may be coming back to the screen soon (either through the Justice League films, a Gotham City Sirens film with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and, most recently, in the Robert Pattinson-starring Batman movie). Though, maybe DC bosses might be best advised to cut to the chase and finally give Selena Kyle her own movie. Given that anything goes over in the DCEU right now, we certainly wouldn’t be mad if Pfeiffer, Burton and Waters were the ones to do it. Pfeiffer still owns the whip after all.

Related: Who Should Play Catwoman to Robert Pattinson’s Batman?