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This hit, that ice cold
Michelle Pfeiffer, that white gold.

Context

There was a not-huge-but-still-significant wave of superhero movies during the 1990s. Many of them have writeups.org profiles – Darkman, The Rocketeer, the Mystery Men, The Meteor Man, The Crow

Much of this was made possible by the 1989 Batman movie, which had several sequels during the 1990s.

Second Batmania

Batman had been a blockbuster hit, with a huge marketing presence (“1989 Batmania”). This cleared a path for a sequel with some of the bigger talent of these days.

Director Tim Burton and lead Michael Keaton returned. And Batman Returns added Christopher Walken, Danny DeVito… and Michelle Pfeiffer  .

Pfeiffer had by that point clearly established her acting chops. She also had genre movie credibility after her early Scarface role, and especially the geek-favourite 1985 romance/fantasy Ladyhawke.

As often with Burton-directed movies, outsiders were an important theme of Batman Returns. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was one such misfit.

I consider her performance one of the two strongest, most charismatic ones in 1990s superhero movies. With the other being Wesley Snipes in Blade.

Sequence

Being fairly detailed, this profile is presented in two parts. .

To read about other versions of Catwoman, you can check our guide to our Catwoman character profiles.

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Background

  • Real Name: Selina Kyle.
  • Known Relatives: Mother (unnamed).
  • Group Affiliation: Certainly not.
  • Base of Operations: Gotham City.
  • Height: 5’7″ (1.70m). Weight: 120 lbs. (54 Kg.). Age: Mid-20s.
  • Eyes: Ultra-mega-super-blue. Hair: Blonde.

Setting note

One of the most striking characteristics of the 1992 Batman movie was the Anton Furst  architecture for Gotham City. It was designed to fit Tim Burton’s distinctive “dark carnival” aesthetics.

This version of Gotham exists in perpetual gloom and frequent rain – or snow during the 1992 movie. It seems stuck in an imaginary, late 1940s era. With the cars and women’s clothing being two of the clearest chronological markers.

(“Late 1940s” is a sort of average. Some bits remind me of the 1970s (like Selina’s dingy VW Beetle), but some bits are closer to a Great Depression vibe – or even the Gilded Age. The previous one, not the current one.)

1990s tech exists. But it is underplayed and coexists with filing cabinets and other old tech.

Most architecture is Art Deco that didn’t stop before getting overwrought. It coexists with several kinds of Brutalism, plus haphazard remains from previous eras (especially Victoriana). These charismatic but oppressive buildings and statues tower across too-narrow and poorly laid-out streets, leaving them with little light.

The edifices are like trees competing for space in an unkept, crowded, dank forest.

With its vaguely dieselpunk, overbearing vibe, this Gotham makes the locals look like bitter rats trapped in a maze. This plays an important role in visually setting up how drab, constrained and locked down Selina’s life is – before she even appears on screen.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) licking herself

Soundtrack

Catwoman has her own musical theme during the movie, of course.

History (part 1)

Selina Kyle was an OL  working for corrupt industrialist Maximilian Shreck in Gotham City.

She seemed to have been hired fairly recently. Yet she worked in the C-suite, and directly with Shreck.

In this virulently misogynistic environment, Ms. Kyle was a decorative pet. She was there to serve coffee to the old boys’ network, look pretty and deferential, and shut up.

Her entire life went along the same lines, choking her and going nowhere. She :

  • Worked hard only to receive withering contempt and objectification.
  • Kept being nagged over the phone by an overbearing mother. Selina likely moved to Gotham to get away from her. She seemed to come from a much smaller, more rural town.
  • Went through a succession of weak and uninspiring boyfriends. She saw being single as a personal failure.
  • Was forced into a timid and submissive behaviour at all times.

Her only apparent friend was her cat, Miss Kitty. Who may have been a black-furred Egyptian mau cat. But I’m no expert, and it’s too dark to see whether her fur has patterns.

… and a merry Christmas to you

Whilst Shreck was giving a Christmas speech alongside the Mayor, the Penguin’s gang — essentially a terrorist circus — attacked. Selina was caught in the fray as she desperately tried to bring Shreck the text of his speech.

The Batman (Bruce Wayne) intervened and saved her. But he did not deign to say a word as Kyle was babbling her thanks.

After he left, the disappointed secretary felt a compulsion to grab the stun gun from the unconscious evil clown who had briefly taken her hostage. She then tased the thug in revenge, to her own surprise and delight.

Despite the commotion, Kyle then returned to work until late in the night. She needed to prepare Shreck’s documents for an early meeting on the next day. Unexpectedly, Shreck was also there.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) serving coffee

Defenestrated

Selina naïvely tried to impress him with her resourcefulness, revealing that she had guessed his password and read protected documents. She thus knew that Shreck’s next big project was outright criminal.

To plug this security breach, Shreck defenestratedThrowing someone out of a high window. her from a dozen stories high.

(Max Shreck, like the Penguin and Catwoman, is in part a reflection of Batman. Here, it’s the Bruce-Wayne-as-a-mover-and-shaker-in-Gotham side that is mirrored. And the main character moment Shreck gets is to do what Bruce’s dad couldn’t do – sacrifice himself to protect his son.)

(However, the movie keeps this “dark reflection” aspects unobtrusive. Thus, Shreck (from the German schreck, terror) chiefly comes across as an allusion to Murnau’s Nosferatu. Since his dastardly plan is to vampirise Gotham by sucking its power for his own needs.)

We move like cagey tigers

As Kyle’s seeming corpse laid in a snowy alley, Miss Kitty inexplicably came in running. She was followed by a literal score of house cats.

This baffling flock of felines prowled around Kyle, with some licking her skin and Miss Kitty staying on Selina’s chest. One began to gnaw her hand bloody, though it is unclear whether the cat was trying to eat her or wake her up.

At this point Selina revived, with but a concussion and superficial lacerations.

(When shooting this scene, Michelle Pfeiffer used a small clicker to help attract the cats’ attention. And there were kibbles and bits hidden in her clothing.)

We couldn’t get closer than this

Somehow Selina got up. She walked all the way back to her flat whilst carrying Miss Kitty. The other cats all followed her.

Before the shock could recede she had a nervous breakdown. She wrecked everything in her apartment that reminded her how childlike and meaningless her life was.

As the cats explored her apartment, Selina’s priority was to turn a vinyl raincoat into a strange, hugging catsuit.

History (part 2)

Calling herself “Catwoman”, a masked Selina intervened in a random street mugging.

Apparently, she just wanted to test her combat skills and have somebody announce her coming to the press.

As Selina, she then… returned to her job on the next day, leaving Maximilian Shreck flabbergastedGreatly surprised..

HELL(O) (T)HERE

She now acted cool, sassy and confident. She also made subtle threats against her boss, whilst pretending to have no recollections from the previous night.

This (and her beauty) made quite an impression on Bruce Wayne, who had been meeting Maximilian Shreck. However, it soon became evident that Kyle wasn’t psychologically stable.

Though Shreck was startled to see Kyle alive, he haughtily decided that he could crush her any time he wanted. For instance, if she tried to blackmail him.

On the following night, Catwoman started wrecking Shreck Industries facilities. Her first target was the campaign offices of Oswald Cobblepot a.k.a. the Penguin. He and Shreck had become uneasy allies in a Mayoral bid.

During this raid, she ran into both the Penguin and Batman.

Life’s a bitch, and now so am I

Catwoman got into a rooftop duel against Batman. Though she was trickier and slightly faster, he was more experienced and better-equipped.

After he prevented her from falling off the roof, she vamped him into slightly lowering his guard. But her strike to his genitals was foiled by body armour.

Batman kicked Catwoman away. But she lucked out and fell onto a dump truck filled with sand.

Still, she felt frustrated that he had interfered with her revenge and power fantasies.

She therefore offered an alliance to Cobblepot, to get rid of Batman together. Fascinated by Catwoman and seeing how a short-term alliance made sense, the Penguin agreed.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) and the Penguin

Ah, l’amour

As Selina, Kyle ran into Bruce Wayne again. He made one of his strangely listless attempts at flirting, and she seemed miles away and none too… linear.

Yet Selina agreed to a date.

The date was a strange thing where they verbally sniffed and poked to understand the duality they could sense in each other. There was also a strong physical chemistry, which Selina eventually decided to act upon.

But as they were making out, Kyle suddenly remembered that her fight with Batman had left her with an obvious, nasty burn on her arm. One she’d be hard-pressed to explain.

They were interrupted anyway, as the TV blared something about a kidnapping. Wayne had to slink away to intervene as Batman. And Selina had to run for Catwoman to be there in time to assist with the trap set by the Penguin.

Walk like a panther tonight

Said trap took place the municipal Christmas tree lighting ceremony. It worked fine. Using a hostage, Catwoman delayed and distracted the Batman.

Meanwhile, the Penguin’s troupe turned the Batmobile into a remote-controlled death trap.

However :

  • In the fray the Penguin killed the hostage, which Catwoman had never agreed to.
  • The chemistry between Catwoman and Batman reasserted itself after a round of beating each other up. They ended up trading sexy banter, Selina attempted to gut him, then they awkwardly went their separate ways. We’ve all been there.
  • Catwoman was increasingly annoyed by the Penguin lusting after her, and told him off. Incensed, the Penguin locked a flying umbrella around her neck and sent her to die.

Catwoman broke the device before it would choke her to death. However, the fall both wounded her, and triggered a traumatic flashback to her defenestration.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) mouth open tongue

She’s fine.

Batman sabotaged the Penguin’s Mayoral run. As a result Max Shreck let Cobblepot drop like, well, last week’s fish.

Meanwhile, Ms. Kyle decided to murder Shreck during his Christmas ball party.

Bruce attended said party, in the hope of running into Selina. Amidst the many masked guests, they alone weren’t wearing masks (get it ?).

As they chatted and danced, Wayne realised that Kyle packed a concealed .45 derringer to kill Max Shreck. He helped her recentre herself as she seemed headed toward another rage breakdown. In so doing, both realised the other’s dual identity.

However, the Penguin then raided the party. He kidnapped Max Shreck as part of a mass murder plot.

No really, she’s fine.

While Batman foiled the Penguin’s plot and back-up plot, Catwoman located Cobblepot’s base to find Shreck. She snagged Max before he could escape, but Batman came in.

Mr. Wayne tried to persuade her to let go of Shreck so he could arrest him. Then they could go home together, start a relationship, and bring their shared psychological issues under control.

This nearly worked, as Selina was sorely tempted by this Prince Charming And Happy Ever After scenario.

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Really, everything’s fine.

Yet she couldn’t live as long as her murderer was alive. Catwoman lashed out at Bruce to get to Max.

Shreck produced a .357 revolver and shot Batman, stunning him. He then shot Catwoman, but she kept coming – claiming that she had nine lives, and Shreck only had five bullets.

At this point, Selina had by her count two lives left. She used the stun gun and a nearby generator to seemingly kill herself and Shreck through electrocution. But while Batman found Shreck’s incinerated corpse, Kyle’s was nowhere to be found.

Meow

Bruce Wayne was evacuated by Alfred Pennyworth. As they were driving back to the manor, Wayne glimpsed Catwoman’s silhouette in a shadowy alley, and rushed to investigate. But all he found was Miss Kitty.

Correctly intuiting that Catwoman was still alive, Wayne rescued Miss Kitty and took her to his estate.

(There’s additional material about catwomen in this setting. See the Catwoman (Patience Phillips) character profile for more about that.)

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) wild hair crazy

Powers & Abilities

Catwoman is a gifted athlete, acrobat and fighter. She also has a talent for intrusion.

She fights primarily as a kickboxer, and usually keeps her claws (below) in reserve for called shots to the face or guts.

She’s smart, fearless, ferocious and charismatic.

She seems to have a solid education, and has a robust vocabulary. She may be overqualified to be a simple assistant. Or perhaps she has qualifications in something that wasn’t considered to provide good employability back then. Such as most humanities.

Weapons

Her usual weapon is a black whip. It has enough heft to decapitate mannequins. She excels at using it to disarm people, using pain strikes at their hands. It also considerably increases her reach.

She often cracks it in patterns in front of her to keep her foes at bay or force them back – think lion tamer.

For closer combat, she can use her clawed gloves. These are reinforced sewing thimbles topped with a variety of inch-long blades. The blades are hinged and thus “retractile”.

The claws also inflict much more damage than you’d expect. They’re stout enough to allow her to spear her hand through sheet metal, or rend Batman’s body armour (!).

(So, yes, Catwoman is the one who can tear through the Batman’s armour to expose the man underneath. All crew on the deck to sound the symbolism horn !)

There likely are some sort of retractile claws at the front of her boots. Catwoman could climb buildings without any gear and whilst wearing smooth-soled boots with 5″ stiletto heels. So there has to be something.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) (Batman Returns 1992 movie) drawing her whip

Catinued !

has a discussion of the supernatural aspect of this Catwoman, the Description and extensive Personality notes, the quotes, the TTRPG stats, more photos, etc..

Writeups.org writer avatar Sébastien Andrivet

By Sébastien Andrivet.

Source of Character: Batman Returns (1992 movie).

Helper(s): Roy Cowan’s matching Batman stats, American humane  for the details about animal handling on set. Darci, Pufnstuff, Ethan Roe.

Writeup completed on the 6th of June, 2018.