A lot of this was made possible by the 1989 Batman movie, which had several sequels during the 1990s.
Batman had been a blockbuster hit, with 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 strong 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.
For more Catwoman, you can also check our guide to our Catwoman character profiles.
- Real Name: Selina Kyle.
- Marital Status: Single.
- Known Relatives: Mother (unnamed).
- Group Affiliation: Certainly not.
- Base of Operations: Gotham City.
- Height: 5’7″ Weight: 120 lbs. Age: Mid-20s.
- Eyes: Ultra-mega-super-blue. Hair: Blonde.
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, and it really worked.
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 – the cars and women’s clothing being two of the clearest chronological markers. There is 1990s tech, but it is underplayed and coexists with filing cabinets and other old tech.
(“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 architecture is generally 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, explaining in part the dusky lighting.
They’re like trees competing for space in an unkept, too-dense, 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.
Selina Kyle was an OL working for corrupt industrialist Maximilian Shreck in Gotham City. She seemed to have been hired fairly recently – though 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 seems 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 with the Mayor, the Penguin’s gang — essentially a terrorist circus — attacked. Selina was caught in the fray. She was desperately trying 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 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.
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 defenestrated 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.)
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.
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 flabbergasted. 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 shocked 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 were 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.
As Selina, Kyle also 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 for the Penguin’s trap.
Walk like a panther tonight
The trap during the municipal Christmas tree lighting ceremony 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 wounded her, and triggered a traumatic flashback to her defenestration.
Batman sabotaged the Penguin’s Mayoral run. As a result Max Shreck let Cobblepot drop like, well, last week’s fish. Meanwhile, Selina 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. Everything’s fine.
While Batman foiled the Penguin’s plot then his back-up plot, Catwoman tracked down the Penguin’s base to find Shreck. She snagged Max before he could escape, but Batman came in.
He 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.
Yet she couldn’t live as long as her murderer was alive, and she 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.
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.
Powers & Abilities
In costume, she has clawed gloves and a combat-grade whip. She fights primarily as a kickboxer, and usually keeps her claws for called shots to the face or guts.
Her skills also include sewing up an impossibly tight vinyl-like costume that somehow looks great, and applying bright red lipstick with laser-like precision.
(And I do mean “impossibly”. The latex costume used in the movie had been prepped to her *exact* measurements by being assembled on a body cast. Therefore, it required Ms. Pfeiffer to baby-powder her skin so she could cram into it. Then the latex was painted with silicon as she wore it, so it would shine brightly and look vinyl-ish.)
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).
Her usual weapon is a black whip. It has enough heft to decapitate mannequins, and 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”. They 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.
Chosen of the Panther God ? (part 1)
Catwoman’s origin sequence strongly implies that something abnormal, if not outright supernatural, is going on. Beyond her miraculous survival and her suddenly gaining top-shelf physical abilities, there’s the behaviour of the cats around her seeming corpse.
However, Kyle hit several awnings during her fall – so she *could* have survived without anything weird being involved.
In this continuity, it is possible that she’s some sort of magical revenant. There’s no sign in the movie that she isn’t human, but an ability to keep recovering from being seemingly slain would be unsurprising.
Of particular note is the fact that she’s established as being very much nearsighted as Selina. She couldn’t read without her glasses. Yet Catwoman needs zero optical correction, and she also stops wearing glasses as Selina.
The first time she opens her eyes after her possible death, these are rolled back and thus featureless. Then the shot that follows her apparent murder keeps her face in shadows, before revealing it as having corpse-like pallor, sunken eyes and a zombie-like expression.
Chosen of the Panther God ? (part 2)
Near the end of the movie, Catwoman makes several references to having nine lives. And she appears to survive severe damage. Now, it *is* possible that she’d survive even if nothing weird is going on. When she was repeatedly shot she was in an abnormal psychic state, and what she did to kill Shreck is unclear.
However, that she recovered from these wounds, likely without medical aid, would imply something special going on. It is not clear how long passed between her apparent death and the last scene of the movie, but it is at most a day or two.
Catwoman’s durability and power of recovery likely do not correspond to a literal nine lives. How would she know, anyway ?
- A laceration on her brow and a gnawed hand heal within two days.
- A napalm burn on her left biceps has become a clean (if large) scar overnight and seems to then disappear.
- Any lacerations from falling into the greenhouse disappear within hour (even though her costume remains torn up, so there clearly was damage).
Chosen of the Panther God ? (part 3)
As far as we can tell, Catwoman’s skills just… appear after her seeming resurrection. She becomes an accomplished acrobat, kickboxer, climber, whip expert, etc. literally overnight.
(Pfeiffer trained for months so she could do most of the whip and kickboxing stunt work herself, incidentally.)
It is established that Selina was athletic before Shreck defenestrated her. There’s a mention that an insecure boyfriend of hers left her because she bested him at racquetball. But it seems unlikely that high school athletics included *that* much bullwhip practice. Or whatever witchery is involved in launching a flurry of high kicks whilst in 5″ heels.
The movie is stylised enough that these competencies could just appear. But add that to the pile of implications that something supernatural is going on.
Before the “accident”, Selina had a mousy demeanour, a drab 1950s business dress and big glasses.
As Catwoman, her voice is markedly lower, less nasal – more sensual and assertive. This is comparable to the difference between Bruce Wayne’s voice and Batman’s voice (well, if you substitute “growly” for “sensual”). There’s also a memorable purring quality to her Catwoman voice.
She has smokey black makeup all around her eyes. That too resembles Batman, though her mask is much more open.
Her mouth is frequently open in excitement, and/or sports a weird, manic grin.
During much of the movie Selina sports a curly, volumised bob. IIRC these were quite popular back then.
Catwoman has a peculiar, unhinged body language. She’ll often move acrobatically (with cartwheels, flips, leaps, etc.).
There are constant collisions between acting like a playing schoolgirl and using lascivious yet threatening moves. For instance she might adopt a skipping step (albeit with more hips movements and a more dancer-like pace), or play jumping rope with her whip before striking a pin-up pose.
However, as the movie progresses her moves become less schoolgirly, and more feral. She’s coalescing around her mission of vengeance.
Catwoman is fond of doing over-the-top cat impressions. Such as gobbling up a small bird, or licking herself (or rather her costume) clean. But with her intense behaviour, it is impossible to tell whether it’s a flamboyant joke, or she’s completely nuts.
(During that scene, Ms. Pfeiffer had an actual bird in her mouth then let it fly out. The bird had been gradually trained not to be afraid of being in someone’s mouth for two seconds or so.)
Before the “accident”, Selina was attempting to affirm herself as an adult – and failing. She was treated as — at best — a child by her boss. She couldn’t find herself a proper boyfriend, but saw getting married as an indispensable step in becoming a woman. This also sexually frustrated her.
Her small, old, dingy apartment was painted fairy pink all over – and filled with plushies and other girly, childish things. She yearned to be free of her mother’s yoke, but still felt hounded by Mrs. Kyle’s endless messages on her answering machine.
Her dearest hope was to have her intelligence recognised by her boss, in a “a brilliant executive aide rises to the top”, Pepper Potts dream scenario.
The cat wants *in*
After Max Shreck seemingly murders her, Selina is traumatised and unstable.
Catwoman is at once lost, crazy and powerful. She is trying to grow into a strong, bold adult. But there are no role-models or societal space for her to be what she wants to be. Thus she likens herself to an animal – something free, dangerous and outside of society.
Catwoman can only exist on the outside, trying to find her way alone… even though she could really use psychological care. She lashes out at any sort of restraint or limitation as to her activities. But there’s also no way for her to see what’s ahead and where she’s going.
The most visible tension is wanting to affirm her sexuality, and to get out of that pit trap where she’s both all alone and constantly lusted after. Yet she’s caught in her contradictions as to how much emotional intimacy she wants, how sexually dominant she wants to be, and what sort of man she’d like.
There was strong chemistry with Bruce Wayne, though they didn’t get much time to talk about it. On Bruce’s side it seemed to be a kindred dual-soul-person thing, but it wasn’t as clear on Selina’s side – even to herself.
Not to be taken for granted (part 1)
As Selina tries to cope with her so-so sanity and emotional tension, she occasionally talks to her reflection. That can convey the impression that there’s a Selina persona and a Catwoman persona, à la Cheetah. But this seems much closer to a method to help her organise her thoughts. And in any case, the pre-murder Selina Kyle behaviour is gone.
Over the course of the film her sanity remains frayed, though near the end there’s a sense that she’s beginning to find a way out of the dark. However, it is impossible for her to live if Shreck still lives. She needs to avenge herself, and Shreck represents everything that has been oppressing her and belittling her and keeping her down.
Whether killing Shreck allows her to heal from her trauma is unrevealed. But in the last glimpse of Catwoman her cowl, which had been unravelling to signify madness, is now all clean and shiny. And that she kills Shreck using the stun gun she took at the beginning, in the first glimpse of her Catwoman nature, suggests closing a narrative arc.
And an electrical one, I guess.
Not to be taken for granted (part 2)
A *possible* reading of the final minutes of the movie :
- Selina comes to the conclusion that living the princess life with Bruce in his castle would be just a childish fantasy, and that she needs to move forward instead. Plus, it’s arguably Bruce’s childish fantasy more than her own.
- She *might* consider that Batman cannot let her be since she murdered Shreck right in front of him. But that one is iffy. It was self-defense, and this version of Batman does kill.
- But she nevertheless hands her beloved Miss Kitty over to Bruce as a sign of love, even if they cannot be together.
There are many possible interpretations, of course. Even though it’s a great performance, Catwoman remains undefined. She’s looking for herself and is still in her origin sequence.
For instance, if there’s indeed something supernatural going on, the last scene could be interpreted as Miss Kitty acting on her own. She’s a supernatural agent and is moving on to Bruce, now that her work with Selina is done.
(As pre-Catwoman Selina, as she returns to her flat) “Hi honey, I’m home.” (beat, then with bitter sarcasm) “Oh I forgot. I’m not married.”
(As Shreck is about to kill her) “How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless ?”
(Emerging as Catwoman) “I don’t know about you, Miss Kitty… but I feel so much yummier.”
“I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.” (This is reference to Helen Reddy’s 1971 hit song I am woman (video), which became something of a women’s lib anthem – ed.).
(As two security guards draw pistols while making lewd comments about her) “You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.” (disarms them with her whip).
“I want in. The thought of busting Batman makes me feel all…” (sexy smile/pout) “… dirty.”
“It’s the so-called normal guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me. At least they’re committed.” (pun ! – ed.)
(About Bruce Wayne, to a confused Alfred Pennyworth) “He makes me… feel the way… I… hope I really am.” (awkward, embarrassed and nutty smile)
(After Bruce essentially admits he’s Batman)
Selina (looking completely lost): “Ohmygod. Does it mean we have to start fighting ?”
Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG Print Friendly
|Dex: 05||Str: 02||Bod: 04||Motivation: Psycho|
|Int: 06||Wil: 05||Min: 05||Occupation: Renegade|
|Inf: 05||Aur: 05||Spi: 05||Wealth: 003|
|Init: 020||HP: 045|
Animal control: 02, Regeneration: 03
Bonuses and Limitations:
Animal control is limited to making cats act friendly toward her.
Acrobatics: 06, Artist (Sewing): 04, Martial Artist: 06, Vehicles (Land): 03, Weaponry (melee): 06
Iron Nerves, Lightning Reflexes, Schtick (Disarmer (Weaponry (Melee)).
Gritty – While the events of the movies were outlandish, the effects of the HP expenditure of the characters seemed fairly limited.
Minor Psychological Instability, Secret Identity, Traumatic Flashback (falling helplessly from a significant height).
- CLAWED GLOVES [BODY 03, Enhance (EV): 01 (Cap is 06), Descriptor: Slashing].
- Black whip [BODY 04, EV 03, Stretching: 02, Limitation : Stretching allows no fine manipulation (-2)].
- She retains the large stun gun she took from an evil clown early on. However, it is kept in reserve for Shreck, and not used otherwise. Ditto for the .45 dual-barrel derringer, which seemed solely intended for Shreck and isn’t a part of her MO.
- And a 1970s VW BEETLE as Selina.
So, these stats are scaled for the 1989 and 1992 movie versions of Batman, who wasn’t that impressive. See his writeups.org entry for details. In a more heroic-scale universe, this version of Catwoman might or might not scale up.
One suspects that her Regeneration continues even after death. It matches the material, but is too tentative to be in the stats block.
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.