There’s a lot to admire about Batman Returns (1992), the sequel directed by the great Tim Burton. The script by Daniel Waters, who also wrote the sharp, 1988 black comedy Heathers, is equal parts lurid and alluring. Burton and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky heighten the gothic melodrama of Gotham by creating a surreal cityscape where the fantastic lurks around every corner. Composer Danny Elfman’s swooning score frames the film as a dark fable.
Amid the numerous actresses who have left their imprint on Selina Kyle, also known as Catwoman, there’s an indescribable quality that propels Michelle Pfeiffer’s rendition in Batman Returns to the pinnacle of these discussions.
The past decades of superhero movies have seen countless comic villains come to life on screen — Tom Hiddleston’s vengeful trickster Loki and Heath Ledger’s madcap manic Joker being notable examples — but Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is in a class of her own.
Catwoman is a complex picture of womanhood
Batman Returns follows the titular Caped Crusader, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), as he protects his beloved city from ruthless industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and the deformed crime boss known as the Penguin (Danny DeVito). Among all the latex, leather, and snow-capped buildings, Pfeiffer enchants as Selina Kyle, the secretary pushed to her death by Shreck, who miraculously survives and goes on to become the vengeful Catwoman.
Selina’s transformation into Catwoman is one of the most transfixing sequences of a supervillain’s awakening ever filmed. Pfeiffer’s dedication to the role is palpable, and her portrayal goes beyond mere fetishization. Catwoman isn’t just a dramatic adaptation of a long-running villainess; she embodies complex themes of autonomy, the subjugation of lower-class women, and the struggle between societal expectations and personal desires.
Catwoman is the other side of the coin to Batman
All great comic villains operate as reflections of the main hero. The Joker’s chaos consistently undermines Batman’s order and control. Similarly, Catwoman mirrors Batman but with conflicting approaches — he seeks justice, she seeks vengeance; he’s a rich member of Gotham’s elite, she’s a lower-middle-class woman without strong ties to the community. As a villain, she’s not out for senseless destruction but vengeance against a world that curbed her desires and the man responsible for her death.
Pfeiffer’s iconic moves
Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Catwoman is nothing short of iconic. Her nuanced physicality, vocal stylings, and commitment to the role make her rendition stand out. Pfeiffer’s voice captures Selina Kyle’s transformation from a timid secretary to a seductive and unhinged Catwoman. Her performance leans into the character’s grotesque nature, challenging the conventions of female villains in superhero cinema.
In Batman Returns, the sexual tension between Catwoman and Batman is palpable and emotionally dynamic, a rarity in superhero films. To put it simply, you can actually see them together. Their complex relationship adds depth to the narrative, portraying Catwoman as a multifaceted character driven by vengeance and rebellion.
Pfeiffer wasn’t originally going to be Catwoman
Pfeiffer explained that her lifelong fascination with Catwoman led her to pursue the role passionately. Interestingly, she wasn’t the first choice for the character; Annette Bening had initially been cast. However, Bening’s pregnancy ultimately paved the way for Pfeiffer to fulfill her dream of becoming Catwoman. It remains a mystery whether Tim Burton’s interpretation of the character or Pfeiffer’s childhood exposure to Batman comics and portrayals by Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar in the 1960s live-action series fueled her passion.
While Annette Bening is undoubtedly a talented actor, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in Batman Returns left an enduring impression on Batman fans of all ages. Her portrayal featured unforgettable moments, such as the viral one-take whip-cracking scene. Even her co-star, Michael Keaton, praised her performance. Although subsequent actresses, including Halle Berry and Zoë Kravitz, have portrayed the iconic anti-hero, Pfeiffer is often hailed as the definitive Catwoman.
We got a Catwoman solo film but it’s better to pretend we didn’t
Speculation buzzed relentlessly in Hollywood for years regarding a potential standalone Catwoman film headlined by Michelle Pfeiffer. The actress herself voiced her interest in the project on multiple occasions. Even when director Tim Burton parted ways with the main Batman series, Pfeiffer remained dedicated to the concept.
In a bold creative move, Daniel Waters, the writer behind Batman Returns, penned a script that whisked Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle away to “Oasisburg,” a metropolis resembling Las Vegas, tailored for superheroes on vacation. Here, Selina challenged male superheroes, revealing their hidden side businesses.
The development journey of this film proved turbulent, marked by shifts in leadership, alterations in the writing team, and changes in directors. At one juncture, the idea of recasting the lead role emerged, with actresses like Ashley Judd and Nicole Kidman briefly linked to the project. Finally, in 2004, the film came to fruition, with Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry taking on the iconic character. And it was…something.
How does Zoe Kravitz’s Catwoman stack up against Pfeiffer’s?
Pfeiffer’s Catwoman exhibits more feline mannerisms and eccentricities, emphasizing her transformation into the character. Kravitz, on the other hand, focused on perfecting Selina’s fighting style by observing cats. We don’t get as much of the feral, unrestrained nature of Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Zoe Kravitz’s performance, but that may be to do with the fact that Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a creation of Tim Burton.
What is disappointing is that Kravitz’s Catwoman seems to have less agency than Pfeiffer’s. It’s not for lack of trying, the movie does try to present Kravitz’s Catwoman as her own woman. It’s just that her motives revolve around love and revenge, positioning her more as an anti-heroine than a villain. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman exhibits more villainous tendencies and is willing to aid Penguin’s plots.
It’s a minor difference, but consider for a moment how rare it is for women to be portrayed as unrepentingly bad and openly vicious in movies considering how opposed those behaviors are to the values our society expects in women. Kravitz’s watered-down Catwoman starts to feel like a step back in a less interesting direction.
Why we still need a Catwoman movie
As nostalgia continues to drive Hollywood, it’s time for Michelle Pfeiffer to return as Catwoman. Her performance remains unmatched, and she’s at the peak of her acting abilities. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is an enduring symbol of iconic villainy and female empowerment, deserving of her own spotlight in the superhero genre.
Catwoman is a timeless character, and there’s no better way to bring her into the spotlight than with the actress who immortalized the role. Pfeiffer and Catwoman deserve their time in the sun, proving that even after 30 years, this iconic character still has one life left to save. It’s time to hear Catwoman roar again, and Michelle Pfeiffer is the only one who can do it justice.