Every new Batman movie is bound to disappoint somebody or the other. An actor might look and behave the part but might not be deemed box office-friendly enough (Michael Keaton). He might appear too old (as is discussed in a question about Ben Affleck on Quora). He might be conventionally attractive (George Clooney) or fit snugly into the batsuit but find his thunder stolen by his co-stars (Christian Bale).
Robert Pattinson is the latest actor to get behind the mask. Going by the trailer of The Batman, he seems to be the right age and has the Gothic cred to play the masked vigilante of Gotham.
The characters in The Batman include Zoe Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. Both characters previously appeared in one of the best Batman movies before the Christopher Nolan trilogy.
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is credited with reviving interest in the DC Comics character and laying the groundwork for a highly lucrative franchise. Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) was a rare sequel that improved on its predecessor. The film’s longevity can be laid at the stilettos of the best thing about it: Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina/Catwoman.
Burton brought to Batman and Batman Returns his trademark touches: a parade of freaks for the easily freaked out, twisted humour transported from the fairground onto the big screen, and ambivalent morality. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman wears a costume that looks it’s on permanent loan from a bondage gear store. She leaps off buildings and wields a whip, but her biggest weapon is her lacerating tongue.
Pfeiffer is equally at home as Celina, the lowly secretary of the billionaire Max Shreck, and the sleek and easily bored Catwoman, who comes into being after Max pushes her out of a high window. Celina’s transformation is foreshadowed by an early scene in Batman Returns. A wealthy couple is horrified by their deformed infant and decides to dump him in the sewer. Before they can do so, their curious cat wanders too close to the baby and becomes his meal.
As Catwoman, Pfeiffer gets the lion’s share of nearly all of screenwriter Daniel Waters’s zingers. When two security guards chance upon Catwoman trashing a store, they are both shocked and awed. I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love, one of them says.
Catwoman’s reply upends the famous line “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me” uttered by Mae West in She Done Him Wrong (1933). “You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates,” Catwoman snarls before shooing them off.
How can Bruce Wayne/Batman be unmoved? The duality that marks Michael Keaton’s billionaire playboy/vigilante is mirrored by Celina/Catwoman. They aren’t the only characters in Batman Returns to lead double lives. Oswald Cobblepot isn’t who he says he is, while Max Shreck’s enterprise is built on criminality.
In one of the movie’s most popular scenes, Celina and Bruce meet at a masked ball, where they are the only guests without masks. The chemistry between Keaton and Pfeiffer is unmatched by Bruce’s other conquests in any other Batman movie.
Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises (2012) features a similar coupling between Christian Bale’s Batman and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. But romance isn’t Nolan’s strong suit. And even though Hathaway makes a worthy Catwoman, her character doesn’t have the sassiness and mischief of Pfeiffer’s fatal feline.
Pfeiffer wasn’t the first choice for Catwoman. Annette Bening was cast, but had to opt out after she got pregnant.
Pfeiffer trained in kickboxing and practised with a whip for months, she told The Hollywood Reporter in an article to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary in 2017. Pfeiffer’s fetish-inspired latex outfit, which pushed the film into risque territory, was “the most uncomfortable costume” she had ever been in.
“They had to powder me down, help me inside and then vacuum-pack the suit,” Pfeiffer told The Hollywood Reporter. “They’d paint it with a silicon-based finish to give it its trademark shine. I had those claws, and I was always catching them in things. The face mask was smashing my face and choking me.”
Tim Burton cleared the air about whether a bird that Catwoman briefly pops into her mouth was computer-generated. It wasn’t. “She had a live bird in her mouth while the camera was rolling,” Burton told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was four or five seconds, and then she let it fly out.”
A standalone Catwoman movie with Pfeiffer was pitched, but wasn’t greenlit. The movie that did eventually get made starred Halle Berry. Catwoman (2004) was panned, as was Berry’s performance. It would take Anne Hathaway to restore dignity to the character in The Dark Night Rises.
The latest Batman reboot has been directed by Matt Reeves, whose credits include the monster movie Cloverfield, the horror film Let Me In and two of the latest Planet of the Apes productions. Reeves is among the current crop of Hollywood filmmakers who are putting gravitas into the gravy and enhancing deeply familiar tales with grim realism, visual flair and cutting-edge effects.
Such movies attempt to speak to their times. If Nolan’s trilogy addressed global concerns about the ethics of vigilantism, terrorism and late capitalism, Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) delved into urban alienation and mental illness.
It’s almost impossible any more to think of a superhero production that is as context-free and ideology-agonistic as Burton’s Batman titles. Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns are set in a firmly make-believe world and feature characters who hew closely to their comic book origins. Very little is at stake, and everybody remembers to have fun, most of all Catwoman.
The best Catwoman after Michelle Pfeiffer popped up in an unlikely place. The soundtrack of Batman Returns includes the song Face to Face by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Composed by the British rock band along with the film’s soundtrack composer Danny Elfman, Face to Face is the perfect summary of the tension over identity that plagues Batman and Catwoman.
The striking music video features lead singer Siouxsie Sioux (real name Susan Janet Ballion) in costumes and situations that echo the movie. Siouxsie Sioux even outpurrs Pfeiffer in the song – a fitting tribute to the character and the actor who hasn’t been matched by any other since.
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