ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 8 – CATWOMAN (2004)
Have you ever seen a truly horrible car accident? The kind where three vehicles are piled up in the middle of the highway? The kind where heads go through windshields and blood covers the pavement? The kind that’s so fucking terrible that you can’t bear to look, but at the same time, you can’t bear to look away…?
In 2004, Warner Brothers charged ten bucks to see one. They called it CATWOMAN. And it was a car accident for girls.
It almost seems pointless to discuss the film. It sucks, and everyone knows it. However, it’s important to note the time period: post-BATMAN & ROBIN, and in the heartbeat before Christopher Nolan would reinvigorate the Bat-Franchise. There’s also the fact that while Batman was, as a character, the one who’d jumpstarted the modern Comic Book Movie movement, he’d fallen into cinematic obscurity in the wake of his disastrous final film, and the sudden onslaught of Marvel properties. After three decades of debatable attempts to bring these sorts of iconic characters to the big screen, we were only just beginning to see it done correctly. It was a glorious time to be a geek, a time in which advancements in special effects allowed anything to be possible; and with the public so willing to give “dorky” characters like Spider-Man a 30- million-plus payday, the opportunity was perfect to roll out pulpy heroes we’d always wanted to see realized correctly. It wasn’t always like this, though, and that’s a point that’s vital to remember.
Fire up the Wayback Machine, folks: it’s time for a history lesson.
For a while there, Marvel couldn’t get it right. You had shitty TV translations of Spidey and The Hulk, both of which traded costumed super villians for bank robbers in leisure suits. Feature films were no more kind: both THE PUNISHER and CAPTAIN AMERICA ended up going straight to video (with very good reason, too), while Roger Corman’s infamous adaptation of FANTASTIC FOUR was shelved upon completion (though bootlegs were obtainable to those who know where to look). In short, Marvel and its Superhero properties were something of a joke within the fan community, to say nothing of the film industry itself. Even here in 2019, there’s a reason certain characters can’t be incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s because they were worthless. The rights were sold to competing studios for pennies on the dollar. It was a mess that’s still messy.
On the flipside, you had DC Comics, owned by Warner Brothers. Now, granted, only two of DC’s iconic characters had received the Big Screen treatment, but to be fair about it, they were the only two who really mattered: Superman and Batman. Both were successful during their (initial) theatrical runs, and both began to show their age around their third films before gasping and wheezing their way through an arthritic fourth (and final) diaper blowout. After 1997’s embarrassing BATMAN & ROBIN, it seemed that Warner Brothers had driven the final nail into The Comic Book Movie, because after all: if DC couldn’t get it right, who could? Marvel? Cue hysterical laughter here.
And then came BLADE. And X-MEN. And SPIDER-MAN. And so on. And further. The Marvel revolution began in 1998, and Comic Book Movies were redefined. Sure, we got a couple of clunkers in there (DAREDEVIL, you son of a bitch, you), but overall, it was a starling leap forward in quality. The Marvel Age was upon us at last. Nonetheless, while the ladies might find reason to enjoy these flicks, they were made for the target audience: boys.
Warner Brothers seemed absolutely clueless on how to combat this unexpected threat, having now lost their status as the reigning champs in a long-running battle. They did well on the animation front (BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES being one of the finest examples of the genre), but their theatrical translations languished in Development Hell. Superman’s return went through potential directors with startling efficiency; Batman was only just preparing his reemergence under the guidance of Christopher Nolan. Add to this some rather dubious casting announcements (Jack Black as The Green Lantern) and misguided, aborted television endeavors (JUSTICE LEAGUE), and you were looking at a future that was -- at best -- troubling, to say the least.
Which brings us to CATWOMAN. I know. I’ve been stalling.
Competing directly with SPIDER-MAN 2’s huge worldwide business, Warner Brothers had brought out the big guns during the summer of 2004. They took a hugely popular character, cast Halle Berry in the lead role, and then proceeded to fuck everything up. If Spidey was a character that appealed to geeky, lonely boys, then CATWOMAN was going to target the female audience, and appeal to a demographic that didn’t normally pay to see these kinds of films. Makes sense, right?
Plenty of sense, provided you’re standing on your head and kicking at that low-hanging fruit. CATWOMAN isn’t just a bad movie: it’s a nearly unwatchable movie, and represents a fundamental lack of understanding on how to make a four-color character work on the big screen. PLUS: it’s fucking sexist, due both to the nature of its content, and the conflicting feminist themes it thinks it’s serving up from a tin can. Have you smelled cat shit? It’s the worst God damn smell on the planet. You know why it smells like that? Because of what they eat. Here you go, ladies: dig in!
Tell me if any of this strikes you as familiar from the comics. Halle Berry plays Patience Phillips — a name that could only exist in a Halle Berry movie – who’s a mousy (haha) woman working for cosmetic conglomerate Hedare Industries, owned and managed by power couple George (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone). When Patience discovers that the Hedares’ new beauty cream, Beau-Line, has a toxic secret (it turns living flesh into marble over a period of time), she’s murdered by Laurel’s goons and dumped in the river. Through the spiritual intervention of the worst CGI cat ever brought to the screen, Patience is reborn as the latest in a line of “cat women,” who wear cheesy masks and freely assert their independence in a world run by misogynistic men. Vowing to bring down the corporation that murdered her, Patience becomes a hyper-sexual super heroine who is wrongly accused of crimes she didn’t commit by the cop she dates by day (Benjamin Bratt) while kicking ass once the sun goes down, all set to R&B music that sounds the way throwing up Soul Food after a night of excessive drinking feels.
Okay, so now that that’s out of the way,* let’s first look at this from the Fanboy Perspective. Let’s exorcise the Nerd Stench so we can address the more important issues of Female Empowerment.
Sprung from the pages of Batman #1 back in 1940, Catwoman was no avenging heroine who battled for Truth, Justice and the American Way. She was a thief. Sometimes she was a killer. If you read Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, she was also a prostitute, apparently. Selina Kyle was a Gotham City-based criminal (a location written out in the film) who stole expensive trinkets while eluding Batman (also written out of the film), and who was less concerned with the effects of face cream on an unsuspecting public than she with robbing the finest museums. Catwoman has always been a morally ambiguous character not particularly suited for a solo outing, making it doubly important that her story be strong enough to support the endeavor.
It isn’t. In fact, the film isn’t entertaining on any level whatsoever. I was shocked to read that the running time is a mere ninety-one minutes, as the film feels a good half hour too long. CATWOMAN is an endurance test, and the urge to leave your own living room is a recurring (and wholly understandable) thing. The filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to handle the source material, and end up shoehorning the character into a completely unrelated concept. If anything, it’s closer to THE CROW than anything seen in BATMAN RETURNS, that stolen origin sequence notwithstanding.
But here’s the thing: comic book fans might make a lot of noise on the internet, but who cares what they think, what you think, or what I think? The more troubling issue at hand is CATWOMAN’s casual sexism, dressed up and presented as a call to feminist arms. The mixed messages contained are offensive to women, and even somehow manage to become offensive to men, as well. I’m all for Girl Power sentiments, but CATWOMAN lays it on so thick that it becomes apparent how flawed the message here really is.
First off, the character of Patience Phillips is depicted as being a nerdy, unattractive woman because she’s natural. Her hair is long and not particularly fashionable, and she wears little to no make-up. Once she’s “killed” and reborn, we get the Halle Berry we all know and revile, complete with a Supercuts hack job, bad designer clothing, and face paint that begins to nudge her appearance uncomfortably toward a look best associated with higher end Gentlemen’s’ clubs.** The idea presented is that she’s becoming (gasp) assertive, and the external manifestation of this internal change is an image overweight women all across America are ramming their fingers down their throats to emulate. Appearance is everything, the movie tells us, unless you’re Alex Borstein from MAD TV…in which case some hunk is going throw himself at you regardless of your weight because you’ve got lots of “personality.” The film can’t even decide what message it’s trying to send.
Part of our heroine’s change is her realization that men are bad on (almost) every level. According to CATWOMAN, they’ll cheat on you and leave you for younger women once you hit forty; and even if you find a “good” man, he’ll end up betraying you, or doubting your claims of innocence despite the fact that you’re telling him the truth. Even if he realizes his many errors in the end, he’s just baggage: an Independent Woman can’t be burdened by something as restrictive as a “relationship.” In fact, the only man you can trust is the flamboyantly gay stereotype who works in the cubicle next to you.
We receive oodles of groan-worthy information about The Cat Throughout History, delivered with a straight face by SIX FEET UNDER’s Frances Conroy (playing Ophelia Powers, a name that phonetically translates into “Oh, feel ya powers!”); this is designed to reinforce the notion that strong women break rules and stand on their own two feet. CATWOMAN demonstrates this message by having Patience objectify herself and entice men without any intention of putting out. In other words: Girl Power = Cock Tease. The character of Catwoman in the comics was always a vixen, no doubt about it; but no lifestyle messages were meant to be inferred from this, and she’s hardly presented as role model.
As if all this didn’t already perpetuate a negative image, the writers fill out the proceedings with plenty of Girlie Stuff intended to lure (and presumably entertain) the female audience, and again, it’s all bad stereotyping. Where does our heroine work? At a cosmetics company! What sort of perils does she encounter? Being stuck at the top of a ferris wheel with a hot guy! What kind of superpowers does her adversary have? Beauty cream-enhanced skin! Where does she battle crime? At a high-scale Cirque du Soleil knock-off! All she needed was a vacuum cleaner as a weapon for the list of clichés to be complete.
Now, many of you are probably wondering: why the lengthy history of Comic Book Movies at the top of this article? Well, think about it. It took years (decades, actually) for Spandex Heroes to be taken seriously; and with every bad cash-in that follows, the genre loses credibility. No, we don’t need to start a Kickstarter so the execs at Warner Brothers can make their mortgage payments on time, but the finality of AVENGERS: ENDGAME suggests that a turning point is on the horizon. Every fad runs out of steam eventually.
But most importantly, a film like CATWOMAN was in many ways the direct predecessor to CAPTAIN MARVEL, which received excessive scorn and derision from the MAGA crowd (though not only from those fucking idiots, it has to be said). The social and political climate has changed drastically since 2004, and CATWOMAN might have been little more than a blip on the radar, but its goals were the same: to inspire girls and women to recognize their full potential. Me-ouch.
*Included for all the readers who keep asking WHY DIDN’T YOU ACTUALLY REVIEW THE MOVIE, because they haven’t noticed that I don’t actually review movies.
**This is the part where you call me a sexist, misogynist asshole in the Talkbacks. It's okay. I can take it.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)