Batman Returns and Fairytale Feminism : Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman Is No Sex Kitten.
Batman Returns is one of my favourite Hollywood Blockbusters. This unusual fact usually surfaces amidst conversations about “favourite comic book movies” (on and offline) during which Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight efforts garner continual praise to the detriment of all else. I usually bring it up because us movie-buffs like to come across all quirky, different and smart. Generally, I find that people struggle to comprehend why I would prefer this 90s Tim Burton curio; a movie made in an age when budgets were comparatively low and the appeal of comic book franchises misunderstood by producers who would rather have been making action movies whether ever increasing explosive potential. In terms of marketability, one could argue that the Hollywood machine has improved itself tenfold in the intervening decades and it’s easy to see why Nolan’s Batman is a more appealing prospect to the casual moviegoer, delivering a much slicker, glossier portayal of the Dark Knight that’s – on the surface at least – edgier and full of the requisite action spectacle and oversized fireballs. Maybe I’m just being belligerent about this one but, personally, nothing about Nolan’s vision excites me, from the modern-day urban-grit makeover, to the facile 24 style anti-terrorist plots, to the uninspired flatly staged action scenes. According to most Batfans, Nolan’s is the best comic-book adaptation of all time, yet I can find nothing in these movies that is fascinated by its comic book sources and the films simply read to me as an uninspired extension of the Reaganite action movie, although it suffers by comparison from a lack of earnestness or gleefulness.
Batman Returns, on the other hand is a rare instance of a Hollywood Blockbuster that’s not even remotely interested in playing to type or delivering on a plate the straightforward good versus evil confrontation that would undoubtedly have been expected of it. Whereas his original, successful, Batman blockbuster had been almost entirely about Batman the hero, Batman the young boy who had to contend with and ultimately avenge his father’s death and – despite some nice touches – remains fairly sluggish, uninspired viewing, Batman Returns successfully veers off into a completely different and unexpected direction. In his own sequel Batman has to play second fiddle to not 1 but 3 other main characters each vying for centre stage. A frequent complaint of the movie I hear is that Batman is nothing but a sideshow in his own film; viewers wanted a movie about Batman and they wanted to see Batman being a hero and cool, after all we go to the movies to identify with the hero, right? In my eyes this turns out to be the movie’s major strength. Batman as a hero might be identifiable, but I don’t find him inherently all that interesting. It’s the possibilities of storytelling within his psychotically crazy universe that are interesting. Burton is clever enough to realise this and in writing Batman’s character as just ¼ of the story he’s able to give the audience a much more complex cast of villainy with a more interesting set of motivations than “they’re crazy” or “they’re a terrorist”, and more importantly he can create the space to allow that cast of villains to interact with and play off of one another. However, it’s important to note that this is not a character piece. To delve too intricately into the subconscious of heroes and villains who wear costumes, invent outlandish gadgets and conjure up nefarious schemes would be a terrible category mistake. One of Nolan’s big faux-pas is to misunderstand Batman entirely, trying to psychoanalyse him and re-contextualise him as a real world style hero, when in actual fact he’s a fantasy character who is best used representationally. For all its clever character interplay, Batman Returns sees its characters as symbols rather Freudian nightmares.
From the outset the movie signals its intent to subvert viewer expectation. Its fairytale beginnings – in which the baby Penguin is abandoned by his parents for being a grotesque, the credits rolling whilst his crib floats downstream and into the sewers where he’ll grow up – quickly give way to contrasting scenes of Max Shreck’s corporate villainy, a stagy, contrived affair that in any other film would simply be the cliched “capitalism gone bad” plotline if it weren’t for the fact that Burton uses its narrative drama to offset his other quasi-tragic-melodramtic villany, to set-up the themes of corporate patriarchy that dominate the movie, and to give Catwoman concrete motivation throughout and particularly in the climactic scene. By the time Shreck sends Selina Kyle to her first death we should realise that this movie is juggling ideas that normal blockbusters can’t manage to embody. The Penguin’s fairytale grotesquerie (I’m also tempted to read the Penguin as fallen aristocracy attempting to reclaim power), Shreck’s capitalist greed and Catwoman’s anti-patriarchal revenge narrative, three profoundly different and conflicting tropes existing side by side and vying for attention. It’s a unique and fascinating set-up since it creates a very real sense of inherent instability and chaos in a very fairytale-like surreal way, that stands in delightfully for real world chaos. Batman as hero is needed to step in, not to overcome any particular villain’s nefarious plans – the most we get there is Shreck’s doomed attempt to suck power out of Gotham with his new power plant -but to create some sense of order out of the chaos that’s created by these three confused villains attempting to exist in the same space. Of course, Batman himself is a member of the corporate patriarchy, and so, rather than seeing this as a story in which the hero will swoop in and save the day, one has to genuinely wonder if things will work out well. The movie doesn’t close with feelings of euphoria at Batman saving the day (there’s no “Gotham’s Knight” rhetoric beating us over the head), or even sadness at the tragedy of it all. Rather, the film ends with a sense of “WTF just happened?” that’s rarely replicated in blockbusters or American films in general. One is prompted not to leave the cinema enthused that Batman saved the day, or identifying with him as a great hero. One is led to ponder on his place and role amidst the chaos. I’m also prompted to think that this is why the film is still not a fan favourite.
Central to understanding the nature of the chaos within the movie is correctly understanding the role of Catwoman. Interpretations and discussions of Michelle Pfeiffer’s superb portrayal of the character tend to highlight her sexiness and guys tend to note her attractiveness as one of the high points of the film. It’s easy to read Catwoman as a straightforward symbol of “negative femininity” and her actions brought on by a rampant libido. In other words, she’s a sexed-up villainess who is there for the boys. This rather flat misinterpretation seems to have been allowed to stand as the movie faded from consciousness and became one of the less admired entries in Tim Burton’s filmography Certainly the tight black costume, the whip and the sexy demeanour all highlight that part of Selina Kyle’s character, but to read her in such a way ignores both the above context and the meaning behind her many brilliant scenes in the film.
In some ways Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal is simply iconic. Or at least it had every right to be. In one scene half way through the movie, the Catwoman signals her entrance onto the Gotham stage by terrorising a department store . “I don’t know whether to open fire or fall in love,” the overtly misogynist guards quip before being swiftly dealt with and shown the door. Following which she emerges into the street, somersaulting triumphantly into the presence of Batman and The Penguin, and mutters “miaow” before a devastating explosion brings the place down. Unlike the Joker in Nolan’s Batman, Catwoman isn’t simply out to cause chaos because she’s a random terrorist who maliciously hates the system. Catwoman’s mission may be ill-advised but it’s imbued with a certain logic; to disrupt the patriarchy that never gave her a chance. Catwoman is killed three times throughout the movie (prior to her final showdown with Shreck), each time by one of the main representative members of the patriarchy within the film.
Initially Selina Kyle is killed by Shreck. Before that she’s belittled by Shreck after she attempts to offer a suggestion at a board meeting “I’m afraid we haven’t properly housebroken Miss Kyle. In the plus column though, she makes a helluva cup of coffee”. The film couldn’t signal more clearly its negative views regarding the traditional relationship between the typical male corporate executive and the lowly female secretary. There are quite pointedly no other strong women present either. When Shreck finally pushes Selina out of a window and to her death it’s an obvious signal that this type of oppression is intended by people like him to follow women to their grave. Another interesting moment occurs when Selina arrives home and plays her answer machine messages. She’s shown as a struggling woman trying to make a career for herself in the city and her boyfriend breaks up with her via an answering machine “Dr.Shaw says I need to be my own person and not an appendage”. A cruel joke given that Selina clearly needs emotional support and another signifier that men find it all to easy to belittle women in this world When Shreck kills Kyle – because she wanted to be part of the patriarchy – he ignites within her the desire and the ability to do something about it, but she never really grasps exactly what it is she ought to be doing and it becomes embodied in rage, frustration and a petty desire for revenge. By the end of the movie Catwoman has made it her primary goal to kill Shreck, whose macabre version of the glass ceiling she sees as primarily responsible for her inability to succeed in life.
However, Catwoman is also symbolically killed by Batman and Penguin and she certainly harbours no love for either. During the rooftop fight scene in which they first meet as enemies a brief exchange highlights the male/feminine discourse going on in the movie. Catwoman mocks Batman as he kicks her down “how could you, I’m a woman” and gets a rather undignified, typically masculine response “I’m sorry, I, I ….” Unimpressed she kicks him in the stomach and throws him over a ledge “As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted.” She goes on to lose the fight and Batman rescues her from falling. It’s undoubtedly this moment that builds on a brief exchange earlier in the film, that fuels Catwoman’s personal rage towards Batman since she stabs him in the stomach as a reward. The protection of women by men has dominated Hollywood blockbusters throughout their history, but which few – even now – are prepared to tackle head-on. In Batman Returns, however, when Catwoman saves a woman from being mugged/raped, rather than graciously accepting the woman’s thanks she chastises her with an extraordinary speech. “You make it so easy don’t you, always waiting for some Batman to save you. I am Catwoman, hear me roar.” The girl looks understandably confused and distressed. Having been rescued by Batman earlier in the movie whilst simply still Selina Kyle, both these moments help us to get a picture of Catwoman’s own neuroses. Selina Kyle is am oppressed woman and Batman the hero, who saves helpless women, is part of that system of oppression and as Catwoman Kyle is beginning to understand that buying into the myth of this fairy tale hero is part of the reason she is unable to act and to take existential control over her own life. When Batman kills Catwoman at the end of the rooftop scene it embodies his failure – or the inappropriateness – of his becoming the chivalrous knight and protecting her.
Notions that Catwoman is an unbridled, uncomplicated sexpot have to be discarded when considering her scenes with the Penguin. Catwoman forms an uneasy alliance with Penguin – a character who is shown to represent unchecked masculine lust at numerous points throughout the film – in order to destroy Batman, but she’s not remotely interested in his grotesque schemes to garner power and status. She abhors wanton murder and she also abhors the wanton lust that he represents. During the scene in which the two meet up in Penguin’s sleeping quarters, she’s not only disgusted by his sexual advances but also more than capable of keeping them in check by both physically and emotionally threatening him. This leads to frustration and envy on the Penguin’s part and is the reason that he, also, ultimately “kills” her. Penguin kills the Catwoman because he literally can’t have her.
The terrific climax of the movie sees all three plot-lines coming to a head. The Penguin captures Max Shreck and releases his penguin bombs on the city in an act of revenge, since he’s realised that his “kind” will never be accepted or given political power. He simply can’t talk the talk that Shreck can (“Santa Claus, perhaps not, I’m just some poor Shmo who got lucky …” says Shreck to an enraptured audience). Catwoman meanwhile has realised that forming covert alliances with Penguin or Bruce Wayne is destined to failure and focuses her remaining energies on killing Shreck. Ultimately, Shreck’s Capitalist power-plays (involving manipulating Penguin and killing Kyle) have destabilised Gotham City to the point that not even the villains of the show can exist within the chaos that they’ve created, their only way out being their own suicide and the destruction of the orders that are repressing them. It’s Batman’s job to restore order, but he does a pretty terrible job at it. Hoping to send Shreck to prison and appease Catwoman’s feminine rage through appealing to her better nature. In the climactic scene he delivers a weighty speech and removes his mask revealing his “real” patriarchal capitalist alter-ego Bruce Wayne “Why are you doing this? Let’s just take him to the police, then we can go home …together. Selina don’t you see, we’re the same, split right down the centre” The Hollywood audience in us all expects Catwoman to somehow relent. Bruce Wayne seems reasonable. And Kyle is not ultimately a villain, and the fairy-tale ending would see her and Bruce Wayne living together happily ever after. Batman Returns, however, denies us the ending that we want or expect to see. Selina Realises that just because they’re both split down the middle, her and Batman are not “the same” Batman’s neuroses are brought on by his own personal trauma and the failures of his benevolent capitalism, Catwoman’s by the constant trauma of of the male oppression typified by those things. Batman’s persona is partly the cause. Her retort is bitter, but brilliant
“Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle forever just like in a fairytale…. I just couldn’t live with myself, so don’t pretend this is a happy ending.” After which she goes on to kill Shreck and herself. Batman’s heroism or naivety doesn’t save the situation, even though the situation has temporarily resolved itself. The closing scene, however, provides a little hope. Batman, noticing that Catwoman may be alive with one life left, asks Alfred to stop the car so that he can investigate. Michael Keaton, probably the best character actor to have played Bruce Wayne, looks contemplative as he speaks his closing line “goodwill to all men … and women”. Has he learned something?
It’s a shame that Burton never returned to the Batman franchise. I have a fondness for Schumacher’s vibrant, colourful, playful outings, but they lack the intelligence or daring of Burton’s masterpiece. Nolan’s Batman cannot satisfy in the same way. Nolan’s fanbase seem to think that because there’s terror and chaos in Nolan’s Gotham that the movie is a dark and edgy affair. Nothing could be further from the truth since, like most Hollywood movies, it seeks to put that chaos away into a box and to wrap it up in traditional and comforting types (the writing for women in Nolan’s Batman movies, for instance is particularly atrocious). Burton’s Batman Returns is a rare example of a Hollywood blockbuster attempting to push the audience to its limits and to break the mould of what characters should and shouldn’t represent. As Whedon’s Avengers has just hit the big screen, looking conventional and dull by comparison – disappointingly so by Joss Whedon’s standards – watching Batman Returns is a timely reminder of what one can achieve in this medium, if one dares.