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Catwoman has a rich history as Batman's nemesis and erstwhile love interest (dating back to her first comic-book appearance in 1940). But the Caped Crusader is nowhere to be seen in Catwoman. Instead, a score of Hollywood writers have given this D.C. Comics antihero an extreme (and extremely sexualized) makeover, changing her name from Selina Kyle to Patience Phillips and radically altering her origin story.
This Catwoman's tale begins in the middle, with Patience floating facedown in dark water. Her voiceover tells us, "The day I died was also the day I started to live." The story then flashes back to the events leading up to her death—and subsequent rebirth—as Catwoman.
Patience is a plucky yet insecure graphic artist for cosmetics titan Hedare Beauty, where she has been tasked with designing the advertising campaign that will launch its most important product ever, Beau-Line, a facial cream that reverses the effects of aging. Before she finishes the job, though, Patience is visited by a strange and beautiful striped cat—a cat that has a knack for disappearing as quickly as it shows up. The creature seems to want something from her, and it plays a crucial role in introducing her to detective Tom Lone, who quickly falls for Patience's quirky charm.
Then, while delivering her work to Hedare's production plant late one night, Patience stumbles onto an awful secret about the new product—a secret the company promptly kills her for knowing.
Resurrected by the mysterious cat, Midnight, and led to the home of cat lover/historian Ophelia Powers, Patience discovers she has been given new life by the Egyptian cat goddess, Bast. She has become the latest in a long line of catwomen who've received preternatural feline powers. Thus, Patience trades her conservative, wallflower persona for the confident, hyper-sexualized crouch of Catwoman.
With a mask on her face, a whip in her hand, and just enough leather to keep her ample anatomy from turning this PG-13 film into a R, Catwoman leaps into her quest for vengeance against her murderers at Hedare. Tom Lone is rarely far behind, and he grows more intrigued with her at every catlike step.
Patience loves animals and risks her life to save Midnight. When her co-worker, Sally, faints unexpectedly, Patience makes sure she gets to a hospital and is very concerned about her wellbeing. And while her motivations are far from altruistic, she eventually spoils George and Laurel Hedare's poisonous cosmetics machinations.
Tom Lone speaks to a group of underprivileged urban youth, telling them, "Being good is something you choose to put in your heart. I want you to be the good guys." And he puts duty ahead of his emotions when he arrests Patience (because all the evidence in several crimes points to her) even though he is in love with her.
The origin of Catwoman is rooted in the pagan Egyptian goddess Bast. Ophelia tells Patience, "Bast represents the duality of all women," the docile side vs. the aggressive side, the nurturing side vs. the ferocious side. Bast uses a particular breed of cat, the Egyptian Mau, as her messengers and as mediators of her power. She is thus represented as a potent, but secretive goddess who is actively at work in the world through agents such as Catwoman. The film glorifies these pagan religious ideas, never questioning whether there are other spiritual forces at work or suggesting any moral limits on Patience's power as Catwoman.
The strength Patience exercises as Catwoman often has to do with exhibiting her sexuality. After she leaves Ophelia's house, Patience returns home and dons a tiny leather Catwoman suit that exposes most of her upper torso and barely covers her breasts. Stripes along her legs and backside hint at even more skin, further accentuating her sexuality. Every movement Catwoman makes is sexualized, from her crouching to her swishing, catlike steps to her incessant whip-snapping. Indeed, it could be said that Catwoman's sensuality is Catwoman's central tenant.
A game of one-on-one basketball turns into foreplay with Patience and Tom putting quite a bit more contact into the sport than is required. She shakes her backside. He responds by lifting a corner of his shirt to reveal his chiseled abs. The game ends with Patience sitting suggestively on top of Tom. She later brags to her friend, Sally, "I went Shaquile [O'Neal] on his butt. I practically jumped him." Sally: "Hello!? That's called lust."
It comes as no surprise, then, that Patience later invites Tom home and sleeps with him. (They're shown in bed kissing, and sleeping intertwined.)
Sally is seen having breakfast in a bathrobe with her ER doctor, implying that they'd spent the night together. And when Tom comes to Patience's office, Sally makes wink-wink comments about her desire to have sex with him, and a stereotypically portrayed homosexual co-worker ogles him hungrily, too.
Live-action reenactments of comic-book style violence dominate, mostly of the hand-to-hand combat variety. Whenever she engages her opponents, Catwoman alternately hits, kicks or whips them. (She seems especially fond of kicking others in the face.) She seems more or less impervious to blows, except for one scene when a rival stabs her in the leg with a piece of glass. (The scene moves so quickly, however, that you almost don't realize what's happened.) At the end of a climactic battle, Catwoman's archenemy falls out of a window, crashes through a high glass ceiling, and ends up dead far below.
Catwoman's enemies and the police shoot at her, but never hit her. Tom Lone is not so lucky; he is wounded in the shoulder by a gunshot from one of the bad guys. Two scenes depict the bloody corpses of men who've been murdered.
What's more noteworthy than all this violence in and of itself, however, is the way the film sexualizes it. As Catwoman assaults her foes, both her movements and her dialogue is loaded with sexual overtones. Once, she goes so far as to suggestively lick a police officer's face. The image left is that of a hyper-aggressive leather-clad dominatrix. "When I'm good, I'm really good," Catwoman purrs, "and when I'm bad, I'm as bad as I wanna be."
Crude or Profane Language
Characters take God's name in vain several times. There are also a couple of mild profanities ("h---").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Two party scenes show people drinking wine, beer and mixed drinks. In the second, Patience—annoyed by the noise—crashes the party and douses the sound system with a stream of beer from a handheld tap.
At a swanky club where most of the patrons are drinking, Catwoman orders a White Russian, then tells the bartender to hold the vodka and kahlua. (The only other ingredient is cream.)
Other Negative Elements
Patience's rebirth as Catwoman supposedly frees her from the moral strictures that apply to other people. Ophelia intones, "Catwomen are not contained by the rules of society. You are a catwoman, fiercely independent. You've spent a lifetime caged. Now you can be free, and freedom is power." The movie's logic never gives audiences reason to question Catwoman's theft of an Egyptian necklace or the motorcycle of her obnoxious, partying neighbor.
Since Superman first flew onto the scene in Action Comics #1 in June of 1938, our culture has had a love affair with superheroes (and the villains they battle). Compelling themes—the triumph of good over evil, persevering against long odds, and learning to cope with being different—have drawn legions of fans for almost seven decades.
The ideals that have propelled the best of these stories are almost wholly absent from Catwoman. Instead, the filmmakers have invested this character with the most superficial values of our time and robbed her of the complexity and tension that has made her a perennial favorite of Batman fans. In the process they've turned her into little more than a violent advertisement for S&M-style lingerie.
I think the film does try to send a positive message about empowering women. But the importance of a woman claiming her authentic identity is overwhelmed by the exploitative display of Halle Berry's physique and unnecessary emphasis on pagan spirituality. (The prominence on the Egyptian cat goddess Bast is troubling and bizarre—not to mentioned clichéd—radioactive spiders, anyone?) After all, if you have to walk around practically naked and be possessed by a pagan cat goddess to discover your "authentic identity," what kind of empowerment is that?
The Spider-Man films offer the perfect foil to Catwoman. Whereas Peter Parker's uncle Ben teaches, "With great power comes great responsibility," Ophelia opines, "Now you can be free, and freedom is power." Catwoman's freedom and power, then, are ultimately about looking out for number one. As she sashays off into the moonlight before the credits rolled, hips swishing and whip flicking, I found myself hoping Spider-Man might swing into the scene and start lecturing her—not to mention her writers, director and producers—on what it means to be a real hero.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Halle Berry as Patience Phillips / Catwoman; Benjamin Bratt as Detective Tom Lone; Sharon Stone as Laurel Hedare; Lambert Wilson as George Hedare; Frances Conroy as Ophelia Powers; Alex Borstein as Sally; Peter Wingfield as Dr. Ivan Slavicky
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