The Romantic Plight of Batman and Catwoman

With the casting of Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, we look back at the fraught history between Gotham’s nocturnal crime fighters.

Batman Catwoman
DC Comics / Amanda Conner

We’ll never be free of Batman movies. That is our lot in life now. Why fight it? What’s radical about such revisitation is how each creative interprets the character through their own vision. Lorenzo Semple Jr. brought the Bright Knight to TV, trading darkness for camp theatricality. Tim Burton kept the theatricality but squished it through a thick gauze of goth and ’80s era bloodlust. Christopher Nolan got serious, and the only one to question it was his nightmarish Joker. We now wait to see Matt Reeves‘ contribution, but his casting has already caught our curiosity.

News that Zoë Kravitz will don the catsuit opposite Robert Pattinson‘s titular superhero in The Batman has us purring with anticipatory satisfaction. Of all the dynamics offered within 80 years of Batman continuity, the on-again/off-again romantic sparring between Batman and Catwoman needles the reader in ways that other Gotham City duos can’t possibly. Each character tests the other’s morality, threatening to unravel their philosophical mission statements and destroy their identities.

If the Joker is Batman’s mirror, then Catwoman is his brutally honest tailor, happy to highlight all the defects and problem areas exposed in the reflection. The butler could do the job, but he’s too much of a father figure to be trusted. Bruce Wayne is a fanatic. He has no personality beyond his quest to free Gotham from the violence that once touched his life. Such obsession is constricting, and vigilantes must continuously reevaluate its fit upon their frame, or they’ll suffocate. Whether through love or hate, Selina Kyle has always been there to manage this terrible comfort.

The two first met in Batman #1, published in March of 1940. Batman and Robin crash a costume party held aboard the yacht of one of Gotham’s wealthiest socialites. They’ve learned that a burglar calling themselves “The Cat” is looking to dash off with a rare emerald necklace. Robin yanks a fire alarm, causing a panic meant to reveal the identity of the thief. When an elderly woman darts off in a sprint, Batman unmasks the granny to discover the beautiful Selina Kyle hidden underneath. With her back against the wall, “The Cat” attempts to lure Batman to her side of the law, but he scoffs at her nefarious lifestyle.

The ’40s decency of kiddie comics would never strongly allow the Caped Crusader to consider another code of conduct. Batman was a staunch role model for his ward and all the readers out there flipping pages, but as the decades moved along, and the ’50s made way for the ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s, The Dark Knight got grim. Comic book maestro Frank Miller wasn’t writing for children; he was writing for the adults that past readers became. The if-only scenarios of youthful imagination could now leave the schoolyard to be realized in the panels.

Batman: Year One, originally distributed in the pages of Batman #s 404-407, attempted to crystallize the vigilante and his world in a recognizably real environment. At the very least, the narrative played on many of the same fears that were fueling other popular entertainment at the time. Muggings, prostitution, corrupt government officials. Paranoia, terror, panic. The Selina Kyle of Year: One is a sex worker determined to protect her colleagues from the dangers of the profession. When she witnesses Batman stand against unbeatable odds and prevail, she’s emboldened to strike out with her own costumed persona.

Miller positions the two as protectors working in realms of slight variation. Batman looks to maintain all of Gotham. Catwoman cares only for her narrow circle of loved ones. Batman respects the law even when he’s breaking it. Catwoman doesn’t give a damn. She’s Robin Hood. He’s Zorro. The disparity between the two only heightens their aggression and their chemistry towards each other, with both hoping to flip the other.

The closest that Batman and Catwoman have ever come to working as a unit occurred in the most recent run on the comic (unless you consider the multiverse and Earth-Two, but we don’t have time for that here). Writer Tom King investigates the entire history of their romance by remaking and reevaluating critical issues. Over the course of 80-plus comics, King returns to Batman #1 and Year: One as well as many other classic sequences. His Catwoman calls Batman out on his bullshit, revealing his memory and our memory of iconic moments to be inaccurate and potentially harmful to his happiness. She peels off the costumes, exposing two shattered humans in need of care.

With brawls against Bane in their past and future, Batman and Catwoman reconcile their opposing viewpoints to be one of the minor increments that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of saving Gotham. Bruce finally admits that he needs Selina in his life and gets down on one knee. Ah, but comics are like any other form of drama, and a content relationship flies in the face of conflict and storytelling. Leave it up to the Joker to spoil everything.

As King builds to the Bat and Cat’s impending nuptials, the Clown Prince of Crime worms his way into their ceremony…kinda. With no invitation in his mailslot, the Joker invades another Gotham wedding, killing everyone gathered under the steeple. Batman and Catwoman swing into the rescue, and the usual violent dustup occurs. As they lay beside each other, beaten bloody, the Joker explains to Catwoman that their marriage will be detrimental to the Dark Knight. He gets drama. If Bats finds a smile through romantic bliss, then the caped crusading will be kaput. A happy Batman is no Batman at all. Cold feet shiver under Catwoman’s latex, and the wedding is called off. But the story doesn’t end there. It never does.

We want the best for our heroes but rarely do we ever let them settle into a new status quo. Writers can come in and play with our favorite toys, but when they’re done, they better be left back on the shelf the way we like them, or we’ll get some other scribe to do it for us. Christopher Nolan can put Bat and Cat together in The Dark Knight Rises, but Matt Reeves is here with the reboot button. You can bet we’ll get some flirtation mixed with a little animosity, but happily ever after? Never. Will they? Won’t they? Bruce and Selina are chained to the questions.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.