Essays · Movies

Deconstructing the ‘90s Bitch with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman

‘Batman Returns’ gives the iconic villain an origin story fit for the times.
Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on October 11th, 2019

This article is part of our Villains Week series.

When Catwoman was introduced simply as “The Cat” in the pages of DC Comics in 1940, she wasn’t much more than her name suggests — a woman named Selina Kyle who happens to moonlight as a cat burglar. Although she often changes allegiances on the fly and serves as Batman’s on-again, off-again love interest, she’s primarily an antagonist to the Caped Crusader.

Half a century later, following the success of the 1989 movie Batman, Catwoman was added to Tim Burton’s take on Gotham City for the 1992 follow-up, Batman Returns. It’s a nightmarish, bloated sequel that stuffs her origin story alongside the Penguin’s quest to kill Gotham’s first-born sons and billionaire Max Schreck’s scheme to construct a dangerous power plant into a Christmas setting in which Batman himself is given little to do.

For all of Batman Returns’ inherent silliness, it stands apart for its explorations of how strange and sad its characters’ lives would truly be outside of a superhero setting. Without a coherent plot or a single world-threatening problem for its hero to solve, the traumas that shape all of these cartoonish figures are just as present as the campy elements.

Batman Returns dodges Catwoman’s traditional origin story altogether, introducing her as a cynically modern woman. When we meet Burton’s version of Selina, as portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer, she’s suffering under both a verbally abusive boss — Max Schreck — and the force of her own self-hatred.

Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman

Selina constantly berates herself, criticizing the way she speaks up during a work meeting or remarking on how her cat has a better sex life than she does. She lives in a lavishly decorated apartment and has a stable job, but answering machine messages from her nagging mother and a man who’s canceled their Christmas getaway at the last moment only amplify how unhappy she is with herself. “Honey, I’m home!” Selina announces upon arriving at her apartment before wryly adding, “Oh, I forgot. I’m not married.”

Selina’s feelings of inadequacy echo the ‘90s phenomenon of women struggling in a supposedly “gender-equal” society.  The decade saw great momentum in women’s representation in politics and traditionally male-dominated careers, while the “Girl Power” movement was supposedly based on freedom and sex-positivity.

In the 1990s, American women seemed to be making huge steps towards gender parity. The education gap between men and women had “essentially disappeared for the younger generation,” as more women postponed marriage and children in favor of their careers. Mere months after Batman Returns’ release, more women would win political office than ever before, with their numbers in the US Senate tripling from two to six. Cultural feminism such as the riot grrrl movement, marked for its radical pro-women lyrics, also found a place in popular culture.

But despite all of this ostensible progress, the idea of a gender-equal society turned out to be a hoax. While women made headlines for their accomplishments more than ever before, the rise of the 24-hour news cycle during the 1990s spurred intense media fixations on those of them who carried any hint of scandal — from Grammy-winner Paula Cole’s unshaven armpits to the hairstyle and skirts of OJ Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. Advertisements of the time saw a sharp uptick in sexual objectification during the Girls Gone Wild era, but politically exploited figures like Monica Lewinsky and Anita Hill were regularly slut-shamed in media. Women of this film’s time were expected to have it all without acknowledging the misogynistic scrutiny that followed them during this “liberation.”

The Selina Kyle that we meet at the beginning of Batman Returns feels like a response to this paradox, working to have the ideal career, relationship, and self-image, only to be picked apart at every turn — even by herself. However, she soon puts her own self-pity on hold when she discovers that Max Schreck secretly plans to use his new plant to drain Gotham of power and effectively place the city under his control. When she confronts him about it, her dealings with workplace harassment take a turn for the worse — her boss pushes her out of the skyscraper window, killing her. Selina’s resurrection — in which a pack of cats literally lick her back to life — sounds laughable, but watching the whites of her eyes roll back to life as a cat gnaws on her bloody fingers is nightmarish.

Her subsequent return home is ostensibly identical to an earlier scene, down to the “Honey, I’m home” remarks. This time, though, she goes through the motions in a disjointed, zombie-like haze, knocking furniture over and chugging milk that spills haphazardly over her work clothes.

Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman

What ultimately wakes Selina from this state is a new message on her answering machine advertising perfume. “One whiff of this in the office and your boss will be asking you to stay after work for a candlelight staff meeting for two,” a woman’s voice purrs.

Given what Selina has just been through, it’s more than enough to send her over the edge. If surviving her own murder still doesn’t make her an adequate woman in the eyes of her society, then arguably nothing will. Selina tears through her apartment, destroying everything infantilizing or feminine — stuffed animals are stabbed, a child’s dollhouse is smashed to pieces, and a cheeky neon sign reading “Hello There” is smashed to read “Hell Here.”

Virtually the only item left untouched is a lone black latex jacket. She transforms it into a bizarrely stitched, Frankensteinian catsuit, and Catwoman is born.

Batman Returns: Catwoman, Hell Here

Where Selina Kyle was harried and insecure, Catwoman oozes with sensual, self-assured nihilism. In her first full reveal, she saves a woman from being assaulted by one of the Penguin’s henchmen, only to chastise her for waiting on a man to rescue her. In the wake of her near-death, Catwoman has sworn revenge on Max Schreck and all of the powerful men like him in Gotham City. After such a radical rebirth, she’s far past the point of picking herself apart anymore.

“Life’s a bitch,” she tells Batman, “Now, so am I.”

Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman

Selina returns to work to intimidate Schreck the morning after her supposed murder and becomes further enveloped into the fold when she meets his new visitor, Bruce Wayne. She and Bruce begin to fall for one another as a rivalry is established between Catwoman and Batman, but their relationship is meant to emphasize their double lives more than anything else.

During one loaded moment, Bruce confronts Selina at Schreck’s holiday party, where she has brought a gun to kill her boss. When Bruce asks her who the hell she thinks she is, Selina only giggles hysterically. “I don’t know, anymore” she replies. “I guess I’m tired of wearing masks.” They’re the only two attendees who aren’t dressed in costumes, suggesting that their alter egos and the meaning they carry are more lasting than the attraction between their real selves.

At the climax of Batman Returns, Catwoman finally confronts Max Schreck. He seemingly has the upper hand, shooting her multiple times. She lives and electrocutes herself, causing a massive explosion that kills him and the Penguin for good. In the film’s epilogue, Bruce chases the silhouette of a crouching cat through the snow, only coming across Selina’s own pet in an empty alleyway.

The clock strikes 12 on Christmas morning, as the camera pans up to reveal that Catwoman, once again alive, is standing above a smoldering Gotham watching the Bat-Signal. The world that nearly destroyed Selina Kyle is ravaged, but the cat has survived.

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Culture journalist and Vox Magazine writer who hasn't been adopted by Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph (yet).