Gotham’s resident femme fatale, Catwoman, has long stood as one of the most beloved Batman villains ever created. However, despite the multitude of actors who have portrayed this complex feline fiend, one latex-clad star stands above the rest. In 1992, the action movie Batman Returns hit theatres, and subsequently, Michelle Pfeiffer cemented her place in history as the best Catwoman to ever grace the big screen.
Saying that Michelle Pfeiffer is the supreme Catwoman isn’t exactly a surprising take. The star is often at the top of every DC fan’s list when you ask the big ‘best of’ question. Even Michael Keaton, who played opposite her in the ’90s movie as her Batman, can’t help but sing her praises. But still, considering that eight other actors have played the role across TV and film, and four of those performances were after Pfeiffer’s appearance as the seductive bad girl of Gotham, you have to ask yourself how she has managed to hold onto her Catwoman crown.
What makes Pfeiffer’s performance so memorable even 30 years after it hit the silver screen? And why exactly is she still cited as the cream of the crop (or should we say milk dish)?
Catwoman, also known as Selina Kyle, made her debut in the DC comics back in 1940 in Batman issue #1 (the same issue as Joker’s big debut). Like many other comic book characters, Catwoman has been through different variations and has had several backstories over the course of her 75 plus years in the batty franchise. Generally, her origins feature a rough childhood, be that abusive fathers, parental suicide, or traumatic correctional facilities.
However, despite the comic books and the general popularity of this tortured backstory, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman strays away from the typical Selina Kyle narrative. In the film Batman Returns, Pfeiffer plays a version of Selina Kyle, who is a single ‘executive assistant’ to the evil businessman Max Shreck.
After discovering his corrupt plans for stealing Gotham’s power supply, Shreck decides to chuck Selina out of a window, and surprise – she falls to her death. However, instead of biting the proverbial bullet after being tossed off a skyscraper, Selina is resurrected by a bunch of stray cats. The tragic and (let’s be honest) bizarre sequence leads us to one of the most iconic scenes seen in a superhero movie, and the most effective origin explanations for Catwoman yet.
There are no childhood flashbacks, no rushed monologues packed with exposition. Instead, we see the now resurrected Selina going back to her small apartment in a daze. As she enters her home, all of her repressed emotions from being murdered by her misogynistic and evil boss bubble up in a glorious display of primal emotion.
She begins to wreck the place, punching walls and breaking glass, all while screaming and manically crying. During her outburst, Selina begins to stitch an old black trench coat into her well-known patchwork catsuit- while looking genuinely terrifying – and Catwoman is officially born. Besides being a strikingly visual story beat, this scene is so powerful because it encompasses just how relatable and real Pfeiffer’s Catwoman truly is.
As we touched on above, many iterations of Catwoman, such as Zoe Kravitz in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, have a troubled and dark background that tries to explain Catwoman’s anti-hero beliefs and nihilistic view toward right and wrong. While that plotline is all well and good, Pfeiffer’s version of the character shows us that the weight of the patriarchy paired with the loneliness of living in a big city is plenty enough to craft Catwoman by itself.
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In Batman Returns, Selina Kyle isn’t from a broken home and seemingly didn’t suffer from extreme abuse during her informative years either. Instead, she starts off as an unextraordinary normal person just trying to make it in the big city. She has an overbearing mother who calls her constantly, deals with everyday workplace misogyny, and is dumped by her boyfriend (via her answering machine).
While a long-running tragedy can be enthralling in itself, sometimes sudden change and trauma just works better in a two-hour-long movie. Here Catwoman is easier to relate to, and subsequently is more memorable as we can picture ourselves in her black shiny heeled shoes.
When you break it down, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is an inflated portrayal of the trials and tribulations that every woman has faced at some point in her life (minus being murdered and resurrected by cats, of course). Her chaotic actions and criminal activities are the results of mistreatment, being undermined based on her gender, and complying with the simple human desire for retribution.
Seeing her reach a breaking point and vow revenge on Max Shreck is strangely cathartic, and it is hard not to root for her as she sets out to reclaim her power. As Pfeiffer says in the film after she goes out as her new persona for the first time, “I am Catwoman hear me roar”.
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Stepping away from the extreme subtext that is this version of Catwoman, It also can’t be argued that Pfeiffer is extremely charismatic and dynamic in the role. Yes, her costume is iconic too, but her confidence and amazing one-liners are what truly steal the show. Who can forget the time when she cornered Batman mid-fight under the mistletoe? Or when she started counting down her nine lives to mock Max as he shot bullets at her during one of the film’s climactic fight scenes?
In this aspect, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is also just plain cool, and wildly entertaining. She is unpredictable, charming, and when she isn’t on screen, you can’t help but look for her in every frame, wishing that she’d come back. As Michael Keaton told The Hollywood Reporter in 2022, “She pulled off the almost impossible combo of sexy, ironic, tragic, dangerous and just plain good.”
At the end of the day, although I love nearly all variations of Selina Kyle, in terms of a story for the big screen, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman just hits differently. She is a normal person going through extreme stress and is essentially having a breakdown.
While she is obsessed with revenge, she is also just trying to come to terms with her new identity. Even with the limited amount of screen time, Pfeiffer steals the spotlight from Michael Keaton’s Batman, and in many ways, you find yourself 100 times more invested in her arc than Bruce Wayne’s as a result.