It's hard to imagine two filmmakers more different in style than Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, yet both tackled a Catwoman tale in their respective Batman ventures. In Burton's Batman Returns she was a slinky and slightly insane vixen fueled by revenge, while in Nolan's Dark Knight Rises she was a smug cat burglar with dreams of class warfare. Already fights are brewing over who did Selina Kyle and her kick-ass alter ego best. Was it Michelle Pfeiffer coated in white pancake makeup and stitched into an S&M-styled catsuit? Or Anne Hathaway zipped into a snug fitting bodysuit with winking cat-eared goggles?
While comic books fans like to lay claim to the character, Catwoman has so long been a part of pop culture in movies and television that even the most mainstream moviegoer has a sense of ownership and basic understanding of her key character traits. That's why it's time to compare Pfeiffer and Hathaway's portrayal of the captivating Catwoman to see who really gave this complicated and conniving villainess her due.
First and foremost, Catwoman is the ultimate femme fatale, bending men to her will with her sly smile, feminine wiles and feline sensuality. Much of her power comes from her sex and sensual embrace of her own sexuality. In and out of costume, she's a knockout who can knock anyone out.
After giving herself a BDSM-inspired makeover, Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle is a provocative vigilante to be feared by night and a smirking sex bomb who suffers no fools by day. Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is in bumbling awe of this tousle haired secretary with a dark sense of humor. And in costume she practically purrs with the promise of illicit sex play. It's no wonder the men and monsters of Gotham are wooed by her in both forms. Everything about Pfeiffer here screams sex and danger.
Hathaway is undoubtedly beautiful, and as Selina uses her gorgeous figure, a little black dress and her dazzling smile to lure unwitting rich men into promised trysts that'll allow her to rob them blind. She certainly catches the eye and interest of Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne after boldly stealing his mother's pearls. But both in and out of her catsuit, Hathaway lacks the wild-eyed spark that makes Pfeiffer's Catwoman so alluring. For all her talk of revolution and her doe-eyed betrayals, she still seems like a good girl gone bad, not mad. And that's just not as hot. Advantage: Michelle Pfeiffer
Part of the genius of the Catwoman character is how she exploits men's misogynistic expectations against them. The men of Gotham often make the mistake of assuming because she's small, lithe and female, she's weak, and it's when she plays into this tired stereotype that she not only gets the advantage but makes them out to be the fools they are.
Having been murdered for her ambition at the office, the Catwoman of Batman Returns doesn't respond well to bullying men or women she sees as weak as she once was. But when she puts on her pleather and suits up to fight with the boys, she does take advantage of Batman's gentleman-like nature, seething, "How could you, I'm a woman!" And as he apologizes, she takes the chance to get in a nasty blow. It's far from a shrewd manipulation, and more a cheap shot.
Hathaway better utilizes the guise of a defenseless woman throughout The Dark Knight Rises, feigning fear when confronted with Stryver's double cross in the bar, and then shrieking convincingly as the cops rush in and quickly hustle her out of harm's way before sliding into a comfortable and confident catwalk strut down a dark alley. Likewise she masquerades as a humble maid, a flirty party girl, and a posh wife as the need suits her to get access to Wayne Manor, an escape route, or a flashy new ride. Advantage: Anne Hathaway
The Love Interest
Though she's often a thorn in Batman's side—sometimes literally as she was in Batman Returns—Catwoman is also a reoccurring love interest for Bruce Wayne and his caped alter ego. The two connect on the level of rebellion and twisted passion that compels them both to wear masks and go vigilante, but it's typically a chemistry too intense to sustain.
Burton has a gift for crafting romances that are enviable as they are doomed, and in Batman Returns Keaton and Pfeifer ignite onscreen in and out of their super costumes. Masked they grapple and grope on rooftops and banter about mistletoe, but two of this feature's strongest moments are between these two unmasked. The first where they realize each other's secret identity while dancing at the Maxsquerade Ball, where Bruce wipes a tear from her cheek and Selina tremulously asks, "Does this mean we have to start fighting?" Then their final moment together, where Selina admits she could never go off and live happily ever after with Bruce, spitting, "I just couldn't live with myself. So don't pretend this is a happy ending!"
Alternately Nolan has less success crafting love connections, as his characters tend to be more tortured by regret and love lost than reveling in love found. Maybe this is why the romantic subplot between his Bruce and Selina feels so forced. Hathaway and Bale are both beautiful people, but don't really spark together onscreen. He seems amused by her, but little more, and the addition of Miranda (Marion Cotillard) as an alternate love interest only muddies the waters further. So, when the final fate of this pair is revealed, it feels unreal, making me wonder if the top will ever drop. Advantage: Michelle Pfeiffer
Though most of the heroes and villains of Gotham have plenty of flashy firepower, Catwoman was generally pretty spare in artillery but a powerful fighter nonetheless. While she is at a loss in the brute strength department, she's generally a dexterous opponent who is quick on her feet and resourceful.
Pfeiffer's Catwoman favors a whip, which isn't ideal when combat gets close. In fact, though she's scrappy and resilient, this Catwoman is basically a terrible fighter. Sure, she can take down a would-be rapist with no problem (Tic! Tac! Toe!), but over the course of a couple of days she gets killed three times…by being shoved off buildings.
As a crafty cat burglar, Hathaway's Kyle is better prepared for the battles she encounters. She knows how to fire a gun and isn't afraid to, and she's lethal all the way down to her metal-heeled stiletto boots. A snide baddie scoffs, "Don't those make it hard to walk?" She responds by expertly kicking him with the spike heel, quipping, "I don't know, do they?" She's a completely capable fighter who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty and deliver the Bane blow Batman's code won't allow him to. Advantage: Anne Hathaway
Villain You Root For
Granted, Catwoman's a conniving villainess and opportunist who generally can't be trusted, but for so many of the reasons above she's a character we root for in spite of her criminal compulsions.
Sure, she's deranged, but that's part of what makes Pfeiffer's Catwoman such a fun escapist fantasy of rebellion and revenge. She's a raging id, who revels in the power she's claimed with plenty of panache. And like Batman her story is about confronting the man who made her and taking him down. But by taking it to a place Batman refused to go—willfully killing her creator—she allows us the illicit thrill of that story without sullying our image of our Dark Knight.
Here is where Nolan's more grounded approach most hurts his Catwoman. While Burton's feature was fantastical, and so allowed us to forgive his Catwoman's wild rage, Nolan's Catwoman is more cool and calculating, making her wish for a "storm" of class warfare all the more abhorrent. She also has no problem shooting or killing in her own defense, quipping, "Where's the fun in that?" when Batman scolds her for both. (Conversely, Pfeiffer's Catwoman scares off two security guards that pull a gun on her rather then hurting them.) Sure, she eventually helps save the day, but only after attempting twice to flee the hell she had a hand in creating. Yes, Selina wants a clean slate, but do we really want to her to escape with so much blood on her hands? Advantage: Michelle Pfeiffer
Part of the advantage of reboots is that characters we are intrigued by get a new interpretation, which may be the most enticing way they reflect their comic book origins. There's a lot to admire in each portrayal of Catwoman above, and as many critics have said Hathaway was a light in the midst of so much gloom. She did a fantastic job of bringing her confident wit and deft physicality to the role, and seems to deliver just what Nolan wanted. However, his willful neutering of this iconic femme fatale's wild side and overt sexuality makes his Catwoman feel a bit declawed.
Burton was far less interested in Selina Kyle becoming a master criminal, and more intrigued by her becoming a furious force to be reckoned with. Pfeiffer gamely embraced this passionate plot and ran with it, making one of the most fabulous and bold villainesses ever set to screen. Sure, she's not much of a fighter, and her manipulations are amateur, but she nails the emotional moments and so offers a Catwoman who is a more vivid and vexing vixen that feeds our id and tantalizes our imaginations.