Be advised that this discussion of Selina Kyle includes spoilers from The Dark Knight Rises.
There’s no such thing as the purrrrfect Catwoman. The character’s background, dating back to her origins on television on the 1960s series Batman as well as her appearances in the comics run the gamut from wiley adversary to a whiney ex-lover who calls Bruce Wayne just to say “Bruce, I’m lonely” in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. There’s not one perfect rendition to aim for. But Anne Hathaway’s complex cat burglar in Christopher Nolan’s third and final Batman film The Dark Knight Rises may be the closest thing we’ve seen to a perfect rendition of the infamous and beguiling Selina Kyle.
The first part of her success comes purely from Nolan’s decision to leave off the Catwoman moniker. If anything, we can assume those Gothamites who’d witnessed her work might whisper the name jokingly, but for the entirety of the film, she is solidly Selina Kyle, professional cat burglar and not some acrobatic she-villain in a spray-on leather suit (though her suit of choice is rather curve-hugging). The removal of her alias lends gravity to a character whose past iterations have been largely defined by the necessarily catty costume. Even Hathaway’s “cat ears” are merely a wink at Kyle’s cartoonish villain name. Instead of putting Hathaway in a dinky pair of pin-on faux-ears, we merely think we see the signature cat profile, when in reality, it’s the shape of her tactical spy-goggles perched atop her level head. We know she’s Catwoman, but she doesn’t have to become some flag-waving obtuse version of the conflicted character to tell us that.
But it’s not just the costume. Hathaway’s Kyle is not a criminal born out of the usual Catwoman origin. The first film iteration with a significant background is the very memorable performance from Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (before that, fabulous Catwoman portrayers like Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar were simply perfectly executed bad, bad kitties). Pfeiffer's Kyle is a downtrodden, mousy woman, fed up with the way men and the world stomped all over her. And one night, in the privacy of her sad, cat-filled apartment, she gets angry enough to sew together a patent leather catsuit, get her groove back and strike out at Gotham City with all her pent-up womanly rage. Her assault on the city and her partnering with the Penguin are petty and driven by a sense of selfish injustice. She’d been personally wronged, ignored, mistreated, and as such, everyone else is going to suffer her wrath. (Halle Berry’s Stretch Armstrong of a Catwoman suffered from a similarly unflattering origin story.) Even when she sacrifices herself to kill Shreck (Christopher Walken) at the end of the film, she does so in a way most people would file in the looney bin. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is entertaining, and even sexy at times, but she is not a woman for modern viewers to relate to. If anything, she’s the depiction of women most modern ladies are trying to quiet. Let's just say there's a reason that as even as a child and major fan of Batman Returns I chose to imitate the caped crusader, gender be damned, and not his confuddled could-be sidekick with the long, pointy nails.
Still, Hathaway’s Kyle is no picnic. And she’s certainly no role model. She is, however, a woman that most contemporary audiences can truly relate to and understand. On one hand, she spends her time using men as playthings in her scheme to better her life. But on the other, she sees her role as almost modern day, feminist Robin Hood. She comes from nothing and she sees her “career” and her eventual involvement with Bane’s “impending storm” as methods of leveling the playing field between the haves and the have-nots, as evidenced by a scene in which she whispers “You’re going to wonder how you lived so large for so long and didn’t leave enough for the rest of us” in Bruce Wayne's million-dollar ear as a pudgy, stodgy man in a suit gluttonously cracks open a juicy lobster, allowing chunks of the precious meat topple onto the floor. It’s this gross inequality that drives her, but only so far as her own want for self-preservation will allow. The way Kyle sees it, she’s part of the solution, and she’s not approaching it with the feverish, knee-jerk reaction of so many Catwomen before her.
And then there’s her status as Batman/Bruce Wayne’s perfect match. Throughout the history of Batman, Catwoman/Selina Kyle has been a conflicting presence for Bruce. She’s always been on the wrong side of the law, but their attraction has been unavoidable. There’s something about her confusing morals that give him something he can relate to. She’s ultimately coming from a similar place of wanting to make the world better, but she’s unsure how to do that without causing evil. Still, Nolan's Kyle understand the mistakes she's made, something we can surmise by her remorse in one the final scenes in TDKR when she sees the result of helping Bane turn Gotham into a state of anarchy and stares with regret at one family’s shattered portraits. Her struggle is not unlike the moral struggle that Batman has faced time and again, including in Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
But what makes her such a perfect match is not that she’s able to tease him like no other woman, as past iterations of the character have displayed. It’s not the mystery or the sexy exterior that draws Wayne in (besides, he's had his hands on plenty of sexy ladies in his time). It’s her vulnerability and her ability to truly challenge him. She’s not an inferior fighter. She’s not a little green or a damsel in distress. She’s been surviving on her own, and even when he comes to her aid, it’s just that: aid. He’s not her Dark Knight in shining armor. He doesn't set her straight. He’s her challenge. She wins him over not because she’s trapped him or enticed him with her barely-there catsuit. They wind up together because they are actually matched. They are equals.
Now, with that in mind, the depiction of Hathaway’s Kyle certainly doesn’t elevate her to that level in terms of screen time. The cat burglar’s story is always secondary to Batman’s, but that’s not because her character, in the universe created by the film, is lesser. It’s simply because her name is not in the title of the film. This is not the Selina Kyle story. This is a story about Batman. Sure, in the end, that may leave us wishing we’d enjoyed more of Hathaway’s progressive Kyle, but it doesn’t diminish Nolan’s rendition of the character.
The real victory is in how real the character feels. Hathaway’s Selina is someone we understand. We could see ourselves driven to similar lengths and reacting with similar levels of remorse when the consequences were more dire than we anticipated. What makes this Catwoman superior to past renditions is that we’d be willing to put ourselves in her razor-edged stiletto boots. And we feel like we understand how it would feel.
Rather than feeling like we're watching the Catwoman sideshow in the big Batman movie, we experience the character Hathaway and Nolan have created so deeply that we walk away with a giant compliment in the form of a complaint: We want and need more Selina Kyle. It’s the highest compliment we could pay Hathaway’s excellent supporting character, and that level of elusiveness is actually the perfect way for the wily femme fatale to leave her adoring fans. She wouldn't want us thinking she was that easy to catch, now would she?
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.