Since her comic book debut in 1940, Catwoman has had more than nine lives. Bored socialite, amnesiac flight attendant, street smart hooker, caring mother, even super hero… she’s been them all! But she is foremost known as comics ultimate vixen; a household name that serves as comics’ most famous female villain.
Whatever her current origin, Catwoman has always (well, usually…) been Selina Kyle. She began her career as a traditional femme fatale wearing a long green dress acting more as a mastermind than the acrobatic dynamo she is known as today. She runs afowl of Batman, but there is instant chemistry between the two as it is implied at the end of their first encounter that Batman purposely prevented Robin from capturing her. Their flirtation continued for years and inspired similar star-crossed romances, most blatantly Spider-Man’s romantic interest/adversary the Black Cat.
Catwoman is one of the few villains, male or female, popular enough to sustain their own comic book series. She is currently being reinvented once again as part of DC’s New 52.
As such a high-profile character, she has found herself adapted into other art forms, both live action and animation on television and in two film appearances, with one more coming up, the big-budget ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, directed by Christopher Nolan with Anne Hathaway stepping into the role. Hathaway has been highly scrutinized since her casting, with tons of photos being leaked online sending fans into an uproar with each new reveal. I’ll reserve a wait-and-see attitude about this.
But Anne is just the latest actress to embody Selina Kyle. There have been numerous others, beginning with one of the most iconic!
Julie Newmar was purrrrrfectly cast as Batman’s nemesis in the 1966 live action television series ‘Batman!’ She was beautiful and sensual but still menacing! Newmar flirted and fought with Batman in 12 episodes total.
‘Batman’ was such a smash hit on TV that producers scrambled to create a theatrical movie spin-off. For such a huge event, they decided that Batman should match wits with the show’s four most popular villains, Caesar Romero’s Joker, Burgess Merideth’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler and Catwoman. Unfortunately, Julie Newmar was unavailable, as she was busy filming ‘McKenna’s Gold’ at the time. The part had to be recast, with beauty queen Lee Meriwether slipping into Julie’s shimmery catsuit. Meriwether’s performance is fine, but she doesn’t have the same seductive charm, nor menace that Newmar’s performances did. I hate to say one is better than the other and will just cop out and say they had two different approaches.
The movie underperformed, as theatrical movies based on television properties often do. (It’s been said audiences don’t want to pay for something they already get for free.) Newmar returned to the role, once filming of the series resumed the following year. However, ‘Batman’ waned in its second season. During the first two seasons, the show aired twice a week. That was scaled back in the third, and ultimately final, season to just one new episode a week. In an effort to spark interest, Batgirl was introduced. By then, however, Julie Newmar had decided to move on.
The beguiling Eartha Kitt became the third actress to portray Catwoman. The bold choice to cast an African American was daring at the time but I’m sure Kitt’s famous ‘growwwwwwwwwwl’ is what clenched the deal for her. Since race relations were still so taboo at the time, Kitt’s Catwoman lost the flirtatious element Newmar and Meriwether’s Catwomen possessed, but she became arguably more vicious. Kitt was the first example of “color-blind casting” for a super hero role, but even to this day, anytime it happens it sends fans into a tizzy.
For decades in the comics, Catwoman wore a long purple dress and a green cape. However, when ‘Batman’ hit the airwaves, Newmar was given a form-fitting black sparkly catsuit. Since far more people watched the show than read the comics, that became the character’s most famous look. The creators of the comic then decided to adjust their Catwoman to more closely resemble Newmar. However in a strange decision, they gave the entire look a green color scheme. Maybe they thought black was too dark and dreary for the candy-colored world of comics?
In 1968, Filmation produced an animated series called ‘The Batman/Superman Hour’ and for the first time, Catwoman found herself in the world of animation. Filmation modeled her look on the green costume from the comics, but smoothed out all the texture to make it simpler to draw. The result is a basic full-body green suit with a white mask, gloves, boots and belt. She was voiced by Jane Webb.
In 1977, Filmation created a second animated Batman series, ‘The New Adventures of Batman.’ This time, they crafted Catwoman’s look from scratch, giving her a vivid orange costume. This is a huge departure from the character’s comic book appearance. They even changed her hair color to brown, instead of the traditional black. While she only appeared in four episodes of this series, those episodes were rerun for many years. She was voiced in this incarnation by Melendy Britt, who incidentally went on to voice another feline villain, Catra from ‘She-Ra: Princess of Power.’ Ironically, she also played She-Ra herself!
Catwoman never appeared on the long-running Hanna-Barbera ‘Super Friends’ cartoon. But this unearthed model sheet, rendered by legendary comic artist and Super Friends’ designer Alex Toth proves that at one point she was supposed to have! The previously mentioned ‘New Adventures’ series is what prevented this. The rights to Batman and Robin allowed for the two heroes to appear on both series on different networks at the same time, but their villains could not. The Super Friends’ Legion of Doom got Scarecrow and The Riddler. (The Riddler appears in a purple suit during the opening credits of ‘New Adventures’ but he never stars in an actual episode.) Catwoman and The Joker were given to ‘New Adventures’ and their spots in the Legion of Doom were filled by Cheetah and Toyman. Honestly, it’s the highest profile Cheetah’s ever had, so it was a good step for her!
Following the cancellation of the ‘Super Friends’ in 1984, Superman headlined his own cartoon the following year, which only lasted one season. After that, super heroes left the airwaves for a considerable time. Comics went through quite a renovation in the eighties, as their readership advanced in age, with fewer and fewer young children gravitating toward them. Slowly comic book racks vanished from grocery stores and gas stations. Comic fans had to go to specialty comic shops for their fix, once again driving away younger readers. With a new older audience, comics became darker and more mature.
One of the seminal works of this time is Frank Miller’s ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ a bleak, violent depiction of a futuristic Batman forced to return to action in a dystopian world. The series was a smash and all comics soon followed in this darker more mature direction. It was this take on Batman that director Tim Burton chose when he crafted the big-budget theatrical smash ‘Batman’ which broke records in the summer of 1989. A sequel was a no-brainer and for the role of Catwoman, Burton selected Michelle Pfeifer, who’d raised temperatures in the recent film ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys.’
This Catwoman, though Selina Kyle in name, was given a brand new origin as a bumbling and disheveled secretary. Her boss is the nefarious Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken). After Selina accidentally discovers his plan to steal Gotham City’s electricity, he kills her by shoving her through the window of his high rise office. She is miraculously saved when alley cats resuscitate her. (At the time, it didn’t sound that weird.) In a daze, she returns to her apartment and constructs her suit out of a raincoat and vows her revenge.
This Catwoman actually seems to possess super powers; nine lives, as she repeatedly seems to meet her end, only to somehow awaken. She allies herself with The Penguin, played by Danny DeVito to gain revenge on Max Shreck. The pair must also contend with Batman (Michael Keaton), who stands in their way. As in the comics, Selina and Bruce Wayne enjoy a romantic courtship both in their true identities and while in costume.
Tim Burton, famous for bringing Goth style to his films certainly gives Catwoman that treatment here, with her pale white skin contrasted with bright red lipstick and her slick black costume. Since the outfit was cobbled together from an old raincoat, there is white stitching all over it. Pfeifer oozes sex appeal in the role, with a dash of cat-like playfulness, as in the scene where after committing a robbery she skips rope with her whip. One variation from the comics, is that Pfeifer maintained her blonde hair, rather than dying it black to match the comic version.
Pfeifer’s Catwoman proved so popular that a spin-off movie was planned, but unfortunately it never materialized.
Though ‘Batman Returns’ underperformed at the box office, both of the first two Batfilms were successful enough that Warner Brothers brought Batman back to animation. As with the films, the cartoon series was more sophisticated than traditional children’s entertainment. ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ would prove to be, in many fan’s and critic’s opinions, the best cartoon series ever based on comic books. This interpretation of Catwoman was a bored socialite and animal rights activist, who moonlighted as a cat burglar, aided by Maven a personal assistant and her pet cat Isis. Voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, she as usual enjoyed a flirtation with both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Since the series began so soon after ‘Batman Returns,’ both Catwoman and The Penguin were depicted closer to those incarnations than the traditional comic book styles. This Catwoman was blonde, just like Michelle Pfeifer. While simplified significantly, her suit is closer to the movie’s look than the comics’ flowing purple dress. She wears a gray bodysuit with black gloves and boots and her cowl is not open in the back. She also wears a gold belt that vaguely resembles the one worn by Newmar, Meriwether and Kitt in the sixties.
After time had passed and ‘Returns’ had faded from memory, the producers of the animated series retooled the characters and the show became ‘The New Batman Adventures.’ One of their biggest changes was scrapping Burton’s mutant version of The Penguin and returning him to his comic roots as a chubby human crime boss. Ironically, their new take on Catwoman bore a closer resemblance to Pfeifer’s look than it had before, with a darker black catsuit and super pale skin. (It almost looks green a lot of the time.) The new look of Selina Kyle resembles Frank Miller’s take, from ‘Batman: Year One’ with short black hair.
Maggie Baird appeared in a flashback in an episode of the live action ‘Birds of Prey’ series. This version also wears a vinyl-like black catsuit but with her long hair flowing. Story wise, this version of Catwoman more closely resembles the Catwoman of ‘Earth 2’, who has married Bruce Wayne and has had a daughter with him, Helena Kyle. Both Selina and Helena are metahumans with actual super powers. This Catwoman is killed in the flashback and it is explained that her death and the paralyzing of Batgirl have sent Batman into isolation.
In 2004, Warner Brothers brought Batman and his cast back in a new series, ‘The Batman.’ Unlike the prior animated series, the creative team took a lot more liberties with this version, making several departures from the comic book continuity. (For example, due to the ‘Teen Titans’ cartoon airing at the same time, Robin was unavailable, so in this reality, Batgirl was Batman’s first partner.) Voiced by Gina Gershon, this Catwoman is more of an anti-hero than an outright villain. In one episode she attempts to steal two black Siberian leopards… in order to save them from being killed by a big game hunter.
Her costume is once again a black bodysuit, this time with a cowl neck, exaggerated ears and goggles. There are red accents on the ears, claws and toes and she wears her whip as a belt that hangs down to resemble a tail, when not in use.
Many elements from ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ proved so popular they were integrated into the comics, most famously the character Harley Quinn. Another idea that seems to have stuck is Catwoman having a pet cat named Isis. Isis returned on the 2005, preschool-aimed series ‘Krypto the Superdog’ series, as a foil for the title hero and Ace the Bathound. Mirroring her owner’s behavior, Isis flirts with Ace whenever they encounter one another. Isis has also popped up in a book series for young children starring the pets of various DC Super Heroes.
Sigh. So yeah, that happened. In 2004, Halle Berry starred in the infamous box office flop ‘Catwoman.’ This Catwoman had nothing to do with Batman. Her name wasn’t even Selina Kyle, she was Patience Phillips, an artist at a cosmetics company run by an evil Sharon Stone. Like Michelle Pfeifer, Phillips is a put-upon mess who accidentally overhears her bosses’ nasty scheme and is killed. Once more, she is also brought back to life by cats and given catlike super powers by the Egyptian cat goddess Bast. She vows revenge and spoilers, gets it. Kidding, I know you’re never going to watch (or re-watch) it. The movie is awful and completely misguided. Why make a Catwoman movie that has nothing to do with Catwoman in the comics? The only reason to own the DVD is there’s a nice documentary about the history of the comic book Catwoman narrated by Eartha Kitt.
Berry’s cat costume at least resembles a cat in the mask department. But everyone was left scratching their heads about what was going on from the neck down. She’s wearing a skimpy leather bikini top, with some strange straps attached, then ripped up leather pants and high heel boots with her toes exposed. I will say her gloves look practical and she does employ a whip, as she does in most incarnations. Let’s just move along.
Most recently, Catwoman had a recurring role on the just-cancelled ‘Batman: The Brave and the Bold,’ where she was voiced by Nika Futterman. Catwoman appears numerous times throughout the series and for the first time, is animated in her most famous comic book costume, the purple dress/green cape combo. Her depiction is very close to the traditional comic book take on her, skewing closer to her Silver Age persona. In “Death Race to Oblivion” she drives her Catmobile. In “Shadow of the Bat,” Catwoman sics her black panther Hecate on Batman and Robin, which is notable because in the 1967 ‘Batman’ movie, Lee Meriwether has a black cat with the same name. In “The Mask of Matches Malone,” Catwoman teams up with The Huntress and Black Canary and the trio performs a racy song *ahem* sizing up the men of the DC Universe. Huntress makes a reference to Aquaman’s “little fish” which resulted in the episode never airing in the U.S.
That brings us up to the present. Now a glimpse into the future! As I said, Anne Hathaway’s casting in the role of Selina Kyle and Catwoman has been controversial from the start. It was originally reported that Hathaway had only been cast as Selina, leading many to speculate that she wouldn’t actually appear in costume in the movie. Then the first images released showed her unmasked. Later she was shown wearing goggles which only hinted at the idea of cat ears, then later wearing actual cat ears. Some have criticized the fact that she wears stiletto heels, deeming them impractical for an action character, but… I’ve seen dancers do back flips in heels, so it’s not impossible.
Of course there is always discussion among fans as to the worthiness of a particular actor or actress for such an iconic role. Though Anne has been nominated for the Academy Award, many see her as too girl-next-door. Jessica Biel recently announced that at one point she’d been up for the role of Catwoman, with many responding that she would have been better in the role. I don’t think I agree with that. I’m not anti-Jessica Biel, but she is more famous for dating Justin Timberlake than acting.
What ultimately sold me on Anne Hathaway were the images of her as Selina Kyle, rather than Catwoman. She looks absolutely stunning! She is clearly channeling Audrey Hepburn (arguably the biggest style icon of all time) and absolutely embodies the sophistication that Selina Kyle should have.
Of course no footage has surfaced yet, not even a trailer, so things are still up-in-the-air, but I think Anne should add to the proud legacy of all the various Catwomen! And she can’t be worse than Halle Berry, can she?