Monday, July 30, 2012

Redeeming Catwoman (I Saw The Dark Knight Rises)


So, yes, I saw The Dark Knight Rises. I liked it. I’ll spare you all the mystery of wondering about that. I was incredibly moved by the film, and I feel like it’s a fitting end to a trilogy that’s really revitalized superhero movies as a whole, along with actually just being great films. Good job guys, you made it.

I could continue on here and just do a pro forma review of the thing, about story and meaning, and I may do that later, but I’m not going to do it right now. If that’s what you’re looking for, read Patrick’s blog here.

No, I want, instead, to talk about ladies, and how to make a female character interesting.

Shocker, right?

The women of the Batman movies have always been a little problematic for me, and for a lot of people. The origin of the character comes from Bruce losing his parents at a young age, but we never really hear much about his mother. Yes, Martha Wayne comes off as a perfectly lovely woman, but we know so little about her. Thomas Wayne, on the other hand, is held up as a beacon of light and forward thinking. He’s everything Bruce should want to be, and it kills him that his father’s not around to see him.

His mother? Not so much apparently. Even Alfred follows this pattern, occasionally referring to Bruce’s parents, but usually leaving out a mention of his mother specifically and choosing to focus on the father. Bruce collects father figures in Alfred, Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, and Ra’s Al-Ghul, but neglects to bond with women in any real sense. But more than this, Bruce’s mother is just that. Bruce’s mother. She has no other identification, and she exists in no other sense. And that’s kinda sad.

This brings us to the only woman who really matters in the first two movies: Rachel Dawes.

Casting discrepancies aside, Rachel is an interesting figure in the Bat-Universe. Not even in the comics, she was created specifically for the movies as a foil and love interest for Bruce. She does a pretty good job of it, too, tugging at his conscience when he’s gone astray with vengeance. She reminds him that there’s good in the world and that it can be reached with legal efforts. She chastises him about losing himself in the mask.

Relationally, she challenges him. Refusing to accept a date with Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy, Rachel understands that Bruce is more Batman than man, and that he needs to reconcile himself before he can be in a relationship. Her maturity is what keeps them apart, and when she moves on, it’s hard to blame her. And then she dies.

I don’t mind the character of Rachel in general. In fact, I think she’s pretty cool. She was smart, sharp, and totally willing to take Gotham on, one case at a time. I like that in a woman.

Except. Everything I mentioned up there is done with a male motivator. Either she’s trying to convince Bruce to let the law handle things, or she’s protecting Harvey, or she’s fighting The Joker. All good things, but all done because of or for a man. She has absolutely no story or arc of her own, she’s just a catalyst and plot point for the men in her life.

Marion is always French and fabulous. Even when she's not.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Marion Cotillard’s role was initially interesting. What she wanted was clean energy, and she insisted on checking up on her Wayne Enterprises investment. Clever lady. Sure she was his lover eventually, but she was also a fantastic businesswoman and fearless fighter. Until the end, when we found out who she really was, and what her goal had been. Not only was she motivated by the death of her father, but she was also running on her relationship with Bane. So two men pushing her along. And, yes, she did call the shots with Bane, but her driving force didn’t come from her.

She was still entirely motivated by the needs and deaths of men.

So this is where Catwoman comes in. Traditionally a character I despise (sorry Michelle Pfieffer fans), due to her use of sexuality and vulnerability to get what she wants, I really didn’t have high hopes for this one. She’s in a leather catsuit. Yeah. No.

Here’s how they made her awesome: they gave her a story. That’s all, really. They didn’t have to throw her out of a building, or give her a cosmetics company job, they just had to give her a motivation and a personality, and I was sold.

I think that’s actually a little depressing, when it comes down to it.

Selina Kyle wants to disappear. That’s her whole thing. She hates her past and she resents the rich, but most of all, she wants to make it all go away, and go somewhere fabulous.

So she steals. She lies. She uses sex to get what she wants. But she does it all for a reason. It’s not just that she wasn’t hot before and now she is so that justifies it. Nope, it’s about power. She doesn’t have it, but any leg up she can manage, she’ll take.

She despises Bruce and all that he stands for, and scoffs at the Batman. She betrays him. She begs him to run away with her. She tries to run. She comes back.

She has her own story, and in it she is the main character. Her actions are not predicated by a male presence in her life, they’re created by her desires. Hers alone. When she decides to leave? It’s because she wants to. When she comes back? It’s because she knows it’s the right thing to do. Catwoman don’t need no man, so it’s pretty cool when she gets one anyways.

Selina arcs like any other character, and that's significant because women don't usually arc that way. In Batman movies, or in any action franchise, the woman is already in the place she's going to stay, and nothing interferes with that. Rachel didn't change, and neither did Talia.

But in this movie, we have a woman who shifts her point of view, who comes to understand that the way she's been viewing the world is wrong and that she should change it. And then she actually does. She changes and grows, and this isn't remarkable at all except in its rarity. Selina isn't here because of Bruce. She's got her own issues and her own storyline to deal with. She's the Han Solo to his do-gooding Luke, and she's going to go on her own arc before she decides to help.

That's what's so awesome about her character. She is her own person, and because of that, there's room for her to change that person.

From a story angle, the ending of The Dark Knight Rises was very fulfilling. The Batman legacy carried on through John Blake (best name reveal ever), Batman recognized as a hero, and Bruce living without the shadow of his guilt. Neat. It’s all very fulfilling and well written and happy. I was happy.

So what do we get out of all this, besides the fact that Christopher Nolan made a really good movie where he managed not to kill off the love interest for once?

Simply this: to make a female character compelling, to make her interesting and viable, to make her sexuality her own, and make her someone that girls will want to be, give her a motivation that’s actually hers. Then let her run with it.

No one should look that fabulous in handcuffs. No one.


  1. I want to agree with you, but frankly the impression I came away with was that Selina Kyle was completely unnecessary to the development of the film. Yes, okay, she has her own storyline... which is what? That she's chasing a MacGuffin?

    She randomly spouts off the Occupy rhetoric (which made no sense to me, since they never showed any class divisions or social unrest aside from Bane's crew of ruffians), serves as a plot device to send Bruce off to his training montage, blows open an escape route that NO ONE USES, etc. Completely non-essential to the plot.

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  3. Very nice article. Anne's Catwoman was a likable antiheroine and I found her the most accurate to the best portrayals of the character in the source material (including the earliest examples, where Catwoman was a similarly low-key, non-gimmicky, but ferociously cunning and smart lady of crime).

    However, I have to disagree about Rachel. I never had the impression she "lives for other men". She repeatedly makes it clear in the first film that her job, ideals and ambitions are paramount to her, and Bruce is definitely not the boss of her. He's an estranged childhood friend she cares for out of basic decency and to beat some of her own maturity into him, but otherwise, he was never the centre of her life at all. Her goal to bring more justice to Gotham, bit by bit, even with some sad compromises in mind (the whole Falcone-Chill matter in the first film) arguably makes her a mundane, non-vigilante "Batman", and a female one to boot. That she'd feel close to Dent in the second film isn't surprising - I think their relationship was meant to reflect that they both held very similar ideals about fighting crime in Gotham via reforming the local justice system and the police. I never had the impression Rachel suddenly crawled into Dent's shadow in the second film and stayed there. On the contrary. She just finds Dent a more favourable co-worker and romantic partner for her cause than Wayne's shadowy alter ego. Rachel's even visibly annoyed (though still polite) when Wayne raises the "old flame" argument in the second film. A clear signal. If it weren't for Alfred's misguided attempt to spare Wayne of Rachel's rejection by burning that letter, Wayne would have to face the truth. Rachel was not waiting for him, their life together ended in childhood. That's how things developed and not even his larger-than-life Batman persona could ever change such simple, harsh facts. It's telling that he's able to find a happy relationship only with an outcast/"weirdo" similar to him - i.e. Selina.

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