The Mouse That Roared An Evoltion of Catwoman By Mike Thompson. Now that Spider-man and the X-men franchise have proven that comic book movies don’t always have to suck, just about every comic character is in development...
Now that Spider-man and the X-men franchise have proven that comic book movies don’t always have to suck, just about every comic character is in development. In 2004 alone we saw heroes and antiheroes like the Punisher, John Constantine, and even Man-Thing come to theaters. And, in the middle of it all, we finally got a Catwoman movie too.
Warner Brothers has been developing a Catwoman project since Batman Returns in 1992. In that time the script has gone through multiple drafts, changing everything from the storyline to the location to the main character’s alter ego. Long before the awful new costume made the scene two different drafts were written. One of them is a surreal exercise in trying to do something new, while the other feels like just an exercise in trying to get the job done.
In the DC comic book, Catwoman is no longer just a cat burglar who bothers Batman every now and again. She’s a real person with real problems, not just dilemmas that stem from her life as a crime fighter. Current writer Ed Brubaker has taken the character to new depths, trying to explore her as a person rather than a sexy outfit. The current screen incarnation of Catwoman, however, is far more concerned with aesthetics than character. Halle Berry sure does look sexy in her ripped up leather pants, tank top, cat mask and whip. Oh, did I say sexy? I meant stupid.
Waters Run Deep
Daniel Waters’s draft of Catwoman picks up after the events of Batman Returns. Dropping the Gotham City setting, Waters has moved Selina Kyle to Oasisburg, a neo-Vegas hellhole where people drive golf carts instead of cars and the city has more tourists than residents. Selina lives with her mother, working as a wage slave at Frank’s Fun Palace, the tackiest of the city’s casinos. Most significantly though, Selina has no memory of her life as Catwoman.
When we first see Selina, she’s in a "self-help" meeting conducted by Penelope Snuggle, a "post-feminist" and author of The Catwoman Complex. It’s Snuggle’s conviction that women in power are the most dangerous people in the world and they all need to embrace the typical subservient role that society has set down for them. Before Selina can escape, Oasisburg’s protective superteam, the Cult of Good, interrupts the meeting. Led by Captain God, the Cult of Good is a collection of superhero clichés that make fighting crime a spectator sport. The women in the support group fawn like little girls over the superheroes while Selina tries desperately to ignore it all.
Yet, Selina can’t run away from her surroundings or her past. A lone black cat follows her and a strange old hag sets up a hut outside Selina’s mother’s house. When the cat leads Selina to the Cult of Good’s hideout and she learns they’re actually evil, it isn’t long before Catwoman is reborn.
And while all of this may seem a little typical (if somewhat bizarre) that’s merely the first act in one of the weirdest scripts (comic book adaptation or otherwise) ever written. Before the script is even halfway through, the idea of Catwoman has infected almost the entire female population of Oasisburg, causing them to create their own Catwoman costumes and storm out in the streets creating mayhem as they rail against their male dominated society.
Screenwriter Waters worked hard in Batman Returns to make Catwoman more dynamic than just another antagonist for Batman to knock around. By starting her off as a timid almost self-loathing woman Waters turned her into the proverbial mouse that roared when she donned the cat ears and picked up the whip. And here he takes the idea of her as the ultimate symbol of female empowerment to the nth degree. Rather than just stop with Catwoman as a symbol Waters goes on to show the danger of an unfocused revolution. As the reluctant cause of the uprising, Catwoman has to come to grips in the end that she has a responsibility as a role model.
Through all the layers Waters keeps the story moving. In addition to having to deal with the not-so-good Cult of Good, Selina also has two love interests: Brock Leviathan and Lewis Lane, one of whom is almost certainly Captain God. There are several funny and self-reflexive moments where Selina tries to play detective when talking to the men only to end up more confused than she was before.
The script continues to build to the inevitable conclusion between the Cult of Good and Catwoman and her army of Catwomen. When it’s time, Waters’s doesn’t skimp on the action but he never lets it get in the way of the characters.
While Waters’s draft of Catwoman breaks the cardinal rule of following the comic book, it does respect the continuity created by Batman Returns. But even more, the script shrewdly uses the idea of the character as a springboard to bigger concepts. What ends up being so impressive is how much Waters goes for and actually achieves. The script celebrates and criticizes the male ego, the feminist movement, superheroes and the clichés of most typical action films. It’s no surprise that the studio passed on this draft. It’s too cerebral, surreal and smart to spend $100 million dollars on. I mean, this is just supposed to be about a chick in a leather outfit right?
Patience Had No Virtue
With the Waters draft out of the picture the studio went back to the drawing board. The November 27, 2000 draft by Theresa Rebeck with revisions by Kate Kondell appears to have been written after Michelle Pfeiffer left the project and Ashley Judd has expressed interest. Aside from the title "Catwoman" this script bears little resemblance to Waters’s draft. Selina Kyle doesn’t even make an appearance, although there is mention of the fact that the original Catwoman was killed.
This time around our heroine is Patience Price. We open with Patience, age 12, in a tree with her cat, Spooky. Patience’s mother, Constance, is getting ready to confront her boss, Simon Greenaway, about royalties she feels she’s owed due to a computer chip she created but he is taking credit for. Constance heads off to her meeting and never returns. We learn that she "apparently committed suicide" by breathing in carbon monoxide.
Flash forward twelve years and now Patience is grown up and working where else but a pet grooming store. Patience’s life outside of work is a mess. She never goes out, has no self-confidence and while she’s sure her mother was killed she can’t convince anyone otherwise. Simon Greenaway, however, has used the computer chip Patience’s mother created to build an industrial empire.
As you already guessed, the story goes that Patience sets out to prove that her mother really created the chip. She’s killed, resurrected by cats (in a scene similar to Selina’s resurrection in Batman Returns) and turns into Catwoman. From there the story plays out like you would expect, an action sequence here, some witty banter there, the truth is revealed and the badguys are punished.
It’s not that this draft of Catwoman is particularly bad it’s just not particularly anything. Again the theme of a woman rallying against a male dominated society is present, but it only rings hollow when stuffed inside such a typical storyline. Much of the time the script feels like it was written with very specific guidelines from the studio ("Get her in a sexy outfit ASAP", "Give her a snappy talking, slutty friend.") and if what they wanted was a story everybody has seen before, then that’s what they got.
What We Saw
It took twelve years for Catwoman to return to theaters. Her anticlimactic arrival resembled the by-the-numbers Rebeck/Kondell script rather than the subversive Waters take on the character. Rebeck managed to snag a story credit on the 2004 movie though only a few faint whispers of her draft remain in the finished film. Directed by French special-effects maven Pitof, the weaknesses of Catwoman are exacerbated by the less-than-seamless CGI and Catwoman’s ridiculous costume (she goes from a very cute outfit on her first night out to a simply skimpy ensemble for the rest of the film).
The final screenplay credited to John Brancato & Michael Ferris and John Rogers has our heroine now named Patience Phillips (perhaps to just barely avoid yet another cloying alliterative superhero name). According to the script, Patience is one of hundreds of "cat women" from throughout the ages. This tidbit helps explain away the Selina Kyle catwoman (if you look carefully, you can see a picture of Pfeiffer in her feline couture).
The remnants of Rebeck’s script include the snappy talking girlfriend (Alex Borstein) along with the resurrection scene. Otherwise, this Catwoman (Halle Barry) goes from meek to sleek without much railing against the patriarchy. Her few male foes include a couple thugs, her boyfriend (Benjamin Bratt), and her boss (Lambert Wilson). However, her real antagonist is Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), her boss’s wife, former fashion model, and woman scorned. While her methods may be unsound, Hedare strives to regain youth and the power she had as a younger woman. Hedare usurps the society that cherishes youth by producing a cosmetic product that counteracts the effects of time. If Laurel Hedare is guilty of anything, it’s a lack of patience (pun intended) as more testing might have overcome her product’s nasty side effects.
Pitting the vivacious Catwoman against the aging magnate signifies that Catwoman isn’t a tale of female empowerment but, rather, an anti-feminist statement. While Patience Phillips may not be the meek frump she was before her feline resuscitation, she’s no role model for modern feminism. She is unable to reconcile her feline and feminine sides, remaining schizophrenic until she has dethroned Hedare, a woman who has managed to hold onto both power and femininity.
The Catwoman character can be seen as a barometer for female liberation. That said, it’s sad to think that the last dozen years have brought about the neutering of such a powerful symbol. While I’ve given up hope that Daniel Waters’s Catwoman will ever come to pass, I can only hope that the tide will turn and we might again live in a world that can tolerate such a powerful character.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection
Back to Issue 14