What the Hell Was That? – Catwoman (2004)

For the longest time, one of the toughest shells to crack in the film industry was finding that breakthrough superhero movie that centered on a female heroine.  The struggle to make it work shouldn’t have been that hard, considering the wealth of fantastic female characters in all sorts of media, but Hollywood itself has unnecessarily been hedging their bets a little too much over the years.  The problem has been rooted in the fact that the industry still holds on to the out-dated notion that male and female audiences value different things when it comes to cinema.  Sure, there are films that only cater to audiences of certain genders and are made specifically with the purpose of hitting those demographics.  But there is a sizable audience in between that can appreciate one or the other.  There are a lot of men who like romantic, feminine centered dramas or comedies, and there more than enough women who enjoy a good action film.  Comic books find that the same is true.  I know plenty of women who love comic books just as much as men do, and the comic book industry has it’s fair share of female artists and writers who are making an impact on their own.  It’s not a boys only world as much as Hollywood seems to think it is.  So, why has it taken this long for Hollywood to actually invest in a superhero movie with a woman at it’s center?  It largely comes down to not having enough faith in the audience, political timidity, and a lack of understanding about the comic book medium in general.  But, most of all, it’s a perspective that’s driven by money, and the mistaken belief that female superheroes are not marketable the same way that their male counterparts are.

That’s all about to change with the long awaited release of DC’s Wonder Woman.  Not only is the movie expected to have a strong opening weekend, but the film is also earning rave reviews; which given DC’s track record up to now, is really unexpected and pleasantly reassuring.  Finally, we have a movie centered around a female superhero that actually lives up to the potential of the character, and doesn’t feel like a cynical ploy by the studio to appeal to a target audience.  It’s an earnest adaptation of a long established superhero, treated with the same care and respect as would be devoted to her male peers.  And it’s long overdue.  The reason why I think that this new Wonder Woman movie is succeeding, more than anything, is because of the lack of cynicism.  You can look at the movie and see that it was made with the best of intentions by it’s filmmakers, and not as an obligation nor as a grand statement.  She gets her own story told the way that suits her character the best, and because she’s on an equal footing with Batman and Superman, her story gets the same treatment.  That’s something that even the recent Superman and Batman reboots haven’t been able to achieve, so it’s a real testament to the character and her fan-base that such a success could be possible.  But, Wonder Woman‘s road to reality has been a shaky one, and there have been a lot of other failed attempts to bring a feminine presence to the superhero genre.  Of all of them, none managed to mismanage a female heroine worse than 2004’s Catwoman, a mind-boggling misfire that not only ruined an iconic character, but also completely dismantled any progress towards successful female driven action films for some time, and is a prime example of the very cynical approach by Hollywood that Wonder Woman sought to avoid.

To call Catwoman a superhero movie is doing a disservice to the genre.  It bears no redeeming value as either a comic book adaptation nor as an action movie in general.  Even it’s roots in the source comics is non existent.  There’s no way you can look at it and see it as anything other than a cynical attempt to reach an audience that the studio clearly didn’t understand.  But, why did this movie become ever come into existence in the first place.  It was a long, windy road called “development hell” that led to a monstrosity like this.  After Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) brought a revised version of the character to the big screen, people began to show interest in her appeal as a cinematic icon once again.  Though Batman Returns received a mixed reaction from audiences and critics alike, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the feline villainess was highly praised.  So much goodwill came Catwoman’s way that talk immediately started of a spinoff movie centered around her.  Unfortunately, even after receiving the green-light from Warner Brothers, the project languished for years, with both Burton and Pfeiffer dropping out of involvement and several rewrites and revisions being made to various script drafts over the years,  Eventually, the project dropped into the lap of a French visual effects producer named simply Pitof, who managed to land then recent Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry into the title role.  So, a long gestating film project finally got off the ground, but as we would soon learn, it was a project that probably should’ve been scrapped long ago.  It released into theaters in the summer of 2004 to almost universal derision.  People across the board hated it; critics, comic book fans, casual fans, and especially female fans.  For many, this wasn’t just a misfire, but a betrayal; to both a beloved character and to their hope of a successful movie that centered around a female super hero.

First of all, I would just like to point out how badly this film fails as a movie in general.  It is an ugly movie to look at, and represents many of the unnecessary excess that usually defined films of that era.  In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, we saw a lot of fresh new filmmakers experimenting with some of the new technology that was being made available.  That’s why you would see a lot of Hollywood films in this transition period of time using excessive amounts of CGI to make what they perceived as “cooler” and more exciting action scenes.  Unfortunately, not everything can be The Matrix (1999), and what we saw from this era was a lot of unappetizing eye candy.  Catwoman was a perfect example of that, with action scenes brought to incomprehensibility thanks to poor direction and obviously artificial visual effects used as a way to patch up the shoddiness of it all.  The film is notorious for how bad the CGI looks in several scenes, to the point where it’s clear that the Catwoman on screen is just a digital model and not the actress herself.  Other movie at the time did a far better job of switching between real people and digital stand ins when called for in a effects driven scene (the Lord of the Rings movies for example), but there’s nothing seamless here.  The movie even makes the mistake of getting up and close to the digital models, showing how not real they really are.  In addition, director Pitof uses a distracting soft focus throughout the movie, making everything feel texture-less.  It’s garish and unflattering, especially on the actors faces, and makes just sitting through the movie a chore.  And, like a lot of other pot-Matrix movies, the movie makes you all to aware of it’s film-making style.  Not a single scene in this movie is framed naturally, with dutch angles, slow-motion photography, and extreme lighting ruling much of the cinematography here.  Thank God Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), with it’s more restrained style, was right around the corner, or else we would be getting more super hero movies that looked like this.

The cast itself doesn’t fare much better.  Halle Berry in particular just feels lost in the role.  Truth be told, it’s not really her fault, because the movie never allows her to be more than just model around in costume and act like a cat.  And believe me, this movie is relentless with it’s cat puns and innuendos.  The way I see it, Halle Berry might have taken the role thinking that it would be an empowering character and dignified hero, but only realized too late that the film was sadly fetishizing the character as a way of making her more appealing.  As a result, you get a rather uninterested performance from Ms. Berry, who clearly is just waiting out the clock so that she could collect that paycheck and put this sad experience behind her.  But, sadly for her, audiences didn’t forget.  Her performance as Catwoman has unfortunately cast a dark shadow on her career, one that I think she still hasn’t moved beyond.  She rarely headlines feature films anymore, and if she does, it’s usually made outside of the Hollywood machine.  It’s hard to believe that one bad role can set back a career that harshly, but that seems to be the case with Halle Berry and Catwoman.  And it’s something that shouldn’t just be laid upon her shoulders alone.  The remaining cast, including a very forgettable male lead played by Benjamin Bratt, and an embarrassingly over the top Sharon Stone as the villain, are even worse in the movie.  At least when called to do ridiculous things like running catnip across her face and eating cat food out of the can, Berry still goes for it.  I’d say the terrible direction crosses over into the depictions of the characters, and makes them innately unlikable, even despite modest efforts from the actors.

But, the movie’s biggest fault comes in the cynical nature of it’s creation.  To talk about the toxic nature of the film’s central theme, we have to address the sometimes touchy subject of feminism.  Now, I am a male writer who can in no way claim to be an expert on the subject of feminist issues.  All I want to do is to observe how Hollywood touches upon feminism and, in many cases, fall way out of line on the subject.  Feminism may not always be a topic at hand when it comes to adapting movies from comic books, but it certainly becomes one when Hollywood attempts to appeal to a female demographic that takes the genre very seriously.  There is definitely a disconnect between Hollywood and female audiences as to what constitutes a feminist identity in both narrative and production.  What Hollywood might see as empowering, feminists might see as condescending and offensive.  That’s something that very much defined the awkward portrayal of Catwoman.  When the filmmakers redesigned the character, for example, they sexualized the character to an uncomfortable degree, making her have more in common with a whip cracking dominatrix than a crime fighting do-gooder.  Now, to be fair, Catwoman has always been a character that has used her sexuality to her advantage, but here the subtlety in her portrayal is entirely dropped .  What the filmmakers saw as a strong, independent female in charge of her sexuality, feminists saw as a cynical ploy to use the character as a object of desire for male audiences.   By putting so little emphasis on her story and identity beyond that, you just spotlight the sexual nature of the character and it diminishes her to merely a tool for arousal.  That’s why the movie failed to appeal to a female audience, because they could see right through the cynicism, and rightly observed this as just another example of Hollywood not understanding their issues.

But to make matters worse, the movie has the gall to declare itself as an empowering, feminist movie.  There is a moment in the film where Berry’s Catwoman seeks answers from a mysticism expert, played by Frances Conroy.  She asks her why a history of female heroes who have been granted powers from felines over the centuries has been largely ignored, and the expert merely blames that on “male academia.”  That’s right; this movie’s feminist statement basically boils down to “women are great, because men are dumb.”  This is a clear minimalization of feminist ideals and is an insult to their cause.  It’s something that I found annoying in the recent all female Ghostbusters (2016) reboot as well.  Just like in CatwomanGhostbusters’ idea of declaring power for women is to knock down all the male characters around them and make them look weak and petty.  Now, like I said, I’m no expert on feminism, but I can safely say that this is not what the movement is all about.  Feminism is not about declaring superiority for one’s gender; it’s about demanding equal rights and respect in a society that doesn’t value women enough, and seeing that all women should have an equal footing with their male peers in all fields.  Taking cheap shots at men only diminishes what feminists are trying to accomplish, and as a result, it just motivates the men who have been a target of their ridicule to lash out back at them.  That’s the reckless and idiotic form of feminism that both Catwoman and Ghostbusters proudly claim for themselves.  It’s probably not a coincidence that both were directed by men who proclaim that they understand the plight of women.  Suffice to say, their help has not made things any better.

That’s why this new take on Wonder Woman is such a breath of fresh air.  It makes a concerted effort to appeal to all audiences, while at the same time taking the portrayal of her seriously, both as a icon of the comic book medium and of feminism.  And it thankfully pulls the concept of a female driven superhero film out of the dark shadow cast by the failure of Catwoman.  It’s safe to say that Catwoman is an example of the worst things that a superhero can be; whether it be female centered or not.  It’s cynical, garish, and just unappealing in every way.  And even worse, it represents just how little faith Hollywood can sometimes have for it’s audience and how little they value the issues that matter to them.  For years, female comic book fans have been clamoring for an honest portrayal of a heroine that could hold their own in this male-dominated genre.  Up until now, they’ve only been able to remain satisfied with their Princess Leias, and their Ripleys, and their Furiosas, all of whom are great heroines on their own, but who could never be seen sharing the screen with the likes of Batman and Superman.  Catwoman only compounded the problem, making Hollywood think that female driven super hero films were bad for business for a long while.  But, as we’ve seen, it’s not the heroines themselves that make the movies fail, it’s the lackluster executions of their stories.  A Catwoman movie could have worked if she was treated with a little more respect and dignity.  We’re thankfully heading in that direction now, finally.  Wonder Woman shows that female super heroes can succeed at the box office and hold their own, and hopefully it opens the door for other feminine heroes just like her.  Even Catwoman managed to find a better life outside her own movie, when Christopher Nolan included her in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), as portrayed by Anne Hathaway, showing that the character is still a valued one.  The only good to come from 2004’s Catwoman is that it now serves as a cautionary tale of how not to make a female super hero movie, and let’s hope, for the sake of other female super heroes waiting in the wings, that they don’t fall into the same, toxic trap.