Across 80 years, numerous variant covers, and more cat-eared headgear than we care to count, Catwoman clawed her way to a prominent place in the Batman mythos. Introduced as “The Cat” in Batman #1, she proved a unique foil. She doesn’t try to outsmart the hero, expose his secret identity, or bump him off. She makes him an offer: “Why don’t you come in as a partner with me?” Catwoman asks. “You and I, king and queen of crime!”
Batman, of course, refuses—it’s the first issue of his very own comic, after all. But he does give the offer some thought. “Your proposition tempts me, but we work on different sides of the law.” Two panels later, with an “oops,” Batman lets her escape. Maybe he’ll run into her again, he muses.
That prediction panned out: Now an indelible part of Gotham City’s rogues’ gallery, Catwoman ties Joker as the most recurrent villain in Batman’s filmography. Matt Reeves’ The Batman will be her fourth appearance, but she was also a pioneer in the field of villains headlining their own pictures. (So you can thank her for Venom.)
In her three previous live-action film appearances, regardless of actor or multiverse, Catwoman continues to reframe that initial meeting in issue #1. She challenges something else from issue #1: The oath Bruce Wayne made to spend his life warring on criminals. During her 56 years on screen, she’s steadily pushed Batman closer to hanging breaking his vow, hanging up the cape and cowl, and giving in to the temptation from their first meeting.
With director Leslie H. Martinson’s Batman: The Movie in 1966, Lee Meriwether became the silver screen’s first Catwoman. Rushed into production between the first and second seasons of ABC’s primetime Batman series, the movie wrapped at the end of May 1966 and was in theaters by August. Producers wanted to capitalize on the series’ breakout success—and the already-paid-for props, costumes, and Batcave set—but that speed cost their original Catwoman, Julie Newmar, the role. With Meriwether stepping into the spangly catsuit as one of the film’s four antagonists, the film cemented Catwoman as an iconic Batman villains in the eyes of the public.
“Thanks to the cultural impact of the 1966 Batman series and film, Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman are the Batman villains,” Tim Hanley, comic book historian and author of The Many Lives Of Catwoman, tells The A.V. Club. “She’s the rare character who can so enrapture him that he momentarily sets aside his dedication to crimefighting.”
In the film, Catwoman poses as Soviet journalist Kitayna Ireyna Tatanya Kerenska Alisoff—Miss Kitka, for short—to seduce Bruce Wayne (Adam West). Meriwether teases the camera, staying one step ahead of Batman and exhibiting more power and control than any of the film’s other villains. It pays off: Wayne becomes infatuated with Kitka. But when she reveals her identity, Batman pauses. “Holy heartbreak!” youthful sidekick Robin exclaims. It’s an understatement.
In Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s screenplay, the scene then delves into Batman’s psyche:
His frozen face, with shimmering ghostly images, supered over to the sound of violins playing “Parlez—Moi D’Amour.” Images from that fabulous night of theirs: Bruce and Kitka dancing, having dinner, so close in the back of the hansom cab, lovely Kitka en negligee in her apartment. Suddenly there’s an effect of a shattered sheet of glass over the whole schmear, violin music ends in an awful discord. The dream is over.
The final cut forgoes such imagery for a lengthy close-up on West as his inner-radio tunes into “Parlez—Moi D’Amour.” “It’s just… one of those things in the life of every crime fighter,” he says mournfully. “It means nothing. Snap on the Bat-Cuffs.”
With the possibility of life and love with Catwoman running through his mind, West’s pause evokes the characters’ meeting in Batman #1. Though the unflappable Batman by Finger and Kane doesn’t get as mushy about it—West’s Batman is much more sentimental. Still, it’s not a difficult decision for this version. West’s Batman is too pure, and Meriwether’s Catwoman too diabolical. She does not love Batman in the way future Catwomen would. Twenty-five years later, Tim Burton gave these star-crossed lovers another shot.
Catwoman is an outsider in Batman’s extended family. She’s not a villain, just a woman with a penchant for burglary. She’s an antihero who allows Batman to step outside of roles as “father figure or rescuer,” according to professor Steven Leyva, who teaches a course in the evolution of Batman at the University Of Baltimore. Batman doesn’t have to protect Catwoman. He also doesn’t want to catch her, creating an internal conflict between Batman and Bruce Wayne.
“Who is Catwoman really interested in: Bruce Wayne or Batman?” professor Leyva says. “Particularly in Batman Returns and earlier presentations, stemming from the ’70s and ’80s, it’s very clear: She wants Bruce to be the Bruce he is while he is being Batman. Put the mask back on.”
Catwoman offers Bruce a place to “relax,” Leyva said. “It might be better to think of their relationship as a romantic comedy.” The couple engages in a will-they/won’t-they relationship; they always have some sort of meet-cute—usually on a roof. It’s with Catwoman that Batman can “cease to be humorless.” They’re the Sam and Diane of Gotham.
While Michelle Pfeiffer’s Batman Returns performance references and pays homage to Newmar, Meriwether, and their fellow ’60s Catwoman Eartha Kitt, she rounds out the character, imbuing her with a tormented, conflicted soul and a sense of humor. Likewise, she has her canonical alter ego this time around: Selina Kyle, who in this telling is the meek assistant of billionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken). Burton’s film would update Catwoman’s costume, too, transforming her into BDSM-inspired dom to Batman’s sub.
He may come away with her nails stuck in his abdomen, but “meow,” Bruce (played by Michael Keaton) likes spending time with Catwoman in Batman Returns. They share a common interest in heights and flirtatious banter about the relative dangers of mistletoe and kissing. Batman thinks she could be a mate.
This Batman indulges the fantasy more deeply than his ’66 counterpart. At the end of the film, in an unlikely twist, he rips off his mask to appeal to Selina as Bruce, suggesting the two leave together and bring Schreck to the cops.
Bruce: Let’s just take [Schreck] to the police. Then we can go home… together. Selina, don’t you see we’re the same. Split right down the center.
Selina: Bruce, I would love to live with you in your castle forever, just like a fairy tale. I just couldn’t live with myself. So don’t pretend this is a happy ending.
Catwoman’s suggestion that their life together would be like living in a fairy tale castle, again, conjures their initial encounter when Catwoman suggests they be “king and queen of crime.” Regardless of the era or medium, their ideal partnership has the air of the fantastical. They could never be together, but if they could, it would be like dream. Maybe in the Nolanverse, things will be different.
Batman Returns all but promised an encore via an expensive, reshot-at-the-demands-of-test-audiences ending that leaves Catwoman, alive and well, staring up at the Bat-Signal. Unfortunately, as Joel Schumacher took the reins and rounded out the first generation of Batman sequels, Selina was replaced by lesser love interests Dr. Chase Meridian and Julie Madison (Nicole Kidman and Elle Macpherson, respectively).
In 2005, audiences backed off Catwoman and demanded that Bruce Wayne’s parents die again. They got their wish via director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. While Nolan hadn’t devised the film as the first entry in a trilogy, by 2012, Warner Bros. was pitching his third Bat-film as his last. The Dark Knight Rises linked the three films with a retconned arc: Batman was always looking for a way out. The movie was telling the final Bruce Wayne/Batman story. The one where he finishes his job. To do so, Nolan brought in a ringer: Catwoman.
Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway plays Selina with a sense of purpose. She’s not out for vengeance, like Pfeiffer, or to turn diplomats into dust, like Meriwether. Instead, her Catwoman wants to escape her life of crime via a data-scraping program called “Clean Slate.” Batman, it turns out, wants a blank slate of his own.
Glen Weldon writes in The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture that Nolan commits heresy by exploring the “notion of a Batman who gives up his cape for good.” Previous renditions of Batman may find the thought of quitting alluring, but they never give in to it. Like Batman: The Animated Series creator Paul Dini says in The Caped Crusade, “We did not want to ever have Batman tempted to give up his costume for a normal life. The costume is his normal life.”
Catwoman has always been a threat to Batman’s oath. As recently as 2018, DC attempted a publicity stunt that ended with Catwoman jilting Batman at the altar because Catwoman couldn’t deprive the world of its Caped Crusader. But Nolan allows Catwoman to live up to her promise.
Selina is not the only woman to win Bruce’s heart in the Nolanverse. Idealistic defense attorney Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins and Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight) was Bruce Wayne’s original light at the end of the tunnel. When his mission was accomplished, he promised, he would be with her. “I’m sure the day won’t come when you no longer need Batman,” Rachel Dawes writes in “Dear John” to Bruce in The Dark Knight. “I hope it does.” Her death puts the light out, and Catwoman rekindles it.
The Dark Knight Rises ends with a bit of wish fulfillment. Not for the audience, but for Alfred, Dawes, and the people Bruce wears a mask to protect. Batman fakes his death, saves the day, and he and Selina start over in Europe. Nolan lets Batman break the oath. Now he’s living the fairy tale life in Florence. He probably should’ve done this years ago.
Throughout her history, Catwoman has paved new avenues for Batman by allowing him to relax for a second. For a character that alternates between extremes, from brooding vengeance seeker to Day-Glo optimist, Catwoman unlocks a third Bat scenario, where he can simply be a guy having a weird romantic comedy moment on the roofs of Gotham.
The will-they/won’t-they isn’t the only reading of Catwoman. She contains multitudes, challenging Batman in different ways throughout their relationship. Catwoman is his friend. Unlike Alfred or Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman is not another person “related to the completion of a mission in some kind of Machiavellian way,” Levya says. She’s someone “you could stand on a rooftop with and, you know, be.”
Batman is a lot of things. To Robin, he’s a father. To Alfred, a son. To Gordon, a colleague. But to Catwoman, he’s an equal. Someone to relate to. He can rest his wings and finally lean into the “man” part of his name. It does sound tempting, doesn’t it?