A Catwoman movie was originally announced in 1993, shortly after Michelle Pfeiffer’s scene-stealing incarnation of the character in Batman Returns the previous year. But somewhere between its announcement and its eventual release in 2004, something mysterious happened. Michelle Pfeiffer left the project. Ashley Judd was attached and then detached, and a sum total of 28 screenwriters got involved in the script. And at some point in that creative process, poor Catwoman was effectively written out of her own movie.
The Catwoman we got was a weird mish-mash of The Crow and The Devil Wears Prada, with Halle Berry’s incarnation of the heroine almost unrecognisable from both the comics and the version in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Described by one critic as “the worst superhero film ever made”, Catwoman was a critical and financial flop. So why was it so bad, and can we really find at least 10 remarkable things in it? Let’s take a closer look…
Catwoman’s a graphic designer
Well, sort of. For reasons best known to themselves, the makers of Catwoman decided to jettison just about everything from the original DC comics – or maybe it was gradually filtered out as script rewrite followed script rewrite. At the beginning of the movie, Halle Berry’s character isn’t a cunning cat burglar named Selina Kyle, but a rather put-upon and meek graphic designer named Patience Phillips, who works for a colossal cosmetics company called Hedare Beauty.
Unfortunately, we never get to find out whether Patience prefers InDesign or QuarkXpress, or even what her favourite typeface is, as the machinations of her evil bosses, Laurel and George Hedare (respectively, Sharon Stone and Lambert Wilson) mean that her life is about to take a sudden and rather watery twist.
It features a magical, evil moisturiser
Catwoman is, as far as we’re aware, the only superhero movie to date set in the cosmetics industry. In fact, apart from the bits where Halle Berry runs around on rooftops in skimpy black leather outfits, Catwoman initially feels like an episode of Ugly Betty, or a feature-length Diet Coke ad.
In one scene, Patience’s quirky office friend Sally (Alex Borstein) says of hunky visiting detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), “Man sandwich, 12 o’clock.” All you’d need to add is Etta James singing I Just Want To Make Love To You in the background, and you’d have the perfect low-calorie soda commercial.
Eventually, though, Patience inadvertently discovers that her employees are secretly developing a new form of moisturiser called Beau-Line – an anti-ageing cream that is somehow addictive, headache- and nausea-inducing, and causes your skin to melt if you stop using it. Despite the side effects, Laurel and George plan to unleash Beau-Line onto an unsuspecting public, melting skin be damned. “We’ll make sure they keep using it, because that’s where the money comes from,” George says to a protesting scientist.
The logic behind this is somewhat spotty. If people all over the world started obsessively slathering expensive beauty cream all over their faces, only for their skin to start dropping off once they’d run out of money, wouldn’t someone alert the authorities eventually?
In the UK, we have a TV program called Watchdog, a consumer affairs show that takes a very dim view of dodgy products like Beau-Line. We can imagine John Stapleton and Anne Robinson having a few choice words to say about a product like this.
Mind you, George has a bit of an odd understanding of science and scientists in any case. “You know scientists,” he says to Laurel, “They’re worse than models. You have to coddle them like little children.”
We’re not sure what he’s on about there, and judging by Sharon Stone’s expression in this scene, neither does she.
Some cats are supernatural
For reasons we won’t go into, Patience turns up at the Beau-Line factory just in time to hear a scientist describe, in detail, all the flaws in this new product. A pair of assassins open fire and, as she flees the whizzing bullets, Patience is flushed down a gigantic water pipe like Augustus Gloop, and promptly drowns in the sea.
It’s here that Catwoman takes on a mystical hue. As her corpse washes up on dry land, a large group of computer-animated cats shows up, and surround Patience like the creepy villagers at the end of The Wicker Man. The leader of the cats – who we later discover is named Midnight – wanders up to Patience, clambers onto her lifeless body, and sighs magic kitten breath directly into her mouth.
Now revived and super-powered, Patience learns from Midnight’s keeper – a researcher named Ophelia (Frances Conroy) – that the cat’s a servant of the Egyptian goddess Bast, an envoy capable of granting life and special powers to lucky ladies of its choosing. Patience is now one of a number of Catwomen that have appeared through the ages – if you look closely, you’ll even see Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman peering out from among a pile of old photographs.
Why do these magic cats do this? Presumably, to contractually oblige them to appear in cat food commercials. It’s the only way we can explain Eva Longoria’s frankly bizarre behaviour in that Sheba advert, where a cat appears to be using its psychic powers to make her prance around a dimly-lit apartment.
Catwoman acts like an actual cat
Not only have the makers of Catwoman come up with their own back story for the character, but they’ve also given her quite a few quirks that weren’t present in the comics. In short, they’ve taken her name a bit too literally.
As well as being supernaturally strong and agile, Halle Berry’s Catwoman can fall from great heights and still land on her feet without harming herself, gets all excited over little bundles of catnip, hisses at dogs, and squeezes through narrow gaps.
In one weird scene, she’s shown lying on her bed, hungrily devouring cat food – which looks like a deleted scene from that Sheba advert mentioned above. In another bit, she flees in terror from rain drops.
This incarnation of Catwoman acts so much like a cat, we half wonder what the makers chose to leave out. Does she puke up a hair ball now and again? Does she sit in her bedroom window, watching traffic go by for hours at a time? Does she go to the loo in a little box of gravel on the floor? Does she lie on her garden lawn, thoughtfully chewing bees, as one of my old cats used to?
It’s a bit like making a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne emits high-pitched squeaks and eats moths. If we were to make a film as literal-minded as Catwoman, it would be called Dogbloke, and would feature a hero who has the power to chase buses, catch tennis balls in his teeth, and lick his own genitals.
It has a CG seagull in it
What the computer graphics in Catwoman lack in quality, they more than make up for in quantity. There are dozens of unconvincing aerial sweeps of CG cities, several digital cats, and even a pretend spider. Just to signpost that she’s now part woman, part moggy, Patience is attacked by a computer-generated seagull almost as soon as she’s revived. Could this be the first seagull attack in a superhero movie? Quite possibly.
Catwoman makes terrible puns
With her kinky black leather bra, whip and sequined claws, Catwoman might look like a superhero sponsored by a marital aids store, but her dialogue’s straight from a Roger Moore-era Bond movie. While berating a group of armed jewel thieves, she says, “A robbery? What a purr-fect idea.” When she narrowly avoids being fried by an electrical cable, she quips, “I knew there was a spark between us.”
“Cats come when they feel like it,” is another line, which may or may not be an intentional double entendre. Like Bond, Catwoman even has her own drink: “I’ll have a white Russian,” she says to a barman in a nightclub. “Hold the vodka. Hold the ice. Hold the Kahlua…”
The hunky detective’s useless
By contrast, poor old Detective Lone gets absolutely no puns to utter at all. Here’s the closest he gets to an old Hollywood-style moment of classy repartee:
Patience: [Coquettishly] Am I a suspect now, detective?
Detective Lone: No.
Well, touché. As well as being rather lacking in the dialogue department, poor old Tom’s probably among the most ineffective detectives in all cinema. For much of the film, he’s on the trail of Catwoman, who’s been framed for two murders, utterly unaware that she and Patience are one and the same person. Fair enough, Catwoman wears a mask, but Tom doesn’t appear to notice that his new lover has a voracious appetite for raw fish, hates rain, leaves cat scratches on his back during sex, and shows some remarkable athletic powers when rescuing a small boy from a disintegrating Ferris wheel.
It’s only through the use of some strange lipstick print analysis technology that he finally cottons on to Catwoman’s true identity – by which point, he’s been shot by Sharon Stone and the end credits are mere minutes away. Fine work, detective.
Catwoman gets hit up the backside by a luxury car
Having been arrested by Detective Lone, Catwoman’s slung into a prison cell, only to squeeze back out through the bars and out of the building. As she drops to the street below, there’s a curious, incidental moment where, as Catwoman’s crouched in the middle of the road, a luxury car trundles into view and bumps against her arse.
It’s a moment that illustrates just how botched and awkward the handling of the heroine is. Hints of comedy are always welcome in superhero movies – just look at how well Joss Whedon handled this aspect in The Avengers – but can you imagine this happening to any other superhero? It’s like seeing Batman get his sleeve caught on a doorknob, or Superman rush out of a toilet cubicle with his super trousers still around his ankles – good for a quick, throw-away laugh, but distractingly undignified.
Catwoman’s response to this embarrassing situation? She turfs the driver out of the car and steals it, GTA-style. The car, fittingly, is a Jaguar.
Sharon Stone is evil
Like her star-making roles in Total Recall and Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone’s character grows more maniacal as the movie goes on. A frosty former model turned cosmetics mogul at the start of the story, she’s a crazed murderer by its end, battering Catwoman with a steel bar and yelling about the hidden powers of her magical anti-ageing cream. As well as all those side-effects listed above, Beau-Line also does something else: used regularly, it makes the skin “as hard as marble”.
This plot twist handily gives Catwoman an extremely tough opponent to fight in the final reel, but also raises lots more questions. If the cream makes Laurel more difficult to injure, why doesn’t Patience’s friend Sally have the same side effect? Did she simply not use enough of it? And if the cream does have a hardening effect, how come Catwoman manages to scratch Laurel’s face with relative ease a few moments later? Sadly, Laurel takes the answers to these questions to her grave, as the final fight takes a deadly turn.
“It’s game over!” Laurel says, as she threatens to shove Catwoman out of a skyscraper window. “Guess what,” Catwoman retorts, as she stealthily turns the tables, “It’s overtime.”
Laurel’s barely given time to consider the meaning of this cryptic statement, before she’s plummeting several storeys to her death.
With her name cleared and her opponents vanquished, Catwoman heads off into the night to get on with the rest of her feline life. “Freedom is power,” she says, before the final fade to black. In Catwoman’s case, that’s the freedom to wander around on city rooftops wearing nothing but a leather bra and a matching pair of pants.
Halle Berry’s Razzie speech
It’s fair to say that Catwoman was coolly received when it appeared in the summer of 2004. It earned less than its $100million budget at the box office, and reviews were scornful. It’s not hard to see why, either: even now, it’s difficult to say who the film’s really aimed at. Its preoccupation with fashion, beauty and bling would probably put off most young males, while its skimpy outfits, condescending tone and occasionally salacious camerawork undercut its message of female empowerment.
After the bad reviews, along came the annual Golden Raspberries. Somewhat unfairly, Halle Berry ‘won’ worst actress, which was a bit harsh – she did her best with what little she was given, after all. To her credit, Berry took the award well, and even turned up to the ceremony and gave a spirited, good-natured speech which began, “First of all, I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of shit, god-awful movie… It was just what my career needed…”
It high time, we’d argue, that we got a decent superhero movie with a female lead, and Catwoman’s undoubtedly a prime candidate for such a movie. Unfortunately, 2004’s Catwoman, with its excruciating dance scenes, basketball games, killer moisturiser and chintzy production design, really wasn’t what the world wanted.
As George the villain laments in one scene, “This is a disaster. A total bloody disaster…”
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