The news that Anne Hathaway had been cast as Catwoman prompted me to take a look at the sleek-suited supervillain’s backstory.
(I don’t have strong feelings regarding Hathaway in the role. I loved her in “Rachel Getting Married,” hated her in Tim Burton’s “Alice” and didn’t much care for her in “The Devil Wears Prada.” I think she’s a lovely girl with serious dramatic chops and iffy comic timing. Not a popular view, I know.)
I was surprised at how many different backstories Catwoman has had: She’s been a prostitute, a mousy secretary and, no lie, “an amnesiac flight attendant.” Catwoman started out as just another villain, a (sexy) thief wielding a whip and her wiles to befuddle the Big Bat. Then the writers tried to justify her badgirl ways through an escalating series of traumas. (She survived a plane crash but her brain got muddled! She had an abusive boyfriend, an abusive husband, an abusive pimp! She was stuffed into a bag and drowned– like a cat, geddit?)
Origin stories for hero and villain alike are often loaded with disaster, misery, and death. After all, something big has to prompt one to put on a costume and wreak havoc on the world or right its wrongs. (Although, once upon a time, “I must have the world’s biggest diamond!” or “That diamond doesn’t belong to you!” seemed to be motivation enough.)
I think Catwoman’s origin stories are so muddled and disparate because she really does freak us out. She isn’t just sexy like your average villainess; she’s sexy in a very specific way– in a whip-cracking, black latex, fetish-focused way. Her “look” has meaning and resonance outside of the superhero universe in a way that other villains’ costumes do not. (I mean, purple suits and and monocles are not the stuff of nightmare and fantasy… unless you have a fear of being tacky or a Mr. Peanut fetish.) All badgirls wear high heels, but Catwoman’s high heels mean something else.
Maybe because she freaks us out, we try to declaw Catwoman. We turn her into an anti-hero instead of just letting her be a villain. For once, I’d like to see a Catwoman who doesn’t just titillate but genuinely terrifies, who gets to be really and truly, and, yes, even unrepentantly bad. I don’t know what Christopher Nolan has planned or what Hathaway will bring to the role, but I hope that, this time around, we get a Catwoman that’s more crouching tiger, less wounded kitten.