Movies » Movie Review

Where Myth Meets Copyright Law

Superheroes belong to everybody. Or rather they should—and Warner Brothers' new Catwoman is a great argument for why.



Some of my earliest sexual fantasies involve Catwoman. Specifically, they revolve around a Batman audio recording I listened to when I was eight or so. I can't remember where I was at the time, and I'm pretty sure I heard the tape only once. But I remember the plot clearly: Catwoman had developed a kind of supercatnip that she used to control Bruce Wayne's mind and force him to help her steal some jewels. The story's muted eroticism was seared into my preadolescent brain, even though—or more likely because—I didn't know exactly what catnip was. From the context, I assumed it involved needles, a misunderstanding that took me at least ten years to clear up.

The specifics of my relationship with Catwoman may be idiosyncratic, but I doubt I'm the only one who's had a fling with her in the 60-plus years since she was invented by Bob Kane. She's a firmly established part of what comic book writer Alan Moore calls the "fictional planet—the place we have with us ever since we started listening to stories." Moore adds, "We spend a lot of time in these imaginary worlds, and we get to know them better than the real locations we pass on the street every day." This is why making a movie about Catwoman, or Spider-Man, or for that matter King Arthur is such good business: the audience already knows and loves the people in the film. Critics forced to sit through uninspired sequel after uninspired sequel often moan about late capitalism or marketing machinery or Hollywood's general lack of daring. But the truth is that the public has always liked to hear about the same damn people doing the same damn things, over and over and over. Today we call these stories pulp; they used to be called myths.

The argument that superheroes people a universal, Joseph-Campbell-approved ur-bildungsroman is frankly preposterous, no matter how often it's wheeled out by desperate comic book fans. Superman is not Zeus, and the Elongated Man is not the holy lingam. But the way their stories are produced is similar. Myths had no single creator; they were the products of lots of poets and singers and ordinary folks telling each other stories about the gods and adding to them as they went along. Nobody owned them—they belonged to everyone. In the case of pulp, of course, we generally do know the actual originator; we can point to Edgar Rice Burroughs, say, as the guy who made up Tarzan. But the creation often looms so much larger than the creator that it eclipses him altogether. Today Tarzan is as much the creation of Johnny Weissmuller as of Burroughs—and perhaps even more a product of the people, whoever they were, who worked on the Saturday-morning cartoon.

Superheroes may be our culture's most communal possessions for the paradoxical reason that these days comic books are relatively little read. For most people, if a movie or television character originated in a comic, he might as well have sprung full-formed out of nowhere. This gives superheroes a certain fluidity, which again makes them similar to mythological figures. Just as Argus had anywhere from four to a hundred eyes, so a single superhero may change radically from story to story, depending on who's doing the telling.

In the first Superman comics, for example, our hero could only jump, not fly, while in the Christopher Reeve movie he can make time run backward by reversing the direction of the earth's rotation. And what about the graphic novel The Nail, an alternate universe story where the infant child rocketed from Krypton is found not by the Kents but by an Amish family, and so becomes a pacifist, with tragic consequences for all?

If a major figure like Superman is treated with such freedom, a minor one like Catwoman—Batman's female nemesis—is lucky to remain recognizable from appearance to appearance.

In fact, as the excellent fan-produced Web site Feline Fatale ( amply documents, most aspects of the Catwoman character have been in flux over the years. Her origin has varied widely: at first she was an amnesiac stewardess, then an abused housewife, and now, thanks to comic book author Frank Miller, she's a hard-boiled former dominatrix who delivers one-liners like "You know why I hate men? . . . Never met one." Her powers, too, have come and gone: sometimes she has a whip, sometimes she's a master of martial arts, sometimes she has cats trained to do her bidding, sometimes she's got supercatnip. Even her costume has been reworked: early on she wore a full, furry cat head; later she changed to a more manageable eye mask and a purple knee-length dress with a green cape. Her best-known outfit, the form-fitting catsuit, didn't become de rigueur until Julie Newmar wore it on the Batman TV series. In Batman Returns Michelle Pfeiffer moved the franchise more firmly towards fetish gear with a notoriously uncomfortable latex getup. More recently, the comic book Catwoman has been wearing goggles, of all things.

But though one has a lot of leeway when telling a Catwoman story, at least certain elements of the character need to be constant. That's the challenge of writing about pulp icons: you have to come up with a way to make the story your own while making sure it remains everyone else's too. A current success is the WB's popular series Smallville, which gives us Superman as a teenager, before he got his costume and gained control of all his powers. The series works as melodrama, but much of its resonance comes from the audience's familiarity with the world of Superman—heat vision, Lex Luthor, Lana Lang, the planet Krypton. By referencing this shared body of knowledge, the show's creators demonstrate respect both for their material and their audience.

The same can't be said of the people behind the new Catwoman movie. Here the familiarity is that of advertising, not of archetype. One-named director Pitof's visuals are relentlessly, anonymously stylish—one sequence on a basketball court could be mistaken for an exceptionally long soft-drink commercial, while another where cubicle workers speed up to show the passage of time looks like a spot for telecommunications software. The plot, such as it is, involves a toxic beauty cream, but the film's main focus is on Halle Berry's rear end.

Obviously, no one involved in this disaster cares anything at all about Catwoman. Even so, some of the script's changes are unfathomable. For instance: in all her previous incarnations Catwoman's alter ego was named Selina Kyle. Now, some secret identities—Dick Grayson, for instance, or Oliver Queen—have aged poorly. But what on earth is wrong with Selina Kyle? In the new movie Catwoman's alter ego is named Patience Phillips. If that sounds a bit like Peter Parker, well, Berry's Catwoman has a lot more in common with Spider-Man than with the villainess from Batman. Just as Parker gains the strength and speed of a spider, Patience's mystical cat benefactor grants her "fierce independence, total confidence, and inhuman reflexes." With her super-self-esteem, Patience becomes Oprah in a Mexican wrestling outfit, telling off all those who need telling off and boldly owning her consumer preferences. As a bonus she gains many of the attributes of cats, such as fear of water and, in a scene reminiscent of Splash, an unseemly appetite for raw fish. The film is mercifully discreet on the subject of litterboxes.

The one aspect of the traditional Catwoman character that the movie does seem interested in retaining is her moral ambiguity. In the comics, Catwoman began her costumed career as a burglar, and though she's reformed at various times in various incarnations, she's usually remained at least a little iniquitous. Patience Phillips does, in fact, have a first-rate motive for turning to crime: she's just lost her job. But when Catwoman does rather dutifully steal some jewels it's only because, you know, cats like bright, shiny things. And Patience almost instantly returns most of the loot in a bag marked "Sorry."

Berry's Catwoman isn't selfish or greedy or even especially angry—she just has poor impulse control. This completely inverts the whole raison d'etre of the character. The old Catwoman was sexy because she was dangerous, skillful, and unattainable; Batman was attracted to her at least in part because she was a worthy foe. Here she's supposed to be appealing because she's animalistic—sexually aggressive, spontaneous, fun to be around. Most of all, she's available: when a bartender leers at her, she doesn't hand him his head but instead practically purrs with appreciation. Berry's up there to be eye candy, and her desperate desire to be ingratiating makes all the tight leather and exposed flesh seem more than a tad pitiful.

At the film's close, Berry's Catwoman dumps her romantic interest because she's just gotta ramble, baby, then mews that she's "bad as I want to be." In truth, Catwoman is as bad as Warner Brothers wants her to be: they're the ones who own the rights to the character. Even though Catwoman's been around for more than half a century and her creator's dead, she's still under copyright—as are most superheroes, which is a shame. At one time tales involving communally created characters were told by whoever remembered and could best repeat them; nowadays they're told by whoever happens to have the ear of the media oligarch who owns the subjects. This produces some lame art, and it also keeps a lot of good stuff off the shelves—the excellent live-action Batman TV show, featuring Newmar and later Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, still hasn't been released on DVD because of licensing disputes.

More important, though, granting corporations the rights to ideas that have for all intents and purposes entered the public domain turns people into passive observers of their own culture—and of the insides of their own skulls. I don't know about you, but I don't want Time Warner claiming ownership of any part of my childhood fantasies.

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