Can’t for the life of me find it, but I read an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer years ago in a magazine, and when the interviewer asked her how she felt about her Oscar nominations, she said she’d have preferred to get them for Batman Returns. The interviewer assumed she was joking at first – Oscars for comic book movies? That’s just silly talk.
Ever since, I’ve been a huge fan, because she was right. Batman Returns did something very rare: it gave us two leads who each had an independent storyline, then brought the two storylines crashing together like runaway train cars locked together on a track. Even though Batman’s centrality to the entire film was established early on, there were long sequences in which I forgot the film wasn’t about Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
Selina Kyle is an unhappy woman with an unfulfilling life. She’s spent her whole life doing what the world advises – being a good girl, keeping out of trouble, working for the things she wants – and still she’s ended up purposeless and lonely (as so many of us have felt at one time or another, and no, I don’t just mean women). There’s a spark in her that shows up when everyone’s gone and she’s muttering what she should have told them to go do with themselves, but she’s so non-confrontational that she’s become a doormat.
At first, we’re not sure why we’re being introduced to her so intimately. This is a Batman movie, and she’s barely even met him, and we’re following her home to her apartment to listen to her sad little message machine. What the hell?
Only lead characters are introduced in this way. Supporting characters are neatly labeled in relation to the lead: the friend, the love interest, the enemy, the colleague, the mentor. But Selena’s introduction takes the time to engage us in figuring her out. That’s how you create audience empathy, and that’s why this type of introduction is reserved for a lead: we’re not supposed to develop empathy with supports, except maybe after the fact and upon reflection.
It’s actually quite essential to the plot that Selina be established independently from Batman, because the whole movie is a commentary on dependence and power. Max Shreck (the villain) depends on the goodwill of the voters, and perhaps even Batman’s purpose depends on the existence of criminals to fight. It’s fitting that Catwoman is born of Selena’s betrayed dependence on being a good girl and keeping out of trouble.
Only after Selina has become Catwoman does her path actually begin to intersect Bruce Wayne’s. Yes, there’s a love story, and yes, there’s unresolved sexual tension. But both characters come into this new dynamic on their own terms. And both refuse to betray their independent goals in order to be together. Even though they share a common enemy, they can’t come to an agreement on how to stop him.
Director Tim Burton understands a very important issue in relationships – one that seems to fly right over the heads of most people in “the biz”. Filmmaker wannabes, read this carefully: if either character in a romance has to sublimate him or herself to be with the other, then neither of the characters who “hook up” are the ones we wanted to see get together. It’s a simple point, but it’s amazing how many movies and TV shows assume that you can give up yourself completely to be with someone, and still be the person they grew to love. Everyone who thinks that on paper should try it in real life. There’s no quicker way to hollow out everything a film relationship has created, and leave it to rot.
Batman Returns asks the question that nagged me into starting this site:
Selena to Shreck: “How can you be so mean to someone so meaningless?”
There’s definitely a bigger picture message there: that if women ever need to be taken down a notch, as it were, it logically follows that they aren’t meaningless or powerless by nature.