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Tail, claw, bite: The gradual evolution of Catwoman

Gotham isn’t like the real world — almost everyone’s White, and there are so few women. Into this universe of dark, brooding men, Catwoman leaps like a rather sexualised breath of fresh air (though how each actress has breathed in that suit remains a mystery).

As director Matt Reeves and star Robert Pattinson recast Bruce Wayne / Batman for the 2022 film, as lithe, gaunt and rumpled, and as superheroes across the board edge towards greater diversity — Marvel’s Spiderman entered the Spiderverse, Black Panther got his own movie, Valkyrie will come out as gay in the next Thor movie and there’s a rumoured transgender superhero in the making too — Catwoman has been getting more layered, grey, political.

Selina Kyle / Catwoman first appeared on screen in the live-action TV series Batman (1966) played first by Julie Newmar but replaced by Eartha Kitt the same year. The series would run for three years. Amid the Civil Rights movement in the US, it was revolutionary to have a Black actor in such a role, flirting on screen with the White lead actor, Adam West.

Christopher Nolan gave Hathaway’s Catwoman her most memorable outing so far. “There’s a storm coming…,” she tells Wayne at a masked ball in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

But this was an endearing if catty anti-heroine, more intent on romancing Batman than dominating the world, easily swayed by powerful men on both sides of the good and evil divide.

As superhero movies seek to appeal to more diverse audiences, Kyle has evolved into a woman with a more complex world view, one shown to be more torn between her anger and her humanity than her conflicting desires to impress and help take down Batman.

In 1992, the character would leap to screens embodied by Michelle Pfeiffer. She was cast in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) at the last minute, after Annette Bening became pregnant just before shooting begun.

Together, Pfeiffer and Burton turned Catwoman into a woman of action. It was she who discovered the villain Max Shreck’s conspiracy against Gotham, and she who eventually killed him. “I guess she just broke all the stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman. I found that shocking and forbidden,” Pfeiffer later said of the character.

Zoe Kravitz will play Catwoman in The Batman (2022), opposite Robert Pattinson in the lead role.

Zoe Kravitz will play Catwoman in The Batman (2022), opposite Robert Pattinson in the lead role.

In 2004, Halle Berry would play a widely panned version of Catwoman named Patience Phillips in a Warner Bros flop not counted as part of the cannon — it had no Batman, and wasn’t set in Gotham. In 2014, the American TV series Gotham would cast the character in the tired mould of street thief, survivor, girl who hides her emotions.

Then Christopher Nolan took the reins and gave Catwoman her most memorable outing so far. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Anne Hathaway isn’t just a villain and a rebel, she’s a revolutionary. “There’s a storm coming…,” she tells the billionaire industrialist at a masked ball. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

In a film that replaced blacks and whites with a riveting all-grey palette, she had one of the most sweeping character arcs as she swerved between anger and humanity. She also offered early hints of a bisexuality that would be confirmed by the comic’s writers in 2015, meaning that she was no longer defined by Batman, even in matters of the heart.

Now, it is the turn of another Black actress, Zoe Kravitz, 32, to play the part. She’s the daughter of the musician Lenny Kravitz and actress Lisa Bonet. She’s featured in the TV shows Big Little Lies and High Fidelity. This could be her breakout role.

“Kravitz is fierce,” says Indian-American filmmaker Ram Devineni, who created the character Priya Shakti, India’s first female-suprehero, in graphic novel form. “In the past, women were depicted in comics as sexual fantasies for teenage boys, but now this is changing. Priya, Kamala Khan aka Ms Marvel, the Burka Avenger [a Pakistani animated series] are examples of female empowerment in comic books.”

Kravitz could take the Hathaway Catwoman and push her in dramatic new directions. As Margot Robbie did with The Joker’s sidekick, Harley Quinn, in this year’s Birds of Prey. Where Quinn uses that frequent aide to feminist freedom — the device of madness — Catwoman needs no such crutch. How high she will leap, though, is up to Kravitz and Reeves.

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