We all know who Batman is. We’ve seen his parents get killed in that alley, like, 18 different times. Likewise, we all know the Joker, Robin, and so on. But what about the rest of Gotham’s citizens? How many of them do we really know? One of the Bat’s more mysterious foes is the sultry and alluring Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman. Just in time for her return to the big screen in The Batman, let’s take a look at this dynamic character, her origins, her history, and a few of the various incarnations we’ve seen up to now.
“I am Catwoman…hear me roar.”
Like many of Gotham’s heroes and villains, Selina’s origins are mired in tragedy. The daughter of an alcoholic father and an abused mother, Selina, along with her sister Maggie, were forced to fend for themselves in order to survive. Following the death of their parents, the girls were split apart, with Selina ending up at a detention center for juveniles. It was there that she discovered a penchant for breaking the rules at a young age, first by escaping the abusive detention center and learning to pick pockets at a local carnival before becoming a petty thief on the streets of Gotham.
Selina’s criminal lifestyle eventually led her into prostitution, where she acted as a protector of the younger sex workers. She also began taking defense classes from Ted Grant, aka Wildcat, further developing the acrobatic and fighting skills she picked up at the carnival. A chance encounter with a young Bruce Wayne would soon put her on a new path, although she wouldn’t realize it right away. Following a misunderstanding with one of the younger prostitutes, Selina engaged Bruce in a fight and lost. This loss strengthened her resolve and she learned to fight with a weapon that would become one of her trademarks: a bullwhip. Not long after, Selina witnessed the mysterious, costumed vigilante called Batman in action, heroically escaping from a cadre of police. Inspired, she left prostitution behind, fashioned a costume of her own, and took to a life of crime, stealing from the rich and morally corrupt of Gotham’s elite.
As Catwoman, Selina remained morally ambiguous, toeing the line between cunning antihero and thieving villain, which often put her at odds with Batman, who counted Miss Kyle among his colorful rogues gallery. In spite of herself, Selina became captivated by the Dark Knight and often flirted with him during their encounters. Despite being on opposing sides of the law, the two grew to respect and care for one another, even forging an uneasy alliance against the darker forces of Gotham before eventually acknowledging their more romantic feelings. While the Caped Crusader had known Catwoman’s true identity for some time, the biggest shift in their relationship came when he revealed his own secret. It was a risky venture that not only strengthened the bond between them but created a sense of real trust between the former enemies (and one that has continued to this day, more or less).
Comic Book Origin and Foray into Television
Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Selina Kyle’s first appearance was in the debut issue of Batman vol. 1 in 1940. Initially known only as “the Cat,” Selina proved to be a worthy foe to the Caped Crusader and made a number of appearances, ranging from villain to love interest. Her creation was intended to give Batman’s solo title some genuine sex appeal as well as a likable femme fatale that would interest female readers. Despite her bad behavior, the Cat stood apart from other comicbook villains as one with a moral compass; she wasn’t psychotic like the Joker, nor did her schemes involve killing (something even Batman was guilty of on occasion).
Catwoman’s popularity allowed her to make appearances in various DC Comics titles, including Detective Comics and The Brave and the Bold. However, due to the advent of the Comics Code Authority, Selina’s flirtatious personality and “suggestive” design meant she either had to undergo a complete transformation or be removed from comics entirely. Thus Catwoman’s appearance in Detective Comics #211 in 1954 would be her last, deleting from comics and entertainment forever, the end.
That is, until 1966, when a little-known television series called Batman hit the airwaves. Appearing in Episodes 19 and 20, Catwoman, played with absolute purr-fection by Julie Newmar, was a hit with viewers. Despite the campiness of the show, her portrayal was surprisingly faithful to the character’s personality and sex appeal.
Coinciding with her television debut, Catwoman made a return to the comics with a new look and familiar attitude. Known as the Silver Age, this era of comics found Selina engaging in cosmic capers with Wonder Woman and continuing her off-and-on romance with Batman. While the comics flourished, interest in the Batman television series started to decline during its second season. Newmar refused to return for the third season, citing outside commitments, so the role was re-cast with Eartha Kitt. While Catwoman’s change in ethnicity was never addressed, Kitt proved to be a popular replacement, staying faithful to the persona while leaving her own unique mark on the character, including the ability to roll her r’s. After continual budget cuts, the television series was cancelled, and the live-action adventures of Batman and Robin were no more. At least for now.
Leaping to the Silver Screen and Beyond
Catwoman is one of the few members of Batman’s rogues gallery to consistently appear on both the small and big screens. Her film debut was in the less-than-stellar Batman: The Movie (1966). Released between the first and second seasons of the Adam West-starring series, the feature-length film featured Batman and Robin facing off against the combined forces of their greatest enemies, among them Catwoman, this time played by Lee Meriwether (Newmar was unavailable due to an alleged back injury).
Her next, and most famous, film appearance came in 1992 with Tim Burton’s grotesque masterpiece Batman Returns. After the popularity of 1989’s Batman, actresses were clamoring for the opportunity to play the character of Catwoman, including Nicole Kidman, Demi Moore, and even Madonna. Sean Young notoriously campaigned for the role, even going so far as to create her own costume and nearly getting black-listed for stalker-esque behavior. Eventually Annette Bening was cast, although she soon had to drop out, leaving the part vacant until Burton got word that Michelle Pfeiffer was interested. Pfeiffer brought an awkward charm to the role of Selina Kyle, with her portrayal of the leather-clad Catwoman being intense, sexy, and bizarre in all the right ways. From the haphazardly-stitched black leather costume to her over-the-top yet weirdly believable performance, Burton and Pfeiffer created an icon.
The feline fatale’s next film appearance would be in the better-left-forgotten 2004 misfire Catwoman
starring Halle Berry. Bearing no resemblance to any previous incarnation, the film features Berry as a woman named Patience Phillips who, at one point, goes to a bar and orders a “saucer of milk, straight-up.” That’s it; that’s all you need to know. It’s terrible.
Selina Kyle would make her long-awaited return to the silver screen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark
Knight Rises (2012), this time played by Anne Hathaway. In terms of appearance and personality, this is perhaps the most faithful depiction of the character from the comics, despite never being referred to as Catwoman during the film. Shown to be both a con artist and anti-heroine, Selina plays both sides of the film’s conflict, helping and hindering Batman’s cause, while remaining firmly on whichever side benefits her. The look of her character borrows from the comics and, even to an extent, the ’60s television series.
While neither Catwoman nor Selina have appeared in the DCEU, she did return to television, this time as a teenager, in the Fox series Gotham (2014), played by Camren Bicondova. Focusing on the early years of Jim Gordon, Oswald Cobblepot, and basically anyone who’s been in a Batman comic, Gotham ran for five seasons, the longest of any Bat-centric series. Selina played a major role throughout its run, as her blossoming relationship with the adolescent Bruce Wayne would once again tie their origins together.
More recently, Catwoman enjoyed a brief appearance in the hilarious The LEGO Batman Movie (2017) voiced by Zoe Kravitz. While her dialogue consisted of little more than a meow here and there, Kravitz is set to reprise the role (well, sorta) in the Matt Reeves-directed The Batman (2022). Starring opposite the late Cedric Diggory, Kravitz plays a version of Selina that should seem familiar but unique. Described by Kravitz* as “mysterious” with “unclear motivations,” Selina’s morally ambiguous nature casts shades of gray against Batman’s black-and-white view of right and wrong. If early buzz is any indication, it seems like our feline fatale is in very good paws…I mean, hands.
*Chuan, Lu (October 17, 2021). Chinese Filmmaker Lu Chuan Conversation with The Batman Cast. Retrieved October 17, 2021 – via YouTube.