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When Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the awkwardly demure and overworked secretary of corrupt businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) accidentally discovers his plans to control the city’s water supply, he decides the best way to ensure the secret won’t get out it is to push her out of a window. She falls through a series of canopies and somehow survives while a sudden gathering of alley cats revive her. Disoriented and mentally affected by the fall, she has a psychotic break and creates a new personality, one based on cats. Crafting a homemade skintight leather costume complete with retractable steel claws and a pair of cat ears, she becomes Catwoman and takes to the streets. She breaks into a Shreck’s high-end department store, after hours, testing her new-found skills. With only a long leather whip as weapon, casually played like a tail, she practices on some mannequins, removing their heads with four quick snaps. She then uses it as a jump-rope and heads to a display counter where she proceeds to smash the glass, attracting the attention of two less then worried security guards who, upon seeing the petite lady in simmering leather joke about whether they should open fire or fall in love. She disarms them in a flash. After scaring them off, she heads to the appliance department, opens the gas line, fills a microwave with aerosol cans and sets the timer. Meanwhile, just outside, Batman is confronting Penguin (Danny Devito), who is making a play for the mayor’s seat. As they talk, coming toward them head over heels in a long string of perfectly-executed back-flips is Catwoman. The two men, curious and enraptured by the vision, stare in disbelief until she stops right between them, pausing, smiling and mutters a breathless, “Meow” just as the building behind her explodes.
Directed by Tim Burton, this moment has become iconic for obvious reasons, both for the brilliant introduction of the character and Pfeiffer’s seductive yet fiercely independent turn as Catwoman. The dark mirror of her former self, this dangerous new persona has no inhibitions and a powerful sense of invulnerability. What’s more, she carries the abuses and neglect of Shreck (and men in particular) as a calling card, a motive for much of her attitude and existence. The moment is superbly crafted, with the fantastic opening shot of her passing the cat logo of Shreck industries in the department store window and then establishing her dominance and abilities within. The two guards play a vital part in that, as armed males, immediately perceived as more powerful, she faces them with no indication of fear. Rather, she toys with their presence, mocking them, especially when they look upon her with what is clearly regarded as an accepted ‘sexualized’ eye. Her response is the now classic, “You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.” Then she whips the guns out of their hands (pussy-whipped?) to which they bow out without a fight, wholly and effectively stripped of their metaphorical manhood. But then, as she acrobatically makes her way to Batman and his latest nemesis, she layers the subtext of her earlier comment to the guards with that wonderfully affecting cat sound, a wicked, razor-sharp purr in the face of two silly men squabbling about in the streets. Try thinking of any other word that would be as effective and you’d never find one. In one hopelessly sensual, yet frighteningly chaotic act, she establishes in one word exactly who she is and what she’s capable of. That’s an introduction. It’s a great moment that is subtle and sharp, giving this amazing female character impressive weight in the story. That’s the great truth about her. She knows her appeal, sexually, yet isn’t defined by it, instead, holds power over it, something that many of the best empowered women superheroes/villains have. Pfeiffer is totally in control of this character, capturing the real essence of Catwoman, one who refuses to play by the standards of good and bad, following her own agenda. The antihero-hero, Pfeiffer made her one showing as Catwoman the modern archetype, and the staple by which everything after has followed.
Bob Kane (Batman characters), Daniel Waters (story)
Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer