Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in Tim Burton’s deliciously twisted-Christmas-gothic-phantasmagoria Batman Returns (1992) is the best comic book movie performance of all time. This is not just my opinion; it’s a fact, so let’s not argue, okay?
It’s an astonishing piece of film acting, the kind that transcends mere performance and instead reaches a cosmic level of transcendence that lives beyond just celluloid and resides instead on a higher plane. Huh? I don’t even know what I’m saying here, but that’s what Michelle does to me in this role. Her Selina/Catwoman is so iconic I can’t cope. And neither can most people I know. Her work in this film is a near-universally acclaimed work of art cinematic art.
From the early scenes where Michelle’s Selina Kyle is a poorly-postured, self-loathing secretary to her jaw-dropping, mystical transformation into the fierce and mighty Catwoman, the role affords Michelle the chance to play two parts in one, and to craft an extraordinary character study full of depth, while at the same time delivering some of the most fun and quotable lines in movie history (thanks to my Facebook buddy, Daniel Waters!).
Selina starts out as anything but a bad girl. Yet her constant flow of sarcastic quips reveal she has a rebellious streak buried beneath her shy, timid exterior. Once her evil boss Max Schreck (a silver-maned Christopher Walken) shoves her out of an office window and she crashers to her (presumed) death, her only real friends—cats—come to lick and nibble her back to life. It’s absurd and perfect and I couldn’t possibly love it more.
Catwoman’s badness is born out of mistreatment at the hands of a reprehensible male character and everything she does after that his informed by this. In 1992 it was refreshing to see a female character onscreen that all the male characters were not just turned on by, but also scared and in awe of, in equal measure. Michelle positively dominates the film. Waters’s script places her as the central character, in all honesty, and Michelle electrifies at every turn. Her whip-work as Catwoman is legendary to this day! She put a live bird in her mouth and held it there for several seconds (no birds were harmed during the film)! She glides across the screen on impossibly high heels and a skintight catsuit with catlike ease and elegance! She has all the best lines!
“Honey, I’m home. Oh, I forgot. I’m not married.”
“I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”
“You poor guys. Always confusing your pistols with your privates.”
“You’re catnip to a girl like me. Handsome, dazed, and to die for.”
“It’s gonna be a hot time on the cold town tonight.”
“Two lives left. I think I’ll save one for next Christmas. But in the meantime, how about a kiss, Santy Claus?”
She forms an uneasy alliance with the Penguin (Danny DeVito, as the sleaziest villain ever) but she’s using him every step of the way, even while he thinks he’s the one using her. The villain dynamic is interesting in the film, because despite his horrible origin (being born with physical deformities that led his parents to attempt infanticide), the Penguin is so unrelentingly disgusting as a human being (or, whatever he is), that we simply cannot feel any sympathy for him. He’s vile to the extreme. Catwoman may like to steal jewels and scare some hapless security guards, but she’s on a much more focused and sympathetic mission: to right a wrong and seek revenge against the man who tried to murder her, Max Schreck. Her badness is entirely relatable.
The only male character she isn’t disgusted by is Batman (the best Batman ever, Michael Keaton). Even out of costume as Selina, she falls in love with Bruce Wayne. Burton’s film is as perfect a treatment of what has always made the romantic history between these two characters so special in comic books. Chronicled by various writers and artists across eighty years of DC Comics, the Bat and the Cat are fated to love each other, both despite their differences and because of their similarities—orphaned children (though this is never specified for Selina in the film, it’s key to her comic book origin) who become costumed avengers of the night, their masks used to hide the pain of their origins and protect themselves from more pain.
Michelle’s Selina Kyle is one of my favorite characters. She’s bad in all the best ways. As famously unmade films go, the Catwoman film starring Michelle that Burton wanted to make as a follow-up is one that hurts the most. She would’ve slayed it! But at least we’ll always have this epic, iconic, and perfect performance. Michelle as Selina/Catwoman is a holiday mood every December. She’s an everlasting kindred spirit for those of us that wish we could be as bold and true as she is in this film. Long live Catwoman, and long may she roar.