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Is Catwoman a Villain?

Meow.

Zoë Kravitz as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in 'The Batman'

Everyone’s talking about Zoe Kravitz’s portrayal of Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman, in Matt Reeves’s The Batman. In The Batman, Selina is a sympathetic and immensely likable survivor, trying to seek justice in a world that seems stacked against her. She and Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) form a relationship that hovers uneasily between antagonism and romance, even acting as partners as they try to track down the Penguin (Colin Farrell). But wait! Catwoman and Batman acting as partners? Isn’t Catwoman usually a villain?

Well … yes and no. Although she traditionally gets slotted into the villain category in Batman lore, in truth, Catwoman’s relationship with Batman has always been pretty complicated. Let’s take a look at Catwoman through the ages!

Catwoman in the Movies: 1966-2012

The first Batman movie came out in 1966, during the infamously campy Adam West era. In Batman, Batman (West) and Robin (Burt Ward) have to rescue the UN Security Council, which has been kidnapped and turned into dust by the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman (Lee Meriweather). (Are the council worth rescuing if they’ve already been turned into dust? Don’t worry, Batman has a Super Molecular Dust Separator.) In this movie, Catwoman is kind of a straight-up villain. However! You can already see some early hints of the sexual tension she and Batman will share in later movies, when she tricks Batman by putting on a disguise and getting him to fall in love with her.

The next time Catwoman showed up on the big screen was in 1992, in Batman Returns. In this film, Selina (Michelle Pfeiffer) starts off as an innocent secretary, whose boss tries to kill her when she finds out that he’s planning to take over Gotham. Brought back to life by alley cats, Selina takes on the Catwoman mantle and starts to lead a double life. As Selina, she meets Bruce (Michael Keaton), and the two fall in love, but for real this time. As Catwoman, she tries to get revenge on her boss and turns villain when Batman tries to stop her. Lovers by day, enemies by night! Here we have the classic Batman/Catwoman dichotomy.

Next up, we have Catwoman as the star of her own movie, Catwoman (2004), starring Halle Barry. Barry plays Patience Phillips, who’s murdered after learning about the horrible side effects of an anti-aging cream, but then brought back to life by the Egyptian cat goddess Bast to take down the cosmetics company that makes the cream. In this movie, Catwoman acts as a vigilante, not a villain. Since Batman’s not in it, we don’t get the romance that we see in Batman movies, but instead, Catwoman gets to shine in her own right. Sort of. It’s not a fantastic movie.

Finally, Selina returns in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. In this movie she’s a true antihero, flipping back and forth between criminal and crime fighter as she alternately sides with Bane (Tom Hardy) and then works with Batman (Christian Bale) to bring him down. Selina (Anne Hathaway) is never referred to as Catwoman, but she does portray a flirtatious cat burglar (complete with night vision goggles that look like little ears) who eventually starts a relationship with Bruce Wayne, so she’s true to the Catwoman mythos.

Catwoman in Comics and TV

Fans of Batman comics know that Catwoman’s ambiguity isn’t just an invention for the movies. She and Batman have been playing their chess game ever since the character first debuted in 1940 as “The Cat” in Batman #1. Catwoman was created explicitly to be a more likable villain than cold-blooded killers like the Joker, and the idea that she and Batman have an unmistakable chemistry and attraction towards each other has been part of her character from the very start. TV shows, like the live-action show from the ’60s in which Selina was played by Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt, and Batman: The Animated Series from the 90s, in which she was voiced by Adrienne Barbeau, continued this dynamic.

What is it about Catwoman that makes her so deliciously ambiguous? I suppose you could chalk some of it up to sexism, the idea that a female supervillain can’t be as cold-blooded as a male one, and the trope of sexual tension between male and female characters.

Or you could look at cats themselves: eager to love up on you one second, and itching to claw your eyes out the next. If someone’s basing their whole identity on the most morally ambiguous of pets, how could she not end up as an antihero?

In any case, it’s never been 100% correct to file Catwoman away under “villain.” She’s much more complicated than that, and that’s what makes her character so great.

Catch Zoe Kravitz as the latest incarnation of Catwoman in The Batman, now playing in theaters!

(image: Warner Brothers)

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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.