Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dark Knight's Lady

My earliest memory of Batman is also a memory of Catwoman. Maybe I'm misremembering; I probably watched lots of the old Batman TV show without specific incidents making strong impressions, but I remember it being unusual for one of his enemies to die, and still more unusual for him to regret it. The episode was "Scat, Darn Catwoman," from the second of the show's three seasons. I later learned that it wasn't the first time that Catwoman had seemed to die; she'd fallen into a bottomless pit in Julie Newmar's only appearance of the first season. This second death -- Catwoman had lives to spare -- is still unusual for its build-up. There's nothing like the foot chase, with Newmar and Adam West apparently doing their own running, in the entire series. Maybe it was a form of padding, with no one able to come up with the usual melee gags. But it seems more like a build-up to a dramatic moment, though the moment itself is capped in camp fashion as Batman's mourning is made into a typical Bat-gag.

Newmar's persona isn't fully formed in the "Purr-Fect Crime/Better Luck Next Time" diptych from the first season. In those shows Catwoman is a less appealing (though still undeniably attractive), more ruthless figure, backstabbing her own gang so she can have a whole treasure for herself. It's not until the second season -- and after Lee Merriwether coldly replaced her in the big-screen version of the show -- that Newmar and key Catwoman writer Stanley Ralph Ross came into their own. In that season, with the exception of a story where she was shoehorned in to support a lackluster new villain, Michael Rennie's Sandman, Newmar can do no wrong. Ross had figured out how to ring the changes on Catwoman's love-hate relationship with Batman and make the most of the comic chemistry between Newmar and West. The actors' best scenes together are paradoxically funny, emphasizing the sex-temptation angle while portraying both Catwoman and Batman as overgrown nerds and brats, playing out life-and-death showdowns like schoolyard games. Look at the climax of "The Bat's Kow-Tow," when Catwoman almost abashedly explains, with Batman's encouragement, how her voice-stealing device -- her own invention, apparently -- works. Note also the moment when Catwoman, maybe uniquely among the show's villains, seems capable of defeating Batman single-handedly, yet can't do it.

Newmar and West are at their bickering bratty best in their last teaming, "Batman Displays His Knowledge." Their comic timing over a long take is impeccable as Newmar careens from seductive mode to blustering claws-baring "katrate" stances. This two parter (opening with "Catwoman Goes to College") seems like a missed opportunity as Bruce Wayne becomes Catwoman's probation sponsor. It looks like a perfect setup for the Princess of Plunder to go after Wayne's fortune, yet she promptly plunges into a plot to frame Batman, while Wayne pays attention to his new charge only as Batman. Bruce is a disaster of inaction in his assigned role, but there's a payoff for that in the two-parter's closing scene, Newmar's final appearance in the series. Confronting her one last time in his civilian identity, an uncomfortable Bruce seems to realize that he's screwed up, while Catwoman is a portrait of serene desolation. Showing no defiance, she consoles the warden, reminding him that her recidivism is the exception, not the rule. Then, after telling Batman earlier that reform was hopeless for her without the love of a good man, she tells Bruce that there might have been something between them, except that her heart belongs to Batman. You might not hear it here, but on a proper TV you can hear her say "good-bye" as she exits the frame. The story may be that Newmar didn't return for the third season because she was tied up on a thankless movie shoot (McKenna's Gold), but when I watch this I sense that she knew she was done. There's a last bow quality about it that's undeniable, as if Ross, who would go on to write a very different Catwoman for Eartha Kitt, knew he'd said all he could as well.

These stories were my first meaningful exposure to romance, the first romances that had an impact on me. If there was an overarching story to the Batman series, at least in its first two seasons, his combative courtship of Catwoman was it. I watched those shows before I ever read a Batman comic book, without the comics fans sense of insult over travestied sacred texts. I went through that phase later, when I did become a comics fan and took the books seriously. But the very first Batman comic I bought had a surprise in it. It was Batman 320, if I remember right, from sometime in 1980. The Joker was kidnapping Batman's allies to make them candles in a birthday cake for himself, and one of his stops was Bruce Wayne's residence. I don't recall whether he was after Wayne himself, who was absent, or Alfred the butler, whom he captured, but there hanging out in the mansion was one Selina Kyle, helpfully identified for me by the Clown Prince of Crime as "the sultry Catwoman." I'd never seen or heard the name before. Anyway, resenting the intrusion on Wayne's behalf, Selina Kyle set about clobbering the Joker's minions until he kayoed her with some gag boxing glove. It did not occur to him to make her a candle; he was probably confused, as I was, about what she was doing there.

In time, I learned that Selina, claiming to have reformed, had approached Bruce Wayne, not knowing him to be Batman, in the self-interested hope that he'd fund a cure for some rare disease she'd contracted. Romance ensued. I was intrigued. Ever since then, through "reboots" that reset the DC Universe, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle -- the TV character was never called by that name -- have been on again, off again. The tone as actually set slightly before Len Wein wrote the stories I've just described. One of DC Comics's ingenious ideas during the "Silver Age" of superhero comics (roughly 1956-86) was that the heroes of the "Golden Age" of superhero comics' origins lived on a separate planet in a separate dimension from the present-day heroes. DC could thus show slightly-different versions of the current heroes aging and evolving beyond what a monthly comic could tolerate. On "Earth-2," readers learned, the original Batman and Catwoman from the 1940s eventually did marry. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths ended the Silver Age and rebooted the DC Universe, this event presumably never happened, but following the most recent reboot, in 2011, the "New 52" universe once more includes an Earth-2 where a Batman married a Catwoman, or at least had a daughter together. Legends of this sort make a romance between the characters in the current monthly comics a matter of fate. It definitely becomes a temptation and at least twice in the last 30 years editors apparently decided that things had gone too far. After writers in the mid-1980s had made Batman and Catwoman too close -- she had practically become his crimefighting sidekick, a story was concocted in which Selina had her brain fried and rewired by a mad scientist, the results being that she reverted to villainy and conveniently forgot Batman's secret identity. No such contrivance was needed more recently; the 2011 reboot once more stripped Catwoman of that key bit of knowledge and restored some distance between the characters after Ed Brubaker, Jeph Loeb and succeeding writers had developed the Bat-Cat relationship over the past decade. These changes are artificial and jolting to longtime readers, not to mention "shippers" for whom relationships are all, but there's a reasonable argument for them. Unless you, like many other people, including one with a quarter-billion-dollar budget, propose to write "the last Batman story," some respect for basic archetypes are in order. If you bring Batman and Catwoman too close together, you risk losing much of the tension and pathos that made their stories compelling originally. If Catwoman becomes no more than a loyal supporting character or partner of Batman, you may miss what makes her interesting. The potential for a redeeming relationship may make for better comic book stories than a realized relationship. Tim Burton understood this and succeeded, when he used an unorthodox Catwoman -- a supernatural avenger rather than a charismatic bandit -- in Batman Returns, in taking the pathos occasionally invoked on the old TV show to a new level of romantic tragedy.

Art by Jim Lee

Christopher Nolan's work with Batman would not really have been done, in my opinion, if he didn't give us a Catwoman. With some cajoling, Nolan himself came around to that view, and the world will see the results this weekend. Not everyone may agree. Batman comics fans have diverse opinions about their hero's love life or his potential for one. The three largest factions might be described as "Team Selina," "Team Talia" and "Team Neuter." In the comics, Selina Kyle's great rival for Bruce Wayne's and Batman's affections for the last forty years has been Talia al-Ghul, the rebellious daughter of assassin-king Ra's al-Ghul. Talia, whom many people still expect to see in The Dark Knight Rises, is the ideal for those who idolize the writing of Denny O'Neil, the scribe who liberated Batman comics from the incubus of the TV show's camp legacy. Many fans find Talia's story more compelling than Selina's -- O'Neil came to the comics with an initial contempt for the costumed villains tainted by association with TV -- and the character simply more attractive. The fact (in current continuity) that Talia is the mother of Batman's only child would seem to make her the woman in his life even though present writer Grant Morrison portrays her as a more implacable enemy than Catwoman ever was. Talia has been central to several great stories over the decades, but for me she's always lacked that primal opposites-attract quality that Catwoman brings to the comics. A smaller fourth faction, represented most recently in comics by Kevin Smith, might argue for Silver St. Cloud, the romantic interest in the small late-70s run of stories by Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers that are still considered one of the greatest achievements in Batman history, while no one, I suspect, takes Vicki Vale, the star of comics, 1949 serial and 1989 movie, seriously as Bruce Wayne's great love. "Team Neuter," I hope, speaks for itself. Suffice it to say that some people are happy, or at least more comfortable, with Batman having no strong romance in his life. It's as valid a viewpoint as any, but also less interesting. Had Christopher Nolan a more exploitative mentality, he might have made his new movie a different kind of bonanza by pitching it as a kind of anti-Twilight, with a hero torn between two uber-women -- but for now it's still the official word that there's no such creature as Talia in his movie, despite irrepressible speculation about the role played by Marion Cotillard. The comic-book movie business being what it is, such a movie may yet be made some day.

While I want to judge The Dark Knight Rises on its own terms, I also have to admit that how Nolan treats Selina Kyle -- while he has no problem calling the character "Catwoman" in interviews, she'll never be called by that name in the picture -- will strongly influence my opinion. For the new film to succeed fully, Nolan has to get Catwoman right. That doesn't mean he has to match some ideal I have of the character; Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer triumphed with an interpretation resembling no previous version of Selina. Nolan and Anne Hathaway have deep boots to fill, but I've liked most of what I've seen in the trailers and commercials. Considering what I've just written, there's no point in my attempting a list of what director and actress have to do. They just have to not screw up one of the most important elements of the Batman legend. I won't know whether they have or not until I see the movie. Until then, I hope to have something to say about Rises's prospective place in pop-culture history tomorrow.

Bat-clips from The Bat's Kow-Tow and Batman Displays his Knowledge uploaded by captivebatfan; Scat! Darn Catwoman uploaded by Fanof Bats.


hobbyfan said...

Julie Newmar, "coldly replaced" in the 1966 Batman movie? No, Sam, the story is that she had a conflicting commitment and wasn't available. I think she was making another movie at the same time, and that's why Lee Meriweather was brought in. Of course, post-movie, Lee remained on the Fox payroll, as Time Tunnel premiered the following fall.

I thought you knew better than that.

Anne Hathaway's Catwoman costume will evoke memories of Julie Newmar, I'm sure.

I'm still puzzled as to why Eartha Kitt was hired for season 3 when Meriweather was still available.

Samuel Wilson said...

What I meant in my sometimes lumbering fashion was that Meriwether's performance as Catwoman in the movie was rather cold and humorless compared to Newmar's. My understanding is that Newmar was laid up with a back injury during the movie shoot. The movie shoot was why Newmar didn't return for the third season, and I can't blame the producers for not bringing Meriwether back.