Ask Chris #220: Catwoman And The Villainous Love Interest
Q: What are your thoughts on Catwoman and how her role has evolved over time? It's unique, isn't it? -- @spudsfan
A: Here's a warning that you're about to read way too many words on what looks like a simple question: Yes and no.
It's not going to surprise anyone when i say that I love Catwoman as a character, and a lot of that comes from how adaptable she is. In her long history, she's been one of the few characters who's been able to transition from villain to hero and back again, and she has a relationship with Batman that has allowed for both characters to grow in ways that no other character has, or even could. But at the same time, she's probably the single most successful example of a cliché that bugs me to no end: The Villainous Love Interest.
To be fair, there's nothing wrong with the Villainous Love Interest in and of itself, and it's certainly worked out pretty well for Catwoman over the course of the past 74 years. I mean, as much as I like unrepentant, unambiguously evil villains in comics, I also like bad guys with different layers. Sympathetic villains, noble characters who have been damned to walk a self-destructive path, people who do bad things for what they think are the right reasons; they're all great characters, and the Villainous Love Interest offers up some of the most interesting and engaging story possibilities. Mixing up love and hate, duty and romance, dedication and desire, that's a combination that's almost impossible for a creator to resist, because it instantly creates drama. But that's the problem.
Because it's such a reliable formula, it's been used time and time again, and the result is that you have male heroes where the roster of villains is made up of villains with every motivation and character hook under the sun, and then one or two women who are bad, but are just one smooch away from being Good Girls. Oh, if only these women would stop their evil ways and give in to their natural feminine desires, then all of their existing character motivations would vanish in a puff of hearts and flowers.
The tension doesn't come from the conflict between the characters as they exist now, but whether or not the Good Guy is going to be able to seduce the Bad Girl to giving up her evil ways, and that's an idea that robs the Villainous Love Interest of at least some small piece of her agency as a character. It makes her a prize in the War On Crime in a way that you almost never see with male characters, but that happens all the time with women.
The closest male analogue I can think of that has that kind of long-running intensity is probably Thor and Loki and how a good chunk of their relationship is based on how Thor just wants his brother back, but beyond those two, I can't really think of anything that comes close. Maybe the dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor in the stories where they were friends as kids?
The only thing that's more rare than finding two male characters with a similar dynamic is finding a female character who doesn't have it. Unrepentant Evil is pretty hard to come by in your arch-villainesses, it seems.
That's actually one of the reasons that I really like the Baroness from G.I. Joe, my own preference for haughty, bespectacled brunettes notwithstanding. She's evil for a defined reason that has shaped her life, and even when she finds out that her initial motivation for revenge against the Joes wasn't what she thought it was, she doesn't immediately switch sides. She stays true to her character motivations, and remains an antagonist on her own terms. And by the same token, that's why I dislike the movie version from The Rise of Cobra, who ended up being Duke's girlfriend who was only evil because of mind-control and ended the movie tearfully promising to wait for him in prison.
Of course, Comics Baroness was seduced away from Cobra by Destro, but at least she got to keep being evil. See what I mean?
Catwoman's far from being alone in this -- she's not even alone in Batman's rogues gallery since Talia tends to fall more often than not into a similar role -- but she fills that clichéd role to an extreme that very few characters ever get to. There have been stories of alternate futures where she ends up being Mrs. Bruce Wayne for decades, and it's even been part of her canonical character arc for most of the modern era. And again, I'm not saying it doesn't work. Far from it, in fact -- she's one of the best possible love interests for Batman, because their relationship has been specifically geared to challenge their roles. But still, if you want to try to work around that element of the character, it can be pretty difficult, if only because it's been there since day one, in Catwoman's first appearance.
That story, incidentally, is bananas. The first half of it is essentially a Robin solo story, as Batman sends his youthful ward to handle some Cruise Ship Crimes on his own with a promise to catch up later, and when Batman does show up, he decides, out loud, to take this opportunity to provide a lesson for all the children who are reading his comic book.
After the fight scene, he turns to address the reader and tells them he hopes they learned something. It's so weird, and I wish it happened all the time.
More importantly, at least for our purposes today, is the end of the story, where the Cat is finally unmasked and immediately confesses her love for Batman and her desire to seduce him into a life of crime, which is met with a confirmation from Batman:
It's pretty perfunctory, as is the case with most Golden Age comics, but it's important to note that Batman doesn't reject her outright, something that's especially surprising given that it's 1940 and Batman is still transitioning out of that grumpy Shadow ripoff that he started off as. He's clearly lovestruck, and Bill Finger seems to be having a lot of fun with it in the dialogue -- after the Cat jumps overboard to escape, Batman cheerfully refers to her as a "lovely girl!" and says he "hopes to run into her again!" Not quite the dedication to crime-fighting that we've come to expect.
But either way, whether Finger and Bob Kane were just riffing on ideas they'd picked up from Flash Gordon's Princess Aura or trying to create the kind of love triangle that was doing so well over in Superman, it sets up how the characters would relate to each other. There always has been, and there's always going to be, that romantic tension at the heart of how they react to each other. As a result, she's often cast into that Villainous Love Interest cliché, where all the interesting parts of their relationship become standard-issue swoons and longing.
That said, there are two great examples where people actually did get around the cliché, without having to toss out all the good stuff along with it, and the first that comes to mind is Julie Newmar's performance in Batman '66.
With Newmar, the attraction is still there (obviously), but the reductive nature of the show's treatment of good, evil and comedic effect meant that there was never any question of whether or not she was going to reform and join up with Batman. She never even really considers it. I've mentioned this before, but my all-time favorite moment on the show is when she actually suggests that they just give up crime and crimefighting and run off together, and when Batman asks what they'll do with Robin, she just shrugs and says they'll kill him. She's hardwired for evil, and even the seductive allure of Adam West isn't going to change that.
Catwoman-as-Hero is always an interesting proposition, and more often than not, it doesn't work as well as they seem to want it to -- but this version did pretty much everything right. It gave Catwoman a motivation that was both similar to and ultimately independent of Batman, and while the romantic tension was always there, the book was built around two characters with a long history with each other acknowledging that it wasn't going to happen, at least not here and now. Batman's first love is justice, after all.
The book even went as far as giving Catwoman a new love interest of her own in the form of Slam Bradley, which started in the fantastic Selina's Big Score and did a lot to distance her from the romantic entanglements that would overshadow what she was doing on her own. Of course, that all came to a crashing end when (at least in the way I saw things), Batman confessed his love for Catwoman out of nowhere in the pages of the abysmal and ruinous Hush, but at least we got a pretty swell Batman/Slam Bradley fistfight out of it.
In the end, that's what's unique about Catwoman and how she's developed over the years. As much as she's marked by a long career as the standard-issue (and even archetypical) Villainous Love Interest, the potential is there for her to be something else, to get out from under that shadow and do her own thing -- even if she's not the unrepentant, un-seduce-able arch-crook that I sometimes wish she was.
But then, I suppose that's what Poison Ivy is for.