Anne Hathaway remembers the night Catwoman changed her life. It was 1992, she was 9 years old, and she'd gone with her father and brother to see Tim Burton's Batman Returns. Michelle Pfeiffer was playing Batman's foil, commanding the screen with her shiny latex catsuit and malicious smirk. "When we left the theater, it was a full moon," Hathaway says, "and I kept doing that head roll-up that she did in the last scene"--when Catwoman unfolds her body and gazes into the sky at the Bat-Signal--"until my dad told me to stop messing around and get in the car. I'd never seen anything like that. She was so fun and wicked and empowered and smart and vulnerable, and it had a big impact on me."
Now Hathaway gets to make the same kind of impact on the 9-year-olds of today by playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (in theaters July 20). To be precise, she plays jewel thief Selina Kyle--nobody ever calls her Catwoman onscreen, although her night-vision goggles just happen to flip up to form cat-ear shapes. The Nolan-Hathaway version of the character is a world-class cat burglar, a daughter of poverty exacting her own kind of justice from the grotesquely wealthy, and Hathaway gives her a muted, parched voice and a sangfroid honed on the streets. If she's moving, she's pouncing.
It's not much like Pfeiffer's prowling, snarling performance or the other Catwomen who've appeared in movies, on television and in comic books over the past 70 years. But the Catwoman persona is as flexible as the whip she sometimes wields. (Hathaway doesn't.) Judd Winick, the current writer of the Catwoman comic-book series, argues that she "comes down to about three things: she's beautiful, she wears a very tight costume, and she steals."
She's also the yang to Batman's yin. Whether they skew grim or campy, Batman stories almost always center on violence, madness and single-minded discipline. Selina Kyle illuminates that tone by contradicting it--she personifies impulsiveness and pleasure seeking. Nearly every one of Batman's antagonists, from Two-Face to the Joker, is insane, and their crimes are the fetishistic product of their insanity--Gotham City's central institution is Arkham Asylum, where Batman sends them. The implication is that the billionaire who dresses up as a giant bat to track them down and beat them up is also insane and violent, except that his violent insanity is useful and acceptable.
Catwoman, though, is the sanest bat in the belfry. She's a criminal, and consequently Batman's enemy, but she's not villainous; she doesn't endanger the innocent. She's just a hedonist who believes that the luxuries of the rich are rightfully hers. As Hathaway puts it, "she's offended when she sees people who are in possession of beautiful things who don't properly enjoy them." Her crimes are also occasions to flirt with the handsome billionaire in the bat outfit.
Kitten with a Whip