Catwoman Is Not Catwoman in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Catwoman is not who she used to be. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises deconstructs her from talon to tail. Every superhero movie pivots on the moment when Man becomes Hero, tapping the archetypal structure of the monomyth first recognized by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces. The film broadcasts the moment with the visual cues of fast editing and shots of a costume with a determined man, determined to make this moment count and become a hero. This moment has happened numerous times in Nolan’s Batman series. It’s happened in The Dark Knight Rises as the broken and imprisoned Bruce Wayne found renewed faith in his ability to make a difference.

Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman sadly never experiences this moment—she never transforms herself as Michelle Pfeiffer did tantalizingly in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Hathaway’s Selina never changes wardrobe, and except for a few visual hints of her cattiness, and is never referred to as Catwoman. So who is Nolan’s Catwoman? She is a pedestrian walking through a disaster. Nolan has merely sketched Catwoman, asking the audience to fill in the blanks.

Batman is the center of this universe. He is the landmark for good against Bane’s hallmark of evil (until the film’s final revelation as to where the real evil lies). Selina falls in some ambiguous space between extremes. She is a thief with an amazing ability to make stilettos silent. Her wardrobe nods to an alter ego through cleverly designed goggles that create hint at cat ears, but Selina does not become Catwoman in this film. Without a flashy transformation, Selina remains simply a thief in quasi-cat clothing.

Make no mistake thought, Selina the Thief is a good counterpoint for Nolan’s Batman. But she is as much of a sidekick as Gotham’s earnest Detective John, also known as Robin. The question to ask is why? Why would Selina Kyle be so diminished as a character? Catwoman is a landmark character for this franchise—her appearance should have come with more flourish and emotion.

I believe, the answer to this problem lies in looking more broadly, that Selina is not Catwoman most likely because Nolan doesn’t want any other superheroes in his vision of Gotham City. Batman must be the only superhero with Bane being the only Big Bad. Everyone else stays human, relying on their human abilities to get them through. Batman, in heart and spirit and physical prowess is more than man. Even Bane, an evil Jesus for the 99% during most of the movie, is reduced to human as his actual backstory unfolds. Selina, however, remains a mortal-flawed-human through the entire movie.

Selina’s acts of valor, often erased by acts of dishonor, arise from her theft of Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints. No questions or inner conflict drive the encounters between Selina and Batman, only petty crime. Selina robbed the bad guys too, but she was never interested in what they were doing, just in their ability to fund her next life reboot. Does this representation of Catwoman reduce the recognizable complexity of her original character (captured vividly in books like Catwoman: When in Rome or On the Trail of Catwoman) to mere ambiguity?

Catwoman intrigued Bruce Wayne enough for him to transform her into a tool, but not to make her more than she already was, despite dialog of encouragement. Bruce Wayne connected to this thief because, like him, she was broken and lived on the fringe of mainstream society. Although the Batman mythology offers ample history for a Batman-Catwoman relationship, the audience for this movie is asked to sustain belief, much as they do with Batman’s arsenal kit. These two damaged and broken people trying to survive the only way they know how—one through self-sacrifice, the other through petty pilferage.

But this onscreen version of their relationship is more one of codependency than romance. Bruce Wayne and Selina only kiss because she wants to kiss him for a memorable introduction or luck, but Bruce Wayne never kisses her first. The film creates a much stronger romantic connection with Marion Cotillard’s Miranda than with Selina, but this serves only to setup the film’s climax, making it a betrayal. Yet, in the end, Selina ends up with a seemingly resurrect Bruce Wayne. Is this real? Is Alfred projecting his hopes and dreams, or are Selina and Bruce fulfilling a dream shared earlier in the film to appease Alfred’s battered soul? A first date, perhaps, but not a theatrical, larger-than-life, movie romance. They have just met, saved the world, now what? Brunch? It must be asked if somewhere in Alfred’s now broken faith, if a top is spinning, forever.

Catwoman does not exist. Selina must stay in the realm of humans and not join the ranks of superheroes. At the end of film we see, what could be, the end of Batman. In a future without Batman, Selina becomes the rebound girl for a man who just dumped his alter ego.

Catwoman is not a character in Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga. Catwoman could not be in this film. Nolan it seems needs only one hero. But he needed people like Selina to make that hero seem all the more heroic, to given his dysfunctional and broken life context. Selina may not be Catwoman, but she was the pedestrian Bruce Wayne needed to save Gotham from its most harrowing near-death experience yet. In this world Batman is the only savior, but he knows he cannot do it alone.