Fifteen years later, the spectacular failure of Catwoman still stings.
There was a seed of an idea that sprang up way back in 1992, shortly after the release of Batman Returns. Since Michelle Pfeiffer basically stole the whole damn show and gave us one of our most iconic versions of Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, there were plans to give Pfeiffer her own spin-off. After years of what’s popularly known as “development hell”, these efforts would eventually result in one of the worst films of all time. Both a critical and box office flop, 2004’s Catwoman ushered in an era that saw a troubling scarcity of female-led action movies, a genre which has only just begun to improve over the past few years.
As anyone who’s seen Catwoman knows, if there was ever a movie capable of stopping years of progress in its tracks, this would be the one. Its judgment is so terrible that it chooses to create an entirely new alter ego origin story for the character. Rather than Selina Kyle, the woman who has been Catwoman from the beginning, the movie follows Patience Phillips, played by Halle Berry, a meek frustrated artist whose life changes after she discovers a dark conspiracy in the cosmetics company that employs her.
In the grand tradition of a movie where a black actress plays the lead role in a film written and directed by white men that claims to be about empowering women, any attempts to address sexism can charitably be described as laughable. Patience begins the movie as a doormat with bad fashion sense. Her “character growth” is represented by being sexualized to a bizarre and horrifying degree, particularly once she’s endowed with the powers that enable her to become Catwoman.
Just what are these powers? Basically, they’re cat powers, which are granted to Patience by a magical cat after she overhears Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), the wife of the cosmetic company’s smarmy CEO, discussing the horrific side effects of their new product. Patience tries to flee via a pipe, but Laurel orders her men to flush her out of it, leading her to be swept off the building, killing her in one of the most humiliating on-screen deaths ever. Since Patience tried to save the cat’s life earlier, it not only resurrects her, it gifts Patience with cat-like abilities. I am not making this up.
If there was ever a movie capable of stopping years of progress in its tracks, this would be the one.
These abilities also cause her to do things like sleep on a shelf, gorge on tuna and sushi, hiss at dogs and people, drink cream in a bar, say things like, “What a purrfect idea,” and outright purr in her love interest’s ear in the middle of their fight. Oh yeah, she fights a lot because she can now stand up for herself. Sexily. Catwoman tries so it’s hardest to be both sexy, and cool, and somehow manages to be neither. First, there’s Halle Berry’s costume, which…speaks for itself. Then there are the fights, which rely way too much on CGI that already looked terrible at the time, and have only gotten worse with age.
Much of this is due to director Pitof (yes, you read that right), who ensures that every scene is stripped of not only the sex appeal they were obviously trying so hard to capture but any chemistry or tension between Patience and her love interest, police detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt). Just take, for example, the basketball game where Patience and Tom are meant to bond and fall for each other. In Pitof’s incapable hands, with his bizarre cuts and weird angles, it’s is not only bereft of any sense of fun, but it could also probably be nominated for the worst directed scene of all time.
The worst offenses Catwoman makes are its attempts at feminism. Patience finds answers from a woman whose name, I regret to inform you, is Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy). Powers tells Patience that she’s part of a long line of Cat Women who have existed throughout history and that she will know a freedom other women never will. That freedom basically entails confidence, independence, and choosing to follow her own desires, which is apparently so unimaginable to the male filmmakers that a woman would need actual superpowers to accomplish any of this.
If there is one thing the film does right, it’s the friendship between Patience and Sally (Alex Borstein). It’s the only thing that comes off as remotely enjoyable, with Borstein stealing every scene she’s in, although she’s not put through the same series of humiliations as Berry. Not that Berry is remotely to blame for this mess. Some sort of acting category should’ve been created just for her, and the amount of effort she spent trying to salvage the unsalvageable, putting her all into every idiotic line, and even managing to add some dignity to moments like smearing catnip all over her face.
Berry even showed up in person to accept the Razzie she won for her work, where she thanked the people responsible for putting her “in a piece of shit, god-awful movie.” She was a good sport, bless her, but things didn’t improve immediately, what with flops like 2003’s Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and 2005’s Elektra, among others. They also weren’t all terrible at the time, as evidenced by the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004. Thankfully, female-led action movies have mostly gotten better, with The Hunger Games franchise kicking off in 2012, Spy and the new Star Wars in 2015, Atomic Blonde in 2017, Captain Marvel earlier this year, and the current crown jewel, 2017’sWonder Woman.
However, women of color still lag behind in action film representation, with 2018’s Proud Mary and this year’s Fast Color being among the few where black women have been front and center. There are signs of change, with Chloe Zhao set to direct The Eternals, a new Marvel superhero film with a diverse cast, Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie soon to be the first openly LGBTQA+ MCU superhero, and even an upcoming biopic of Harriet Tubman. It’s relatively small growth, but hopefully, it points to a time where action films with black female leads won’t continue to be so few and far between. And quite so devastating when they fail.