Control Nathan and Clint: Catwoman (2004)
Welcome, friends, to the latest installment in Control Nathan and Clint. It’s the column where we give the everyday saints who pledge to the Patreon accounts of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast an opportunity to choose between which of two or three impossibly dodgy-looking movies Clint and I must watch and then talk about for our podcast.
This episode the Scalding Hot Take was the enjoyably terrible Venom so we figured we would pair it with some other less than ecstatically received super-hero and super-villain motion pictures. Since Venom made a big non-splash in Spider-Man 3 that was option number one, followed by Batman Forever, the unbelievably shitty Joel Schumacher Batman movie that people don’t talk about and finally vision filmmaker Pitof’s Catwoman.
You generous, kind-hearted sadists chose Catwoman. I previously wrote about the ill-fated Halle Berry vehicle for My World of Flops but can you ever really run out of things to say about Catwoman? It is, as my college professors would say, textually rich. Layers upon layers. A real peeling the onion type situation.
Catwoman dared to ask audiences to imagine what their lives would be like if they were somehow to come into possession of magical kitty cat powers. Oh, the things they would suddenly be able to do! Why, they could leap through the air acrobatically like a spry feline or a Parkour enthusiast on crystal meth! They could play a really mean game of sex basketball, the fun new sport that combines the athleticism of b-ball with the sensual pleasure of making out. And the puns! You quite literally would never run out of feline-based wordplay and catty puns! Why it’d be absolutely purrfect!
Yes, Catwoman is much more concerned with being a magical kitty cat powers movie than it is with satisfying comic book fans. Catwoman is perhaps the preeminent femme fatale of comic books. She’s danger incarnate, a BDSM badass in skin-tight leather and vinyl, a feminist avenger taking on a world of bad bosses and evil men with a whip, a snarl, a flair for wisecracks and defiant, smart ass attitude.
She’s also, I suppose, an attractive, reasonably sane adult woman who possesses magical kitty cat powers, at least in some versions of the character. That, understandably, has not been the main focus on the character in any medium. Comic books, television shows, movies and video games choose to play up the danger in Catwoman, the romance, the sex, the love-hate relationship with Batman and eternal war between good and evil being fought inside the character’s complicated psyche.
Not Catwoman. Oh sure, the character has the cheap, pandering sexuality that comes with being habitually clad in a deeply discounted bootleg “Sexy Cat Person” Halloween costume but all that really matters are the magical kitty cat powers that transform its protagonist from a mousy wallflower into a swaggering, super-powered creature of the night.
Tonally, Catwoman feels more like a 1960s Disney live-action comedy than the darkly humorous goth romance of Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns. The movie might as well have been called That Darn Catwoman! A spectacularly miscast Halle Berry is all sugar, sunshine, lollipops and rainbows as Patience Phillips, an insecure, lonely single woman who works for evil make-up magnates George (Lambert Wilson) and Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone), sociopaths intent on bringing to market a dangerous skin creme that transforms customers into disfigured monsters if they stop using it.
Catwoman kicks off with an exquisitely misguided opening credit sequence illustrating that kitty cats are totally a thing, and have existed since time immemorial. Yes, we’re experiencing for ourselves what Patience will discover later in the film when she Googles “Cats in history” and discovers that cats are not only a thing now but have actually been a thing for a long, long time, dating all the way back to olden times! With the Egyptians and all that!
This is a Catwoman movie where the “cat” part of the anti-hero’s name/identity is much more important than the “woman” element. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Catwoman decides to establish that cats are totally a thing in our world in a third hilariously unnecessary, intensely cat-focused bit of exposition when Patience visits a Magical Crazy Cat Lady played by Frances Conroy.
Conroy’s Mystical, Magical Feline Guru has a cat named Midnight—which, incidentally is also the name of my jazz club in Harlem—who has chosen Patience for a special destiny as a “cat woman”, that is to say a woman who possesses what can only be described as magical kitty cat powers.
Ah, but before she acquires Magical Kitty Cat Powers Patience is your garden variety hapless loser played by one of the most beautiful people in the world with a bad haircut and unflattering clothes that do very little to obscure Berry’s staggering beauty.
At work Patience drinks in the canned sass of sidekick and comedic foil Sally (Family Guy and MADTV’s Alex Borstein, who is gunning hard for a spin-off devoted to her sex-crazed, man-hungry wisenheimer) but otherwise her life is sad, sour and lonely. Then one day she overhears the wrong conversation and nearly dies fleeing goons before being brought back to life by the aforementioned Midnight the Cat.
Unlike the protagonist in the poorly received Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me, Patience does not know who killed her, but she’s keen to find out and it isn’t shy about using her heightened, cat-like reflexes, cat-like speed, cat-like dexterity, cat-like sexuality and even her cat-like basketball playing prowess to find answers.
Where Patience all but apologizes for her existence with each clumsy, labored breath, Catwoman is a sassy dispenser of catty comments who doesn’t think twice about interrupting a heist at a jewelry store so that she can get in on the action using the body of one of the thieves as a human skateboard. There’s only one word for that: RADICAL!
Did you know that cats are great at playing b-ball? It’s true! In the single stupidest scene in a feature-length symphony of stupidity Patience shows up at an elementary school where her police officer love interest Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) is giving a talk to the kids.
Patience shows up out of nowhere with a cup of coffee for Tom, explaining that the police station said he’d be there. Though Patience does not have any children the school was super cool with her showing up unannounced with a potentially poisoned cup of joe for the cop.
Then everyone goes to recess and instead of playing basketball themselves, the children instead decide that it would be more fun to give the basketball to two adults and watch them play a game of one on one.
As soon as a basketball is tossed into her arms, Patience makes an astonishing transformation from blushing wallflower to Harlem Globetrotters ball hog. A look of manic delight dancing across her face, Patience starts doing crazy tricks. Depending on the shot, she either looks like she’s encountering a basketball for the first time in her life and is both surprised and delighted by it or an NBA All-Star renowned for their ball-handling.
When Tom gets the ball and starts dribbling, Patience begins grinding up against his body in an unmistakably sexual way. This is no mere game of one on one. This isn’t sports. This is flirting. This is romance. This is making out. This is a combination of street ball and Lambada, the notorious “Forbidden Dance” of film and novelty song fame.
Tom and Patience are making serious eye contact before the suddenly liberated and empowered super-villain starts wiggling her butt in playful delight as Tom looks on admiringly. Possessing magical kitty cat powers allows Patience to be an Olympics-level ball-handler before she leaps in the air and lands on a clearly turned on Tom in full view of a gaggle of confused school children. .
That people with money and power in the entertainment business read that scene in screenplay form, or watched footage and decided that, yes, this magical kitty cat powers-infused sex-basketball scene deserved to be in a big-budget movie says everything about the movie’s surreal level of miscalculation. The entire movie isn’t that spectacularly bad, in part because it would be difficult, if not impossible to maintain that feverish level of incompetence over the length of an entire feature film. But the bad taste and awful judgment that led to Berry and Bratt bonding over a game of booty shaking b-ball that would feel cartoonish and over-the-top in Uncle Drew, a magical basketball shoes-based movie adapted from a series of popular soda commercials informs every scene.
Super heroes and villains often take on the qualities of weird, dangerous, relatively exotic animals like bats, wolverines, black panthers and spiders. There’s something gloriously perverse about rooting super-villainy in the attributes and qualities of a domesticated animal that will sit in your lap and purr happily for hours while you eat pizza and binge horror movies on Netflix.
A whole lot has changed in the fourteen years since Catwoman’s release. At the time, it seemed a little weird that characters like Elektra and Catwoman were getting movies before Wonder Woman. That was before Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool and Black Panther became bona fide pop culture phenomena. In the process, they proved that there was a whole lot more to the world of comic books and comic book movies than Batman, Superman and Spider-Man.
Catwoman is a weird outlier in that respect. It doesn’t really seem to belong in the world of Batman and Gotham City but it doesn’t have an identity of its own, either. It’s an unfortunate relic of the era before Iron Man changed everything in 2008 when movies like Tim Story’s The Fantastic Four, Elektra, Daredevil and this rightfully reviled abomination set the bar awfully low and still never came close to clearing it.
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