Ah, the predictability of Comics Fans – they complain bitterly if a comic or a character remains the same for too long, and then they complain even more bitterly when someone comes along and does something different. I’ve been largely away from the internets for the last week, but it’s safe to say that there’s been a certain sense of “Huh?” in reaction to the first officially released picture of Anne Hathaway in the role of Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman, from Christopher Nolan’s upcoming ludicrously anticipated third Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. It’s no surprise to find some people are going “I don’t like it!” and “It looks cheap!” and “Betrayal!” amongst many other reactions – and I have to admit, my first reaction to the picture was (a) good lord, Anne Hathaway looks wonderfully bad-ass in that shot, and (b) It doesn’t look tremendously Catwoman-y, does it?
After all, this is Catwoman we’re talking about – a pretty-much iconic role, one of the major parts of the Batman mythos and a character who’s been the subject of more absurdly sexy and over-the-top comic book art than the brain can comfortably encompass. From the moment it was announced that Selina Kyle was going to be appearing in The Dark Knight Rises, there’s been massive speculation about what sort of look they’d go for, with most people expecting something along the lines of the relatively recent costume redesign courtesy of artist Darwyn Cooke:
It’s a look that’s much more practical than the original skin-tight Catwoman suit (and which the Hathaway look actually sticks relatively close to, apart from the fetishy helmet with the cat-ears); it’s a look that’s stuck in the comic books ever since, and is also strongly featured in the upcoming Batman computer game Arkham City (along with a truly insane amount of cleavage). There’s also the jaw-dropping and iconic art from comic artist Adam Hughes, that’s pretty much cemented the idea of what Catwoman’s supposed to look like – (in short, Audrey Hepburn with bigger cleavage):
And that’s the version of Catwoman everybody’s used to – confidant, daring, riding the line between heroic and ever-so-slightly-amoral, and unashamed about using her sexuality to get what she wants. A woman who can get away with wearing a catsuit complete with tail and ears, because she’s so goddamed sexy she can get away with it. A woman who’s so cool, that instead of trying to defeat or arrest her, Batman ends up dating her. An icon.
I can understand people looking at the Hathaway photo and being disappointed. I can understand that Catwoman is one of those iconic characters who audiences have major, major expectations for, and if their expectations aren’t met, there’s going to be trouble. And yet, I like the photo. I like the look. I’m still just as excited about The Dark Knight Rises as I was before, and it’s partly because we’re not getting the version of Catwoman we were expecting.
And really, when you stop and think about it, why is anyone surprised by this? The ‘classic’ version of Catwoman is a ridiculously distinctive character, but she’s also very definitely the kind of character who fits best in a comic book universe. In a world where people like Superman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter, it doesn’t seem too unconvincing that a girl might dress up as a cat to aid her life of crime. The most recent version of Catwoman’s origin has her as a prostitute who turned to a life as a costumed criminal to claw her way out of a life she hated, and eventually got herself into the world of the super-rich. She’s even, of course, been a mousy secretary brought back to life by cats and turned into a demented vigilante, in the frankly rather bonkers Batman Returns. And let’s not even talk about the insanely awful horror that was the 2004 Catwoman movie…
But I don’t think any of these iterations of the character would work work comfortably if you just dropped them down in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s version of the Batman mythos. Love them or loathe them (and I know there are plenty who don’t care for Nolan’s Batman movies), both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight give us a rigorously thought out and incredibly grounded version of Batman, to the extent that The Dark Knight frequently feels like a Michael Mann crime thriller where Batman keeps wandering into shot. There’s a deliberate attempt to keep things as real and believable as is possible, and not to throw chunks of the mythology and iconography of the comics in just to please the fans. From the way the Batman costume is introduced to the use of the Joker in The Dark Knight, these are films that are going about their business in a real and serious way – the kookier members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery were automatically out of bounds (Could anyone really see the Mad Hatter or the Riddler making an appearence?), and even the familiar ones were going to be reinterpreted (It’s worth remembering that Heath Ledger’s scar-faced Joker is a bit of a leap from the way the character is normally portrayed).
Basically, I think it was pretty damn unlikely that the wildly sexy, ‘look at me, I’m dressed as a Cat and making sexy cat-noises and I JUST DON’T CARE’ version of Catwoman was ever going to turn up in a Christopher Nolan movie. For better or worse, this is going to be a realer take on the character – it may not be as attention-grabbing or iconic, but it’s what happens when you build a costume to fit the character, rather than moulding a character in order to fit a costume. Plus, it’s what happens when you drop a character like this into a world that’s already strongly laid down after two films – sometimes, the character has to be shaped to fit the world. Another thing that’s important thing to remember – we still have absolutely no idea what kind of Catwoman character we’re actually getting in The Dark Knight Rises, and from the look of this they’re deliberately avoiding the attention-grabbing sexiness, and instead going for what they think a supercool female thief would wear for practical gear (the fact that, as confirmed in other paparazzi-taken photos of a stunt double, she’s wearing flat boots rather than stilleto heels is a very good thing). I’d hazzard a guess that we won’t hear Anne Hathaway say the word “Meow” once. My own personal speculation on this is that this may even be a version of Catwoman who doesn’t even call herself Catwoman – she’s a female cat burglar in a city where a bloke dresses up as a bat; I think it’s perfectly possible a tabloid Gotham newspaper could run a very grainy picture of her crawling across a rooftop with the headline ‘CATWOMAN!’ (A theory I expect to be completely wrong, of course). The point is, anything goes. And they wouldn’t have gone with that costume if there wasn’t a specific reason for it.
Is it as sexy or iconic as the classic Catwoman costume? No it isn’t. But I suspect it’s going to work brilliantly for the character that we are getting in The Dark Knight Rises. Honestly, my first reaction to the costume was similar to my first reaction to Matt Smith’s costume as the Eleventh Doctor Who (a guarded ‘oh’ and a ‘Hmmm… maybe it’ll work’), a look that grew on me to the extent that I now can’t imagine the Eleventh Doctor any other way. Comic fans are a little too used to the ‘But it’s got to look EXACTLY like the printed page otherwise it isn’t real!’ approach – I’ve noticed a similar level of grumbling relating to the new Judge Dredd movie adaptation and its costume redesign, with fans complaining “The helmet looks too big!” and “Hmm, I’ve seen better cosplay costumes”, when Dredd is a $20-30 million indie-produced movie that’s going for a grungier, looser visual adaptation, and simply doesn’t have the budget to make the entire film look exactly like a 2000AD strip. It’s also worth remembering that slavishly following the comic is an approach that doesn’t always work (most recently, in the case of the rather ridiculous Green Lantern costume). Nolan and co are doing something different – and whether or not it works in the final movie, the fact that they’re being daring enough to steer away from the iconic look of a character like Catwoman is something I think should be applauded.
And, finally, there’s two other things to bear in mind:
1: Anne Hathaway still looks damn cool in that picture.
2: It could be worse. It could be this: