Here are the facts: All women-led superhero films, up until the Friday release of Wonder Woman, have been absolutely terrible and have flopped at the box office. Or, at least, that’s what the executives at Sony explicitly stated to one another in an email released to the public through the big hack that happened in 2014. There was no audience interested in watching women kick ass on screen, and every investment in that area of the genre was always going to be lost (this, of course, pairs well with the one advising Sony to pursue an EDM-flavored Spider-Man take full of YOLOs like the kids like, ya hear).
One of the main examples used to justify that line of thinking was 2004’s Catwoman, a film so legendarily terrible that Halle Berry even showed up at the Razzies to accept her Worst Actress award. Directed by noted Frenchman and VFX maestro Pitof (single-named directors are always worth fearing), Catwoman was the last female-focused superhero film to be released by Warner Brothers prior to the one coming out on Friday, and it flopped hard upon hitting screens. So, in the spirit of celebrating how far we’ve come, we figured we’d take a look at it for old times’ sake.
It can’t be that bad, right?
Catwoman tells the story of ad designer Patience Phillips (Berry), who works for a large cosmetics conglomerate. To put it mildly, she hates her job: Her husband-and-wife pair of bosses (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) are downright awful to her, and she’s wondering what the hell she, a classically trained painter, is doing with her life. Sure enough, a cat named Midnight comes strolling into her apartment one day, and because of said cat, she has a chance encounter with a detective (Benjamin Bratt) who thinks she’s going to kill herself (them suicide jokes are funny, right guyz). They hit it off after he saves her life. But before she can play footsie with the dude over coffee, she’s asked to do revisions of a particular design for her bosses and to deliver them to a sketchy-ass facility after they’re done. Sure enough, her bosses are up to some sketchy shit involving face-creams that’ll outright kill motherfuckers, and they sicc their hired goons on our girl Patience. Eventually, she’s trapped in a drainage system and flushed out onto shore, where she’s dead as fuck, until cats come by and breathe superpowers into her. So she starts acting like a cat, and starts to steal shiny stuff, until she’s required by the plot to become a good guy. And you can most likely guess the rest: Her cop boyfriend is put right on the task of finding Catwoman; and she’s eventually forced to fight against her old bosses in order to save people from certain face-cream death.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly. The SCUM Manifesto this is not. Pitof takes a miserably reductive attitude to its female audience, and instead crafts a male-gaze oriented action film with the occasional nod towards the feminist (Stone, at one point, growls at Bratt that if she were “a man, you’d call me driven”) and the especially offensive assumptions as to what women want from a film like this.
It’s hard to believe that a Catwoman movie was made that wasn’t about a jewelry heist, but instead about the corruption deep inside of a cosmetics company. You can almost feel the studio executives trying to parse what they think their wives like: They like shiny stuff, they like cats, they like themselves; well, they said, let’s make a movie about how their vanity is ultimately going to kill them in the end, even if the main character has to undergo a tremendous make-over before she can truly become a superhero. And, of course, let’s entertain the men in the audience: How else do you explain the costume design? The filmmakers took a character whose allure was entirely driven by action — the bodysuits of the original Batman television show and even the bondage-influenced iconic outfit sported by Michelle Pfeiffer covered significantly more and were absolutely sexier — and put her in an outfit that left no room for acting? Sure, it might have freed her from the “catsuit” pun but reduced her to an object of flat desire, not to mention how the skin-showing made it impossibly difficult to animate a believable CGI model. Then again, this might be what happens when you place a first-time director, specifically a male director, in charge of your woman-centric superhero film.
Placed in a greater genre context, it’s essentially the final nail in the coffin of the Burton-influenced era at Warner Brothers, where Burton’s own 1989 take on Batman began the superhero revival, and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin helped to kill it, though that wasn’t totally apparent once the gears started turning on the potential production of a solo Catwoman film. Honestly, you could write a really interesting book about this period in DC filmmaking, and we’re only going over a fraction of what actually happened behind the scenes. In fact, up until at least 1998, Schumacher was planning on returning to the franchise to make another sequel, Batman Unchained, which would have focused on the Caped Crusader taking on the Scarecrow and company. This began a kind of “lost in the wilderness” period for Warner Brothers, in which many projects were thrown about but never truly greenlit or acted upon in any meaningful way. Wolfgang Peterson wanted to make a Batman Vs. Superman film, Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller wanted to do their own take on Miller’s famous Year One storyline, and even Paul Dini was brought in by the studio to pitch a big-budget live action Batman Beyond film. All of these takes were eventually boiled down into a decent screenplay and given to Christopher Nolan, but Pitof was given the dregs. In many ways, Catwoman reflects the final gasps of that particular camp approach to superhero filmmaking, before it was totally annihilated by the stylized “realism” of the Nolan Batman films.
You can tell how much was cobbled together from the screenplay. As far as its superhero plot mechanics, Catwoman owes a tremendous debt to the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, which had come out two summers prior and made a shitload of cash, and it’s just horrible to see how Pitof and company perverts the notes and quirks of that particular origin story. For one, the “cat powers” that are granted to Berry’s character after her “death” at the cosmetics factory are significantly more contrived than any of the ones given to Tobey Maguire, and they’re perpetually played for laughs in ways both miserably stupid (she likes fish so much she’s going to pluck it right off the sushi she’s got!) to the downright intelligence-insulting (she orders a white russian without all of the liquor! It’s only heavy cream!).
There’s even glimpses of the kind of steady-cam Raimi-vision that populates that director’s films though Berry’s exaggerated cat-senses, which are never defined well-enough to have any sort of impact along the same sort of line as Spider-Sense, which wisely just aped The Matrix and felt fresh enough to work at the time. Beyond that, it’s got the same sort of protagonist/antagonist connection that defined so many superhero films prior to 2008 (where Nolan’s The Dark Knight finally helped to sever that umbilical cord), where the villains were either directly responsible for creating the protagonists or even their own damn family members. It’s a trend we’re starting to return to today, and it totally sucks.
The cast is uniformly miserable, but it’s hard not to lay the blame for the disaster on the feet of the director and the studio executives who greenlit this iteration of the project. Poor Halle Berry. That’s all there really is to say about her work here, as she spends the first act of the movie doing her worst Christopher-Reeve-as-Clark-Kent impression here, and then spends the remaining two acts doing an impression of Pfeiffer, but without anyone meaningful to play off of. That Catwoman at least had several interesting performances to play off of, from Michael Keaton to Christopher Walken and more, but in the 2004 version, she’s given the TV All-Stars: An out-of-his-element Benjamin Bratt as her cop love interest, and Alex Borstein, perhaps best known as the voice of Lois Griffin from Family Guy, as a best friend. Her antagonist, played by a desperately-missing-Paul-Verhoeven Sharon Stone, isn’t compelling in the slightest, especially since Stone is obviously sleepwalking through the role. She does her best to occasionally snarl a line at her on-screen husband Lambert Wilson, but her whole performance is terribly flat, and she can barely muster the enthusiasm to throw out a zinger or two in Berry’s direction during their final fight together (in which, of course, Stone’s vanity causes her to let go and die).
Perhaps most egregiously, especially for a director whose bonafides came from his work as a VFX artist, the effects work in the film is top-to-bottom garbage. One has to wonder what Pitof would have been able to do for the truly egregious shots, such as whenever an in-costume Berry scales walls, if he’d just held off on putting more than one flying-camera establishing shot in the film (seriously, there’s like five of them). The whole thing is so poorly edited and shot that it’s almost impossible to tell what the hell is going on at any given moment, the widely-cited scene of Bratt and Berry showing off their skills on the basketball court earned its reputation for good reason. We’d also like to submit that the scene in which a cat vomits life back into Berry’s character’s mouth is one of the more unintentionally hilarious moments in the whole history of the genre, and it’s made significantly worse by CGI that would have looked bad in 1992. Keep in mind this is the same studio that made Cats and Dogs only a few years earlier, and could have put resources towards it in order to make it look passable, but apparently the film was just too much of a lost cause at that point to allocate any more resources towards it.
That ethos defines much of Hollywood’s attitudes towards women-led films, especially within the superhero genre. They’re set up to fail, robbed of any grounding in the universes they inhabit, and given the short shrift on the budget. For an example of what we mean by “universe grounding,” look to the other films in the genre: Christopher Reeve couldn’t be arsed to show up for a cameo in the 1984 Supergirl film, and even though the world is ostensibly the same as the ones in the classic series, it never really lands that this is the same world. Ben Affleck’s cameo in Elektra was cut before that movie came out in theaters, which was an odd choice, considering that he was married to star Jennifer Garner, and it was forced to operate in sort of a nether-world free of any continuity to its previous film. Of course, Catwoman is totally separate from the Batman iterations of the character, and as such it just sort of floats around, not really having an identity to contrast itself against. Obviously none of the major studios were willing to give these films enough of a budget to stand on their own next to their male counterparts, and they were shoddily promoted. So, it’s hard to imagine anyone at Warner being surprised when very few people bought tickets, and this “lack of surprise” was attributed to the audience and their distaste for stories centered around women, rather than any choices that the studio themselves might have made to discourage viewer interest.
Wonder Woman seems to be a righteous course corrective to this line of thinking. It’s directed by Patty Jenkins, who has a legitimate pedigree behind the camera — her 2003 feature Monster, in addition to being a truly masterful film that’s unfairly forgotten by modern audiences, earned Charlize Theron her first Oscar — and is both fully funded and promoted by the studio that’s releasing it.
Jenkins’ film is grounded in a male-oriented superhero universe that is in desperate need of disruption, and it most definitely will succeed in this regard, though that might not exactly be a high bar to clear. It has the backing of major stars — just look to its bench (Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston) to see how crazily stacked this film is with talent — and already doesn’t seem to wish to patronize any of its audiences: it, for the most part, just wants to be a good and compelling film in its own right.
Sure, it might have been rushed into production to score a quick win over Marvel on their one major failure, but that’ll be totally forgotten if the movie is good enough. If anything, it seems that Warner has learned from their mistakes, and want to do honestly right by the character in her solo feature debut. And thank God for that.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.