To put it mildly, the DC extended universe has been through some tough times. In an attempt to keep up with the titanic franchise of Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. and the home of Batman decided to hastily cobble together their own version of an expanded series. Where Marvel offered a reliable formula, the DCEU would take bigger risks, embrace edgier concepts and focus on a decidedly auteur approach, thanks to the involvement of Zack Snyder. From Man of Steel to Justice League, the new age of DC has worked hard to take the acclaimed foundations laid down by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and make them into an epic story that encompasses the most iconic superheroes in pop culture.
After some middling reviews for their more recent entries, DC has decided to change course. Instead of sticking to the Snyder-esque tone of grimness and Frank Miller-inspired nihilistic realism, future DC movies seem to be carving out more striking niches. Aquaman and Shazam are expected to have lighter tones and more visual vibrancy than their forebearers, and the planned origin movie for the Joker, separate from the main canon, could bring real risk to DC. Other projects have been announced, from Ava DuVernay’s hallucinogenic galactic opera New Gods to films featuring Nightwing and Batgirl, but one iconic DC figure remains missing from the picture.
Where’s the Catwoman movie?
Selina Kyle, Gotham’s greatest thief and occasional vigilante, remains one of DC’s most beloved creations. How do you say no to a catsuit wearing criminal with a sharp tongue, sharper claws and the ability to make even Batman go weak at the knees? Fans love her, but TV and movie adaptations of the character have been hit-and-miss. The trio of delights from the Adam West series were pun-tastic treats, while Michelle Pfeiffer’s manic burlesque act of fever and instability in Tim Burton's Batman Returns revived Selina for a new age. Then there was Halle Berry’s Catwoman, a movie so disastrous that it essentially killed female-led superhero movies for a generation—and yes, it’s as bad as you remember. Selina isn’t even Catwoman in that one (she would never sink so low as to rubbing catnip across her face or playing basketball with Benjamin Bratt). Anne Hathaway’s sultry Selina in The Dark Knight Rises is the most underrated Catwoman in cinema, but the film has no idea what to do with her—even as Hathaway gives it all she has. Clearly, there’s room for more Selina in DC’s cinematic universe.
Right now, DC could use Selina, and it could use a refreshing change of pace from its current overstuffed sagas. Let Gotham breathe for a moment and tell a story with its boots firmly on the ground.
Fortunately, there’s a great run in the comics for just that purpose.
Genevieve Valentine’s Catwoman made Selina fresh and urgent for a new age. Having stepped away from the cat ears and casual thievery, Selina finds herself as the new head of the Calabrese crime family. It’s one thing to be a lone wolf (or cat) in the world of crime, but to be the leader of an entire syndicate is its own terrifying problem. Never one to resist a challenge, Selina decides to unite the various factions of Gotham’s underworld under one roof and use their respective powers to make the city a better place. An admirable idea, of course, but not one that her enemies want to see become reality. If that wasn’t stressful enough, she must also put up with a nosey Batman constantly trying to check up on her and a Catwoman impostor taking on Gotham’s thugs.
Valentine’s run isn’t just a Catwoman story; it’s a brilliant piece of crime fiction that shows the work that goes into maintaining an ugly and corrupt city when the Bat’s away. Deals must be made, alliances formed and broken, bribes paid off, purchases made, and problems dealt with. We’ve seen so little of Gotham City in the new films, and it seems such a waste to overlook the labyrinthine mysteries of its underworld.
Selina is not naïve of the realities of her new occupation, yet the price of it weighs heavily on her conscience. That’s not to say she isn’t good at what she does, because Selina can be ruthlessly efficient when the occasion calls for it. Rarely do we see women in pop culture so thoroughly dominate the world of crime in such a manner. Seeing that world be Gotham City, one so many of us are keenly familiar with, makes it all the more fun. Selina rules with feminine fury, quoting Lucretia Borgia and Elizabeth I as her historical ascendents. We see power as a woman's pursuit in a man's world through Kyle's ambition: she may have to occasionally play by men's rules, but she possesses wit and perspective they'll always underestimate.
Everyone puts their own spin on Selina when they write her, but it’s Valentine’s that feels the most layered and daring. We don’t even see her in her catsuit for most of the first trade paperback – she’s officially hung up her whip – but the inner conflict remains. Selina craves the seeming simplicity of casual thievery and the solitude it brings (that is, whenever Batman isn’t turning up uninvited to meddle). Yet she cannot deny the thrall of power. Being in charge is exciting, even with the increased responsibilities, and the potential to do some good in the world is tough to ignore. The ultimate price of that is its own problem, and Valentine perfectly captures her internal battles. This is also the Catwoman run that confirmed Selina’s bisexuality, having her kiss her enemy (and rival Catwoman) Eiko Hasigawa. If you thought her romance with Batman was complicated, wait for this. The sheer rarity of well-written, non-exploitative or stereotypical bisexual characters in pop culture is its own exhausting problem, and Valentine’s offering is the perfect antidote to that.
What makes Valentine’s run so exciting is that it explores the world of Gotham beyond the heroes and villains we expect to find lurking across rooftops in colourful outfits. Here, the villains are pragmatic but ruthless, scary but still mundane in a way that feels all too realistic. Crime families are just doing business, and occasionally that means doing nice things for the city, further muddying the waters that neatly divide good and evil. Selina wants to rise above the fray, but she can’t escape the way this world works if she wants to thrive in it. This would so be so much less exciting than whatever Batman is getting up to with the Joker, yet it never feels staid or derivative. Take out Catwoman and you’d still have a striking crime-noir that stands on its own two feet.
The DCEU could use some old-school crime stories. They could benefit from more layered, complex and not-exactly-heroic female characters, and they could seriously do with some narratives that have nothing to do with whatever the Justice League is up to. Sure, they could bring Selina into that world if need be—but when she’s so good on her own, why bother?
And if we may make a suggestion — get Karyn Kusama to direct, let Genevieve Valentine adapt her own comics, and cast either Ruth Negga or Elizabeth Debicki as Selina. You’re welcome!