Happy Dark Knight Rises Day! While the rest of the world goes insane debating the merits of the film, Jeremiah Lawson soldiers on with the real Bat-event of the century, his Agony of Loss and Madness of Desire series, detailing the equally if not more profound depiction of Gotham and its curious inhabitants found in Batman: The Animated Series. Maybe if we’re super nice, we can convince him to share his thoughts on the Nolan films as well… [UPDATE: We’ve just heard about the horrific shooting in Colorado. We hope that you will join us in praying for the victims and their families and everyone else involved today.]

PART 5: AT NIGHT ALL CATS ARE GRAY

C. Finding the Right Shade of Gray – Catwoman’s Awkward Place in Gotham City

Just as no vision of Batman is complete without the Joker, no vision of Gotham is complete without Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman. Neither a heroic crusader like the Dark Knight nor a crazed sociopath like the Joker, there is nothing black-and-white about Catwoman. She exists instead in her own realm of gray, honest enough for Batman to trust her in a time of crisis, but deceitful enough for him to doubt her motives even when she’s on her best behavior.

For a show like Batman: The Animated Series, which did so much to blur the lines between good and bad characters, Catwoman might have seemed like a natural fit. Yet even looking back (20 years!), Catwoman is the weak link in the show. There was no “Heart of Ice” for Selina Kyle. Worse yet, she appeared in some of worst episodes of the entire series, such as the widely reviled “Tyger, Tyger”. None of this was the fault of Adrienne Barbeau, whose sultry voice was perfect for Selina Kyle. So how did Catwoman manage to be so much less than the sum of her parts?

There were a number of crucial problems in storytelling early on that can be summed up in a single observation: the writers took too long to find the right shade of gray for Catwoman. Pun intended. In the earliest episodes, for example, her shade was far too light; the two-part “The Cat and the Claw” gives us a Catwoman who spends far more time establishing her sincerity as an advocate for wildlife than burgling diamonds. No sooner has she appeared than she is helping Batman fight off the terrorist network of Red Claw. (When Red Claw is revealed to be a woman, the irony is as perfunctory and pat now as it was twenty years ago).

This is not to say there weren’t compelling elements to the animated Catwoman. In middle of the grim post-Frank Miller period, when writers were obsessed with casting Selina Kyle as adamaged former prostitute, it was refreshing to watch a more happy-go-lucky Selina Kyle. The writers of BTAS actually positioned her as the glamorous female counterpart to the decadent socialite Bruce Wayne was pretending to be. Bidding $10,000 just to go on a single date with Bruce Wayne is nothing if not lavish and absurd. These were the small moments where Selina was interesting, her hedonism simultaneously attracting and repelling Bruce, who realizes that Selina is attracted to Batman but can never think of his wealthy alter ego as more than a friend. It’s a compelling little love triangle in a show that wasn’t exactly known for romance.

An early and unfortunate storytelling mistake was having Batman turn Catwoman over to the authorities. If Selina could no longer be Catwoman without facing decades in prison, what was the point of even having her on the show? Subsequently, Selina tended show up in episodes just to save Batman (or be saved by him)–always avoiding a life of crime. She might save Batman from the Joker in “Almost Got `im” but next times she’d be the damsel in distress caught up in the tedious schemes of also-ran villains like Professor Milo (“Cat Scratch Fever”) or Emile Dorian (“Tyger, Tyger”). Selina Kyle badly needed to be written in a darker shade of gray. It sometimes seemed that even Selina Kyle couldn’t believe she was as heroic as the writers had been making her out to be.

Apart from her perfectly calibrated role in the third act of “Almost Got `im,” the first flicker of real life for Catwoman doesn’t arrive until “Catwalk”. The episode finds Selina Kyle feeling imprisoned by her law-abiding life. She realizes her real self is not the noble crusader or the law-abiding citizen but the adventurous thief. When Arnold Wesker, AKA the Ventriloquist (more about him in Part 6), has his goons kidnap Selina so he can offer her a jewel heist job, she can’t resist. Selina makes sure that her return to Catwoman is on her own terms and in a way she can handle, not realizing that the Ventriloquist has been playing her as a patsy for his own schemes. Catwoman soon figures this out, but of course, before she can take action, Batman intervenes. She settles for destroying Wesker’s dummy, Scarface.

When Wesker pleads that Scarface isn’t actually him but another person, Catwoman replies, “But he’s inside you somewhere and I’m going to keep scratching until I find him.”

“Don’t make it harder on yourself.” Batman interjects.

“He cost me my freedom.” Catwoman replies.

“No, you gave it up.”

Catwoman has managed to foil the Ventriloquist and put an end to the plans of one of the most dangerous criminals in Gotham, but she has done so for the purely selfish reason of exonerating herself (in her own eyes). In other words, she’s managed to do something heroic by accident and for the wrong motive. We are finally looking at the right shade of gray for Gotham’s best thief.

Needless to say, it will be interesting to see which shade Christopher Nolan and Anne Hathaway have gone with… It’s just too bad Catwoman was never given a story in BTAS as disturbing or memorable as Poison Ivy’s “House and Garden” or, for that matter, Harley Quinn’s “Mad Love”.

Next Up: Harley Quinn!