Friday, August 26, 2011

Thoughts on Catwoman, Noir and Nolan

I'm going to say up front that I am not an aficionado in the Batman comics and in fact have not read them in many years. My opinions are based largely on The Animated Series, the second volume of the Catwoman comic series and the issues of Batman comics I collected back when I still cared. If I say something that seems out of line with things that have been happening in current comics continuity, that's why. I also don't really care since this is essentially about why I liked the things I paid attention to.

Having finally seen a full photo of Anne Hathaway in the Catwoman costume from Nolan's upcoming Batman movie, my feelings are a bit mixed. Not so much about the costume which I'm pretty happy with, but about this film in general. Expectations are so high for it after the success of The Dark Knight and fandom can get itself worked up into a froth over their own versions of what they want the film to be and reality, even if a well-made film, will often be a disappointment by comparison. With so much grumbling about the casting and the costume already starting I don't want any potential disappointment of failure pinned on her for the sake of scapegoating something. It's possible I won't like what they do with her character, or that she'll wind up like Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2-- set dressing with no necessity to the plot whatsoever. I think Nolan is much smarter and more talented than that, but not having seen it I have no idea what he has planned for her.

Except I suspect at some point she rides a motorcycle.

Up front I feel like I should mention that Catwoman is, far and away, my favorite comic book character ever and she has been since before I hit puberty. I recognize that I am very biased when it comes to her and that there is very little probability that I will ever be completely happy with how she's handled from writer to writer because in my head I've taken bits and pieces from her various incarnations and fused them into my personal idea of her most interesting self. Everyone is going to have different views on her and different degrees of investment in her as a character and I try not to let my own ideas color my expectations too much. Doesn't mean it won't happen, but I'm trying to be self-aware about my issues. I'm not going to waste energy fretting about the costume and will reserve my judgement for how they've handled her character.

As much as I enjoyed the campier portrayal in Burton's Batman Returns, I'm very ready for a more complex and grounded view of her; something more than just a mish-mash of tacked-on, superficially "feminist" ideas which must, by decree of the Hollywood formula, be stripped of validity by the end of the film. It's something the crew on Batman: The Animated Series tried to do back in the '90s, although they were severely hampered by broadcast standards and really didn't seem to know what to do with her at all until the end of the series. Judging from her first solo comic book series starring the mediocre art of Jim Balent and the downright crappy movie starring Halle Berry, most people really didn't know what to do with her beyond making her sexy in the laziest ways possible. The Animated Series couldn't even get away with that much, reduced to head-slappingly bad plotlines about animal rights and sexless flirting, with everyone being so darned earnest about everything. They tried, but they just didn't flesh her out as a full enough character, which is too bad considering the amazing things they did with characters like Mr Freeze, Two-Face and the Mad Hatter. They were much more successful with Poison Ivy, whose sexuality came across more easily and whose eco-terrorism was more compelling than Selina's animal rights crusade which just came off as preachy. The show that gave us the wonderfully complex Harley Quinn could only muster a half-hearted effort for the mythos's most well-known and longest-standing female character.

However badly they fumbled her character, I still give props to that show for doing some pretty fine noir for an animated kid's TV show. It wasn't just the dark palate they used (they painted most of the backgrounds on black paper for what they termed the "dark deco" look), the 1940s flavor to the show's design, the heavy use of gangsters and crime plots, or the other superficial elements that leap to mind with film noir; you can have a noir film without the lighting or the mobsters. What they nailed was the moral ambiguity, the fatalism, and the dance with one's own dark urges and criminality that are at the core of the noir genre. For all its stunning black and white cinematography, true noir is all about shades of grey and that's where the Animated Series and Nolan's movies really work for this concept. They get noir. So does Ed Brubaker.

Pretty good example of noir's atmosphere and philosophy.

In 2001, Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke relaunched the Catwoman comic book title with the intent to bring Selina back to this idea, as well as to try and establish a concrete world and back story for her. Too many writers over the decades never seemed to know who she was at her core or what to do with her. Sure she'd been nicknamed the Feline Fatale but at her core she's never been a killer; as a villain she was never on par with the Joker or Two Face since she's never been homicidally insane, or even a zealot like Poison Ivy or Ras al Ghul. So why her staying power? What is it about her that has made her so enduring and iconic? It can't be simply sex appeal since comics have always been brimming with sexy women characters. Why her continued place as a femme fatale when she's never been very ruthless and never been known for killing anyone? Because the very idea of the femme fatale is rooted in male anxiety-- she's dangerous not necessarily because of her intentions or her actions but because of the effect she has on the male protagonist. She is the temptation that leads him to his downfall, either spiritually or physically, whether she did it on purpose or not. She's too alluring and beguiling for him to refuse even though he knows he should, and that's exactly what Selina is to Bruce.
Out of the Past from Kathy's perspective is more like a Lifetime movie of the week.

She isn't insane, she isn't out to hurt anybody, and in many ways they're very similar. They're just compatible enough to be compelling but just different enough in their ideologies and methods to not be able to cross that thin line that divides them. The danger isn't so much that Bruce will go dark and become more ruthless, it's that he'll forget his past and everything that set him on his personal mission, settle down and try his best to be normal. As healthy as it would probably be for him to let go of his inner demons, it's the thing he's built his whole life around (and the whole reason anyone gives a crap about all those comic books, TV shows and movies he's in). There's nothing standing between them except their own issues, so the tension is always there under the surface as they each walk with one foot on that line without ever fully crossing over.

For my money, nobody got that better than Brubaker in his short stint on her book. Not only did he do his best to take what he felt worked for Selina from the different back stories that had been tossed out there after Frank Miller's Year One comic, but he also did his best to ground her character in something more concrete than just a vague idea of sexiness, heist capers and being attracted to Batman. He brought her back to Gotham, gave her a purpose more compelling than just elaborate adventures in exotic locations, and rooted her in something solid and believable. A lot of people take umbrage at the idea of her having been a prostitute in her younger days; admittedly it wasn't my favorite choice and it's one of my many issues with Frank Miller's take on her character (or most of his female characters). But Brubaker took it and gave it a purpose in her overall story instead of letting it exist simply for the sake of being dark or titillating. This gave her much higher personal stakes than if she'd been a bored socialite or the daughter of a crime boss or even a runaway orphan. It explains why she can't see the world in black and white the way Bruce does, why she can't bring herself to cross that line between them and why we should care about what she's managed to build from her life. Bruce is a character that has defined himself by one incident and built his life around it using all the advantages he had at his disposal. Selina doesn't have one single character-defining moment in her history and what she has was built by herself from nothing. She understands criminality and the things people will do to survive in ways Bruce never has because he has never been completely alone or without privilege, respect and pride. For her to cross that dividing line into Bruce's more lawful idea of heroism would take a kind of hypocritical self-denial that Selina's too savvy to trick herself into believing. She can never see the lowest people on society's totem pole as just criminals because she was one of them. She can never work strictly by the law or believe in the criminal justice system because she knows they often fail. For all their similarities and mutual respect and attraction, Bruce and Selina see the world in very different ways. Because of that, they also humanize each other.

Brubaker wrote their relationship as a tantalizing dance between two people who knew each other's secrets, who understood each other in ways no one else did, but who didn't have to come out and say any of it because they liked the dance too much to ruin it with the obvious. It was sexier than any double entendre or moonlit make out scene because he understood that the things that aren't said are far more tantalizing than the things that are. When done right, an exchanged glance or a charged silence can be far sexier than any graphic love scene. He also went out of his way to toss out Bruce's emotionless Machiavellian wish-fulfillment badass persona in favor of writing him as a human damn being, which practically no one else was doing at the time. (See above link for examples.)

That isn't to say Brubaker's run was perfect, there were plenty of things in it I thought could have been improved or were unnecessary. But what he did right, he did damned well, especially in paying attention to the characters, making them unique, flawed, likable people you wanted to read about every month. It didn't feel like a superhero book so much as a mystery/crime story with a few eccentricities. For the first time since the 90s, Selina seemed like a real person, not some idealized, self-obsessed sex goddess who floated through life on her tiptoes. She was someone who was learning from her past mistakes, growing as a character, weighed down by her history and a new sense of maturity and responsibility. She was someone with close emotional ties to people, who remembered where she came from but who had a sense of purpose for the future. They finally let her grow as a person in a way that was believable and made sense with her past. She was someone I could understand at last, and ultimately that's really all I ask for.

Do I think Nolan will use this rather dark personal history for her? Not really, and I'm all right with that. Not sure how the public would take to seeing a less romanticized version of Pretty Woman in their superhero crime thriller, and it seems more likely they'll go with the subplot from The Long Halloween and have her being tied to the Falcone crime family. So long as she's not just some personification of an idea with no further depth beyond her physicality, bad cat jokes and reminding the audience that our hero is an angst-ridden, tragic heterosexual man, I'll be fine with whatever back story they give her. I just want to know there's a real character in there. If they can do that much, then I'll be satisfied.