I’ve long wanted to see 2004’s Catwoman because it is so often cited, along with Elektra, as one of the low grossing films that has somehow magically ruined it for everyone who wants to see more strong women in action films. I say “magically” because as we know, rarely has a low grossing film with a man in the lead caused Hollywood to stop making that kind of movie.
After seeing it, I was almost willing to agree that if banning women from lead roles in action films could prevent a movie this bad from being made in the future, I was willing to accept that trade off. Then I watched the 1994 Street Fighter with Jean-Claude Van Damme and I realized this hypothetical deal would not protect me anyway.
My friends, the problem here is not that women can’t lead an action film. The problem is that there aren’t enough women leading action films for any of them to be this awful. Wooden dialogue, flimsy plot devices, wretched “acting” by both Halle Berry and Sharon Stone, and an atmosphere that’s much more sexy dance music video than action film: that’s what Catwoman offers us. That would be fine if there were five other good films in 2004 with women in action roles, but there weren’t.
The movie uses a similar Catwoman origin story to 1992’s Batman Returns, where the oppressed woman is killed by her crooked boss and comes back to life better, faster, and stronger. But whereas Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is downtrodden and miserable, Berry’s Patience Phillips is just… what? A little shy? Working in a well paying job in a creative role and painting on the side at home, instead of being a full time artist? The object of a cute policeman’s affection? Enjoying the blessing of close friends and a nice apartment? The worst things in her life are that her next door neighbors throw loud parties and her boss yells at people. Nothing in the setup shows me one reason in the world why she doesn’t just a) move and b) find a new job. Her life is fine.
Once she is resurrected by some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen, the newly minted Catwoman’s experience of her powers is a mix of discovering new abilities and involuntary behaviors that make her look completely ridiculous. I couldn’t help comparing her to Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. As I recall, the comedic moments that came along with his transition from geek to superhero were either his attempts to master his powers that failed (web don’t work go boom), or his geeky teenage “I’m so badass” posing as he realizes what has happened. His “slip ups” are when he accidentally reveals his physical prowess… which is very different from compulsively eating 12 cans of tuna with your fingers.
As Patience becomes more Catwoman, she definitely changes. Her first incarnation is dressed more like Selene from Underworld. Yes, sexy, but not Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire sexy. In the ideal Heroine Content world, Catwoman could still be curvy, sexy, dangerous, and even skinny with big boobs. Those types of heroines are fine… as long as within the set of action films that have women kicking ass, there is a wide variety of other types of heroine as well. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Until it does, memo to Hollywood, WE DO NOT NEED ANY MORE “ACTION” HEROINES THAT DRESS LIKE HOOKERS. It’s been done, and overdone, and while you’re at it, can you have whoever designed the costume for this film FIRED? Seriously. It’s just not possible to take her seriously when she’s wearing a mess of fake bandoliers, a bra that looks barely held on by a string, and pants with “scratches” that pretend to show skin. Until after her jailbreak, the music for her fight scenes is dance music, not fight music. This is not an action movie, people. It’s a music video with a woman pretending to fight because it looks cool.
Grace and I have discussed several times the drought of female villains, even in action films with female leads. Sharon Stone’s Laurel Hedare is one of the few, but I wish she wasn’t. To have Catwoman’s opponent be a model whose skin has been made invulnerable by a toxic beauty product is almost more than I can stand.
If there were 10 films a year with women who supposedly kick ass, we could afford something like this, but it’s just a slap in the face and an extra hurdle to overcome in changing the culture. No stars.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.