In the second Batman movie directed by Tim Burton, Batman faces not one but three villains: a corrupt businessman, the Penguin, and Catwoman.
Like Batman, Batman Returns includes actors popular from the time period, in this case, the early nineties: Christopher Walken, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michael Keaton.
The successful businessman, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), schemes to build a power plant for the future, though Gotham City is not facing and will not face a power shortage. In fact, the power plant is a front to suck the energy from Gotham City. The mayor—as well as Bruce Wayne, laws, and common sense—stand in the way of his nefarious plot. Shreck befriends the Penguin, running him as a mayoral candidate in a recall of the sitting mayor.
Catwoman continues a societal critique that Vicky Vale’s character started in Batman, reflecting the changing view of women in society. Catwoman represents the new woman who challenges the status quo and men. She is literally the product of the sexist attitudes of men who ignore women and see them as dispensable, stupid, and as objects.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays the mousy secretary to Max Shreck. After speaking up in an important meeting, Selina is ridiculed (“my secretary isn’t housebroken”) and then ignored—the stereotypical treatment of women in the male-dominated society of the early 1990s.
Her transformation into Catwoman is a transformation of the role of women. Initially Selina is the damsel in distress that Batman saves and the jilted lover than laments not letting her boyfriend win at racquetball.
As Catwoman, she is no longer soft-spoken; she takes control. In a battle with Batman, she matches him blow for blow, cashing in at the male inability to fight back. (Men aren’t supposed to hit women.) She also attempts to dominant him sexually.
The men in Batman Returns play the traditional roles, from the Penguin who is irate at interpreting the Catwoman as leading him on and then shunning him to Bruce Wayne who tries to save he women he encounters only for the women to end up dead or “deeply resentful”. The role of women is no longer to be the plaything of men or the damsel to be saved.
Catwoman is depicted as a woman gone bad, and by extension feminists or women who challenge societal bounds are being told to go back to being good. Out of the three villains, Catwoman is the one who got away…with one life left out of the nine she had.
I did not expect the Batman movies to be such societal commentary on the role of women and the relations between men and women. The movies are an intriguing look back at changes to both in the late ’80s and early ’90s.