The Discount Spinner Rack: CATWOMAN (2004)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Next up on the Rack: the most accursed DC film to shame the silver screen… 2004’s Catwoman!

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Like most true artistic disasters, Catwoman started its long journey to the silver screen with the best of intentions behind it.

It all started with Tim Burton’s sophomore venture into the world of comic books: Batman Returns, released in 1992. Not quite the box office bonanza or pop cultural juggernaut its predecessor was, Returns proved to be fairly divisive– disappointing die-hard fans and upsetting parents, yet still ranking in $162 million domestically on an $80 million budget. But whether you liked the film’s bleak Germanic freak show vibes or not (for the record, I think it’s a brilliant movie NOW, but I hated it as a kid), one thing almost EVERYONE agreed on was that Michelle Pfeiffer’s twisted, joyfully disturbed take on Selina Kyle/Catwoman was amazing. The buzz around the character was SO strong, in fact, that when Tim Burton dropped out of doing the third Batman movie, he and Pfeiffer signed on to direct and star in a Catwoman solo spin-off. Screenwriter Daniel Waters (Batman Returns) began work on a script in 1993, developing a bizarre story with Burton that would delve deeper into the fractured psyche of a now-amnesiac Selena Kyle as she recovered from her injuries in Oasisberg– a Palm Springs-esq resort run by superheroes. The script Waters delivered to Warner Bros. in 1995 was darkly comic, deconstructionist, and adult, just like Batman Returns had been… but unfortunately, it had been finished up just in time for Batman Forever‘s massive success to convince Warner Bros. that maybe making a darker, adult-skewing comic-book movie wasn’t such a good idea1.

With that, the film tumbled into the deep and hoary pits of Development Hell. Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer departed the film shortly after the script was rejected, and Waters joined them before long… but the project limped onward, kept on life support by producer Denise DiNovi (the one and only carry-over from the Batman Returns crew). In 2001, Ashley Judd had become attached to star, and things seemed to be moving forward… but by that point the Batman franchise had crashed and burned, the Tim Burton Superman Lives project had been cancelled, and Warner Bros. seemed reluctant to pull the trigger on yet another comic book movie that could potentially cost them millions. Judd eventually dropped out of the project too, and it seemed all but a forgone conclusion that Catwoman would never see the light of day.

… (sigh)… And then Spider-Man happened.

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So Sam Raimi’s genre-defining blockbuster smashes into theaters in the summer of 2002 and makes $800-f%$#ing-million worldwide, and whaddaya know– suddenly Warner Bros. remembers that they have a superhero project sitting on the backburner, and they throw $100 million at it to get the thing in theaters a.s.a.p.2 The final script was assembled by the team of John Brancato & Michael Ferris (writers of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and Terminator Salvation) and John Rogers (co-writer of The Core), working off a screen story developed by Theresa Rebeck (a, uh, pretty legit playwright and television writer). DiNovi would turn to French visual-effects-supervisor-turned-director Pitof3 to bring the movie to the screen– a man with a single feature film on his resume, whose most notable work before that was shooting second-unit photography on Alien Resurrection.

But it wasn’t until the lead role was cast that the film began to come together. Taking on the leather-clad, bullwhip-wielding mantle of Catwoman would be Halle Berry, fresh from playing badass Bond girl Jinx in Die Another Day and going through her second tour of (horribly miscast) duty as Storm in X2. And mind you, this is Berry at the HEIGHT of her stardom; she was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, and was only three years removed from having won Best Actress for her role in Monster’s Ball in 2001 (to this say, she is the ONLY black woman to have ever won the award). Signing Berry to the part was a big deal, and once she was in place, the rest of the film coalesced in lightning time. But after nine years of development and a complete change in creative team, could Catwoman come together to be the hit that Warner Bros. was clearly banking on it to be?

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… What do YOU think?!

IN THIS ISSUE: Three male screenwriters and a male director try to make a superhero movie “for the ladies“, and it turns out exactly like you’d expect. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To begin with, if you know anything at all about Catwoman as a character, you might as well just forget it. Halle Berry isn’t playing Selina Kyle– neither the comic-book version, nor even the complex, damaged Pfeiffer version. No, Berry is playing a whole new character created for the film named Patience Phillips (because ALL superhero names have to be alliterative, right?4). Patience is a meek and mild-mannered graphic designer who ends up learning a terrible secret about her employers, and gets killed because of it. However, just like Michelle Pfeiffer before her, Patience is brought back to life by a group of cats (a creepy and largely symbolic scene in Batman Returns, taken at absolute face value by the filmmakers of this production) and sets out to seek revenge for her own murder. But there’s a twist: her resurrection has granted Patience all the powers and abilities of… wait for it… A CAT!

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Cat-Wo-man, Cat-Wo-man, does whatever a house-cat can…

Yes, this film takes the “Spider-Man Clone” approach by giving its Catwoman all the proportional strength, speed, agility, senses, and reflexes of her namesake, so that her C.G.I. stunt double can run and leap across the rooftops for several minutes of trailer-friendly screentime. But unlike geeky Peter Parker, who thankfully only inherited the physical abilities of spiders, Patience also ends up taking on the behavior of cats, too– so suddenly, she hates water, she starts hissing at dogs, and she scarfs down several giant cans of tuna and platters of sushi with reckless abandon. It’s a cute conceit that gets hammered so deep into the ground that Berry practically strikes oil by film’s end.

To be fair, Berry actually isn’t half bad as Patience Phillips. She sells the charming, sweet persona well, and I actually did find myself liking her for the first half of the film. But as disarmingly cheery as Berry is to begin with, she is just an absolutely awful Catwoman. Berry vamps and struts and puts on as big of a show as she can manage, and coupled with all the cat puns and the obvious jokes (“Cat got your tongue?” she quips while pinching a guy’s tongue with her claws), the character becomes borderline unbearable to watch. Not helping matters is her awful costume: a bafflingly skimpy push-up bra/shredded leather pants combo with a hideous mask, open-toed high heels, and clawed leather opera gloves. It’s basically the least practical outfit you could possibly want to wear into a fight, but hey– as costume designer Angus Straithe put it, at least it makes her look like a “sexy warrior goddess”.

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If only she could have kept THIS costume for the whole movie…

The villains’ subplot is where this film REALLY tries to shine, though. Y’see, the evil corporation that Patience works for? The one with the big, nasty secret that they killed her over? Well, that corporation… is a COSMETICS COMPANY.

Oh, yes. You see, Hedare Beauty is a gigantic and successful cosmetics company run by a stuffy French douchebag (played by Lambert Wilson, who you may remember as the stuffy French douchebag the Merovingian from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions), and they’re about to release a new beauty cream called Beauline, which not only hides the signs of aging, but supposedly REVERSES them. But as it turns out, Beauline is (gasp!) ADDICTIVE, and long-term exposure to Beauline causes headaches, fainting spells, nausea, and, if you stop using it, catastrophic scarring and skin damage. Patience overhears all of this, but doesn’t know who KNOWS about it… so she just assumes that it’s George Hedare (Wilson) who’s covering it up. As it turns out, though, the REAL villain behind the Beauline cover-up… is his wife, Laurel Hedare, who’s played by SHARON STONE. And really, if you wanted to create ANY sort of tension as to who the actual bad guy of the movie is, casting Stone kind of gives the whole game away5.

Thing is, Laurel is ALMOST an interesting character. She’s the neglected wife of the C.E.O. and the former “face” of Hedare Beauty, forced out as the company’s head model and replaced by an eighteen year old (who her husband isn’t too subtle about having an affair with). She’s a woman who’s been chewed up and spit out by an industry and a society that prizes looks over all, and is desperate to hide from the inevitable effects of time. Better still, she’s been using Beauline for YEARS, and she’s the beneficiary of its one final side effect: if you KEEP using it, it turns your skin into “living marble”, meaning that she’s super strong and durable… but she can’t feel anything (which justifies the inevitable climactic fight between her and Catwoman, and it’s exactly as silly as it sounds). THAT, as a form of comic book symbolism, is actually really clever; in trying to stay perfect and youthful, she’s grown cold and hardened (quite literally). She’s given up her HUMANITY to maintain the beauty and perfection demanded by the world, so when they try to push her out, she just pushes right back… and HARD. It sounds great on paper… but in execution, Stone comes across as a mustache-twirling caricature, and the whole cosmetics angle comes across as a cheap ploy to appeal to female audiences (because movies aimed at women HAVE to revolve around beauty and girly things, right?).

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Hey, at least it was more dignified than Basic Instinct 2.

And that’s probably the biggest problem with Catwoman: it plays at offering an empowering story for women to aspire to, and then proceeds to indulge in every pandering broad stereotype (no pun intended) it can come up with. Patience has a sassy fat friend (played by a seriously wasted Alex Borstein) and a flamboyant gay friend who coach her through hooking up with a dude. That dude, Detective Tom Lone6, is your basic ruggedly-handsome Prince Charming-type, as played by Benjamin Bratt. He’s super into chivalry, declares himself “taken” after two dates… the guy is shameless romance novel-fodder. The romance takes up about half the movie, and it’s clear that Lone’s “law and order” routine while going after Catwoman is supposed to replace the missing Batman dynamic from Batman Returns, but it just doesn’t work because he’s so incredibly bland. And speaking of Catwoman, she’s obviously supposed to be the platonic ideal of a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a man (which is why she dumps Benjamin Bratt at the end), but the film is CONSTANTLY ogling her as she struts around in an outfit that would make a stripper blush. Her introduction as a superhero is a 360-degree revolving shot that lingers on her ass AND her cleavage before getting anywhere NEAR her face! For a movie that was clearly aimed at a female audience, why do they objectify the hero like this?

I guess it all just comes down to the director, Pitof (ugh). The guy’s shooting style is like a cross between Michael Bay and a Revlon commercial. The camera is ALWAYS moving, and almost always outfitted with a wide-angle (or “fish-bowl”) lens… which means that whenever he brings it close to an actor’s face (which he does a LOT), they fill the frame with their bulbous, distorted visage– a technique you see quite frequently in French cinema, for some reason. But maybe the director’s style wouldn’t grate so much if the EDITOR weren’t trying to cram in every single angle that the director shot from for every single scene. This film is chopped to RIBBONS. The cuts all happen arbitrarily, and they keep the imagery so frenetic during even the quieter scenes that the movie is… well, it’s exhausting to try to watch.

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Keep in mind: these four cuts all happen during the delivery of a SINGLE LINE OF DIALOGUE.

IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: No. No no no no no.

… Well, okay… MAYBE. If you have criminally low standards, and you’re okay with a movie that plays into the damaging gender roles that hold back the women it purports to “empower”, and you don’t care if it’s a transparent rip-off of a far better movie, and you don’t MIND that the main character is nothing like her printed namesake, and…

… Actually, never mind. Let’s stick with “no”.

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Even Michelle Pfeiffer’s still photo wants nothing to do with this movie.

DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.05 (RUN!!!)

FAVORITE BITS:

  1. B-Ball: Early in the film, there’s a one-on-one basketball scene between Benjamin Bratt and Halle Berry that is so horribly edited and nauseatingly filmed, it’s genuinely shocking. This scene an apotheosis of everything that’s just terrible about this movie, from the cheesy pop R&B song playing throughout to the flagrant abuse of the wide-angle lens in every… single… shot. Yet it’s so bad… it’s almost hypnotic. Seriously, go watch it on YouTube and see if your eyes can even keep up with all the stupid.
  2. The Lips Have It: In what has to be the absolute gold standard of brain-dead plot developments, Detective Lone finally proves that Patience Phillips is Catwoman… by comparing a lip-print taken off her drinking glass to a lipstick print Catwoman left on his cheek during their first encounter. This analysis is accomplished in a high-tech crime lab, where the computer tells us that the lip-prints have a “99.9% Match Probability”. This… this isn’t just dumb… this is insane. I seriously have to wonder how much cocaine had to be snorted to get to this particular story point.
  3. Cat-Women Throughout the Ages: Yeah, this is another crappy comic book movie with a genuinely well done opening credits sequence. This one begins with a montage of still images depicting Bast statues from Egypt, cat imagery, and some slickly done mock-ups of historical “cat-women” (a knight, an Egyptian, a trapeze artist, and, of course, a cat burglar) to give us a sense of the lineage of Catwomen throughout history. It’s a clever way to introduce the concept, and the artwork is all very well done… it’s a shame that the movie itself doesn’t come close to living up to it.
  4. This F%$#in’ Line: So the day after Catwoman’s big jewelry heist, Detective Lone and a bunch of cops are taking stock of the crime scene. And then in the background, we hear THIS gem of dialogue:

    “Thieves say she jumped around like a cat. What should we call her? ‘Cat Chick’? No, no– ‘Cat Broad’! Heh heh heh!”

    … The f%$# were the screenwriters THINKING with this clunky piece of on-the-nose misogyny? This movie is set in 2004, for Christ’s sake, yet this line sounds like it came out of a gin-joint in Prohibition-era Chicago!

  5. Graceful Winner: Catwoman was one of the most critically reviled movies of 2004, earning seven nominations at the Razzies that year. When Halle Berry “won” the Razzie for Worst Actress, however, she actually arrived in person to accept it—making her the only third person to do so, after Paul Verhoeven in 1996 and Tom Green in 1998. She took to the stage holding her Best Actress Academy Award for Monster’s Ball from 2001, and said:

    “First of all, I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of shit, god-awful movie… It was just what my career needed.”

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Hey, if they’re gonna take you down, least you can do is go down swingin’!

NEXT TIME: Today may be St. Patrick’s Day, but next week we REALLY go green as we dive into the familial psychodrama and cartoon poodle-smashing of Ang Lee’s forgotten oddity, Hulk!