Friday, October 15, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Fifteen and Sixteen: The Cat and the Claw

Plot: Trying to protect a stretch of wildlife, Catwoman discovers a terrorist cell led by Red Claw, and reluctantly teams up with Batman to stop them.

As a character, Catwoman's as old as the Joker (both dating to Batman #1) and has had as many different interpretations over the years. While she's always a thief, morally she's ranged from purely selfish motives to a more Robin Hood approach to being basically a female Batman. Sometimes she works completely solo, other times she's the head of a gang of crooks. Sometimes she fights Batman in a dress and cape, sometimes in leather bondage gear, sometimes in a catsuit that actually looks reasonable for climbing around the sides of buildings. Sometimes she's perfectly sane, and sometimes she's batshit crazy. Sometimes she's purely adversarial to Batman, sometimes she's his partner, and usually these some romantic tension between them. 

The Animated Series Catwoman basically split the difference on most of these issues. This Catwoman steals from the rich to give to the kitties, placing her on just the wrong side of moral alignment. Selina has a secretary, Maven, who apparently lives with her , as well as a lawyer, but her only accomplice on her crimes is her cat Isis. Catwoman can also, apparently, talk to cats, including a mountain lion . She wears a form fitting bodysuit, but it's not the stitched together leather outfit from Batman Returns, though she has taken Michelle Pfeiffer's blonde hair (in all other versions, Selina Kyle has black hair). And unlike the Joker and the Penguin, this episode is explicitly the first time Batman and Catwoman have met. 

I just wish these episodes were better. The Catwoman parts are great, really. Musically and visually, they recall Hitchcock films (especially the car chase in Part II) with snappy patter masking mounting tension. Batman and Catwoman are immediately flirting, even as they are leaping off rooftops, both shocked and pleased that they can keep up with each other. The first act chase is delightful, and ends with a great moment copped from Batman: Year One, Batman risking his life to save a cat. 

The double duel identies set up a beautifully complicated love... triangle? Quadrangle? Basically, Bruce Wayne is immediately infatuated with Selina Kyle (we even get to see Bruce blush), but Catwoman only has time for Batman, and neither side knows the true identity of the other. You have to let your disbelief suspend a bit for the usual secret identity questions (don't they recognize each other's voice? or chin?) but it's a fun dynamic, especially since we never see Bruce have to pursue anyone else in the series. 

And when Batman rejects Catwoman explaining that "the thing between us" is "the law" (a line so painful even Catwoman winces), we get a nice reminder that she is a bad guy because she throws him off a building even though he JUST SAVED HER LIFE.

The problem with the episodes is entirely in the "claw" part of The Cat and the Claw. Another Batman: the Animated Series original (though she bares a passing resemblance to the villain Chesire), Red Claw just isn't that interesting. She's called a "terrorist," (and kudos to the show for using that term in a cartoon), but we don't know her cause at all. Her only demands are money. She's very taken with herself being a terrorist who is also a woman (which Batman dismisses with the line "I'm an equal opportunity crimefighter"), but aside from being a woman, there's nothing else to her character. At all. Just Cobra Commander with an exposed shoulder.

She's there to contrast with Catwoman (Batman's match who is a woman), but she's such a strawman that nothing is really said. Maybe they should have used the female villain they've already established, Poison Ivy. Like Ivy, Catwoman is motivated by environmental concerns. Like Harvey Dent, Bruce Wayne throws himself into his relationship with Selina without much thought. However, Catwoman is entirely sincere in her beliefs, while Ivy destroys the plants she's trying to save to kill Batman. And Selina is mostly sane. When a company tries to buy the land she's trying to protect, Selina threatens to sue, to bring down every environmental group on them, and finds evidence that they're lying to the public. Poison Ivy, on the other hand, waits five years and then poisons the man who had the idea for the building, over a rosebush she's already saved. Catwoman would have been much better defined with a stronger character for contrast.

Also, this story didn't need to be two episodes long. More happens in 20 minutes of Heart of Ice than happens in 40 minutes here. (Unfair comparison? More happens in The Underdwellers than happens here). Really, I wish the first Catwoman episode was entirely about Batman and Catwoman. Surely that story could have been written.

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