The “femme fatale” is a classic trope of hardboiled fiction and film noir that’s been repeated in spy movies, erotic thrillers and the occasional action comedy. The character archetype or trope is typified by a woman using her physical attractiveness and allure to manipulate men that they would otherwise be at the mercy of, due to their physical presence or personal status. “Femme fatale” has become a sort of catch-all term for dangerous women in the fabric of cinematic storytelling conventions because they are simple, easy to duplicate and familiar to audiences, even though ideas about sex and gender have evolved over the last century.
In the 90s, Batman Returns (1992) and Batman & Robin (1997) surprised parents and children by confronting them with sly and humorous takes on sexuality. The older movie is in many ways the cinematic ideal of Batman — dark and gothic, fantastic and silly, romantic and tragic but fun; a movie featuring Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in latex with a whip. However, Batman & Robin — Joel Schumacher’s paean to the camp of William Dozier’s 60s series and the 1966 film directed by Leslie H. Martinson — is the movie that I watched more during my childhood. Bashful and self-serious Bat-fans are quick to dismiss Schumacher’s continuity while praising adaptations by Christopher Nolan or even Zack Snyder; a foolish commitment to escapism that drives a need for “realistic” and super-heroic depictions.
No live-action Batman romance has matched the intense chemistry between Michael Keaton and Pfeiffer’s characters in Batman Returns. While Anne Hathaway and Zoë Kravitz deliver admirable Selina Kyle performances in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and The Batman (2022), their respective connections to Christian Bale’s crypto-fascist Caped Crusader and Robert Pattinson’s incel investigator don’t match up. As a love interest, Kravitz’s character doesn’t entirely make sense, as noted in a Screen Slate podcast episode in which Dr. Ayanna Dozier points out that Selina appears to be mourning her lesbian lover when she’s drawn into Batman’s crusade. But “making sense” isn’t the defining characteristic of Batman. More importantly, there’s a distance to Bruce Wayne and Selina’s relationship that does indeed make sense within the dynamics of the story, even though it doesn’t equal or top the passionate heights of Burton’s 1992 film. In The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway’s Selina learns about Bruce’s secret identity after betraying Batman to the fundamentalist terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy). She is never quite as close to Batman, but they do vacation together in the final scenes.
The relationship between Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Keaton’s Batman has an intense entry point. They meet after a department store explosion and eventually trade scarring blows during a rooftop fight. On a date at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Selina repeatedly come close to revealing their physical scars as physical attraction draws them closer. An exchange of words from evening fisticuffs gets repeated while the two are dancing in close embrace at a masquerade party. They regretfully realize one another’s secret identities, with Pfeiffer asking through teary eyes, “Does this mean we have to start fighting?” Batman and Catwoman are on missions to stop the same crooks, led by different methods and motivations. Later, as Catwoman is on the precipice of vengeance and death, Batman rips off his rubber mask and begs her to come with him. He is justifiably enraged, as Selina’s focus is split between Batman and the mutual enemy that tried to kill her, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). “Let’s take him to the police and then we can go home together,” Batman says. “Don’t you see? We’re the same. Split right down the center.” Good Catwoman adaptations have been made over years, but the central romances haven’t matched Batman Returns.
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Burton crafted his neo-gothic style with editor Chris Lebenzon, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, writer Daniel Waters and composer Danny Elfman, along with production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) and art directors Tom Duffield and Rick Heinrichs. They present a formidable Batman foe and a possible partner who is tightly wound into Mary Vogt’s custom costume. Selina begins as a slightly-frazzled executive assistant, her psyche cracked when she’s pushed out a window by her boss. After being licked alive by stray cats, Pfeiffer’s character awakens with a spirit of vengeance. Catwoman arouses Batman, while the enlivened Selina captures Bruce’s attention.
Schumacher’s Batman & Robin utilizes Catwoman’s sex appeal quite differently. After Dr. Pamela Isley (Uma Thurman) discovers that a scientist has been using her botanical research to craft a super-soldier serum, she objects to his megalomaniacal pursuits (auctioning “Venom” to military leaders across the world). The mad scientist proceeds to murder Dr. Isley by crushing her under objects in a lab. Thurman’s character resurrects with the power of super-science and kills her boss, and then sets off to Gotham City to make Bruce Wayne answer for briefly funding the research. Dr. Isley — now known as Poison Ivy — offers him a chance at redemption by working to restore the earth. Batman is skeptical, and she is motivated to team up with Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to wipe out humanity after he crashes a forest restoration fundraising gala. The men of Gotham are intrigued by Poison Ivy’s colorful visage and her mind-altering, male-controlling pheromone dust. She’s able to use the magic of movie super-science to turn George Clooney’s Batman and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin against each other. In the film’s final act, Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl tells Poison Ivy that she’s setting women back by “using her feminine wiles.” When compared to other Bruce Waynes on the big screen — recluses and playboys — Clooney’s character seems almost closeted, as his long-time girlfriend (Elle Macpherson as Julie Madison) seems like a half-aware beard.
In Batman & Robin, Julie refers to Bruce as a “confirmed bachelor,” though she wants to spend the rest of her life with him. When Clooney’s character is still entranced by the villain’s neurotoxins, he says “Ivy” after kissing his girlfriend. Thurman’s character is a cis drag queen that kills any man that ingests the poison on her lips; she sets up Robin to be murdered and kisses him, but Batman’s partner wears some sort of pull-away lip cover that catches all the toxins. Poison Ivy is soon thereafter defeated by the disapproving Batgirl, who kicks Thurman’s villain into a person-eating, plant-animal hybrid. Poison Ivy is then detained until the epilogue, whereupon Mr. Freeze meets her in Arkham Asylum to punish her for jealously attempting to kill his comatose wife.
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Burton’s theme of lost or tortured souls brought together by wicked or odd circumstances is one that he repeats in other works. Those connections, like in Beetlejuice, aren’t always romantic. However, Batman Returns features an apt story about a superhero’s most meaningful relationship. A crackling whip and metal claws adds danger to the appeal of Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, whose own traumatic experiences as a vigilante make her a kindred spirit with Batman.
Schumacher and his production team contrast glimmering neon with darkness in Batman & Robin. It’s a brilliant movie in which a woman is punished for playing with her femininity and men wear tight costumes that are described by Poison Ivy as “anatomically accurate spandex.” Schumacher recreates the campy feel of the 1960s Batman series that was crafted as more of a comedy for adults than an adventure for kids. And Thurman’s exaggerated and innuendo-laden performance highlights the ridiculousness of Batman without betraying the fourth wall.
Everyone making a superhero movie understands the dumb and weird nature of the films. The creatives involved often break the fourth wall with character winks, and yet Batman films have mostly avoided that by committing to their worlds. With Batman Returns and Batman & Robin, Burton and Schumacher apply their collaborative and authorial sensibilities to iconic female villains. In both films, professional women risk their careers for a vigilante and seek vengeance against bosses who tried to kill them. Catwoman and Poison Ivy are accessible versions of the femme fatale, a recurring narrative tool in the utility belt of Batman filmmakers.
Kevin Fox, Jr. (@KevinFoxJr) is a freelance writer, editor and film critic. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine and People’s World. He has an MA in history, loves audiovisual entertainment and dreams of liberation.