Directed by Pitof, 2004.
Starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, Benjamin Bratt, Lambert Wilson, Alex Borstein, Frances Conroy.
104 mins.

A hapless young fashion designer stumbles into a web of corporate intrigue and murder – and gets killed herself in the process. Resurrected as Catwoman, she seeks vengeance…

THE SUPERHERO GENRE hasn’t been particularly kind to Halle Berry. Despite her starring in five comic-based productions to date, with a total box office of nearly $2 billion, she’s suffered repeatedly through unmemorable and underwritten roles that failed to make use of her.

Berry played the role of weather-witch Storm in four X-Men films, but the character never had a storyline of her own. Despite Berry’s superstar status and Best Actress Oscar, Storm was always a support act, the character defined only by her screen-searing power displays of wind and lightning – and her ever-changing white wigs.

And so in 2004, Berry went solo, headlining her own comicbook flick in the form of Catwoman, a character with a long and successful history of live-action appearances but no break-out solo movie before.

Rather than a straight-forward adaption, here the iconic anti-hero is retooled to serve as a post-Spider-Man vehicle for Berry, mimicking Tobey Maguire’s zero-to-hero character arc in that movie, even down to the opening and closing voice-overs; and mirroring Michelle Pfieffer’s popular take on the feline fatale in Batman Returns as a mousy employee murdered by her ruthless boss.

The first twenty minutes do a reasonable job of putting the pieces of plot in place; Berry is likeable loser Patience Phillips (not Selina Kyle as per other incarnations), and Sharon Stone’s aging and upstaged supermodel suggests a somewhat conflicted character, at odds with her philandering millionaire mogul of a husband.

Patience runs through a list of loser clichés almost immediately; dowdy, late for work, terrified of her boss, messes up romantic encounters…she even has, ‘Get a life!’ yelled at her by rowdy bikers at a late night party (she’s not attending – she just wants them to turn the music down).

She then metamorphoses from demure to deadly in the kind of joyfully ludicrous manner befitting a comicbook: rushing last-minute blueprints (another loser cliché) to a remote chemical factory, she witnesses some underhanded corporate shenanigans and is subsequently murdered by drowning in a conduit pipe. Washing up onshore she is resurrected by a group of unconvincing CGI tabbies (Batman Returns did this better, and with real cats), and turned into a preening, prowling, whip-cracking creature of the night.

As a character of blurred morality, Patience’s inevitable identity crisis becomes more about self definition than the usual ‘helping-people-vs-personal-life’ conundrum we’re used to in superhero movies (although, again, Batman Returns did this better). Although she delights in her new identity initially, soon she’s in over her head; she’s alarmed by aggressive and sexual desires she never knew she had, and wrongly imprisoned for murder, wondering if this is the life she truly wants.

The evil scheme is the sort of forgettable filler excusable in a monthly comic, but hardly worthy of a $100m big-screen enterprise

But that’s not all; the opening credits run over a montage of cats and cat women throughout history, and a bit of mystical mumbo-jumbo informs us that Patience is the latest in a long-line of feline avatars. She even gets her own mysterious mentor to guide her – think Obi-Wan as a weird cat lady. Donning a mask based on kitty deity Bastet, Patience becomes more than the jewel thief of the comics – she’s a faux-Egyptian cat priestess.

There are undeniably some interesting ideas here. A fashion designer literally redesigning herself, acquiring all the superficial traits idealised women have. With enough mascara and lipstick for a Revlon commercial,  Patience becomes her own muse and model, and the rooftops and alleyways her catwalk (which would be a better name for the film).

Catwoman’s barely-there costume makes sense as the sort of bizarre concoction you’d see at a fashion show or Lady Gaga gig. But it’s so wretched, so ludicrously unsuitable for acrobatics or combat, that it almost stops the film dead every time Berry dons it. Equally her adoption of cat-like physicality and behaviours is  at points flat-out silly, such as when she saunters into a night club and orders a White Russian sans everything but the cream; or hissing aggressively at dogs; or scarfing endless cans of tuna.

The evil scheme regarding toxic face cream – no, really – is the sort of forgettable filler excusable in a monthly comic, but hardly worthy of a $100m big-screen enterprise. It represents a worthy theme – the corrupting nature of the search for beauty at all costs – but one that just hasn’t been incorporated into the plot properly.

Don’t look for solace in the performances either. Patience’s romcom-style sidekicks are irritating at best; Lambert Wilson is wasted as Berry’s one-dimensional ruthless boss; and Bejamin Bratt, as the investigating cop and obligatory love-interest, has little to do but represent Patience’s ideal man. He also takes ages to work out Catwoman’s secret identity is the only black woman in the movie.

Sharon Stone offers a painfully arch villainous performance as fashionista and ex-model Laurel Hedare. You might argue she works here by her very presence; a metatextual comment on her own career as an aging beauty whose star has dimmed as younger women have taken the limelight. Stone is exactly the sort of actress who might have played Catwoman had she been ten years younger, and so represents the inherent doom of both Hollywood and the beauty industry. But she’s still a wooden and ineffective foe, bordering on pantomime.

The fight scenes flop; over-choreographed and edited to death; they probably looked good on storyboards, but in execution they’re completely unrealistic and lack any impact. And how does Patience know Brazilian martial art capoeira all of a sudden? Surely that doesn’t come with cat-resuscitation? The special effects are no better: awkward CGI versions of Berry are all too common, leaping and swinging around the scenery in a way that only emphasises their rubbery-looking nature.

The climactic confrontation sees Catwoman enter Stone’s HQ, and proceed to smash her through huge canvasses of her old modelling photos, literally destroying her image of herself. Interesting conceptually, but in the same year Tobey Maguire’s web-swinger was battling multi-limbed Doctor Octopus atop a speeding train in Spider-Man 2, Halle Berry kicking Sharon Stone about a bit doesn’t really cut it. To make matters worse, it’s backed by the inappropriate R&B soundtrack which litters much of the movie.

Freed from the constraints of a Hollywood blockbuster, Catwoman might have been worthwhile; as a weird, stylized, Kafka-esque art-house flick about a repressed woman acquiring cat-like traits whilst lost in the fabricated, obsessive beauty industry. But as the ill-conceived wannabe-crowd pleaser it is, Catwoman not only wastes worthwhile ideas, it wastes an Oscar winning lead actress and a beloved character. Thankfully Anne Hathaway gave us a far superior version eight years later in The Dark Knight Rises, leaving Catwoman remembered only as an example of how not to adapt a comic book icon.



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