Anything like this ever happen to you? (The Cat and the Claw)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoFifteen episodes in, and we finally have the first episode in broadcast order: “The Cat and the Claw, Part 1” aired on September 5, 1992, and “Part 2” aired one week later. The reasoning for making this the first episode is fairly clear: Batman Returns was a hit, and still lingering in theaters when this episode aired. A Catwoman episode was thus a natural choice to start the series off, and ending on a cliffhanger increased the likelihood of the audience coming back.

Of course once they did, instead of Part 2 they saw the pilot, “On Leather Wings,” with its notable bump in animation quality. If they tuned in the next night, they saw “Heart of Ice.” Anyone not hooked on the series by that point was probably not going to get hooked. Finally, after a week Part 2 aired, and while not as well-animated as Part 1 (in particular, one sequence of Maven pouring a drink, then carrying it into the next room, is stiff, awkward, and has trouble with perspective, making it look like the petite Maven has enormous, beefy hands) it nonetheless successfully raises the stakes on Part 1, with bigger action sequences and a rapid ratcheting of the emotional tension between Catwoman and Batman.

That tension, despite being broadly similar to the chemistry between the characters that enlivened Batman Returns, is quite different in this story. For starters, it’s just not as effective; frankly, while I adore his Batman, at this early stage in his career Kevin Conroy just doesn’t have the expertise to sell the (admittedly rather awkwardly written) love confession to Selina Kyle. For her part, Adrienne Barbeau does a much better job selling both Catwoman’s immediate infatuation with Batman and Selina Kyle’s gradual warming to Bruce Wayne. A bigger difference, however, is the way in which the attraction is used to play up the characters’ duality. In Batman Returns, that duality is demonstrated by the differing nature of the attraction, with Kyle and Wayne exploring a fairly traditional romance while Catwoman and Batman engage in a heavily BDSM-flavored series of games.

Understandably, Batman the Animated Series can’t be quite as open with its BDSM themes, so instead the duality of the two characters is expressed by having the two relationships evolve differently. Initially, Catwoman is infatuated with Batman, who shows no sign of interest, while Wayne pursues Kyle. Over the course of the two-parter, however, Wayne earns the respect of Kyle and Catwoman earns Batman’s respect, resulting in a mutual attraction in both identities. Alas, the relationship remains doomed; the episode ends with Batman catching Catwoman in Kyle’s apartment.

Also stripped from the story relative to Batman Returns is the theme of carnival, and thus both the element of the grotesque and of class conflict. Obviously, the primary image of the grotesque in Batman Returns was the Penguin and, to a lesser extent, the Red Triangle gang, but there were subtler (by Tim Burton standards, anyway) elements of the grotesque around Catwoman as well: the prominent stitches on her costume, the way it kept falling apart, her unkempt hair as Selena Kyle, and, of course, her ability to return from the dead, the clearest case of her violating the normal rules of the human body. Here in “The Cat and the Claw,” however, there is no trace of either the grotesque or the class-conflict elements of Kyle’s status as a downtrodden (indeed, murdered) working-class woman rising up against her arch-capitalist oppressor; instead she wears a costume much more reminiscent of the comics or the 1960s Batman TV show, and is a wealthy socialite and activist herself.

That activism ties her to the other female villain we’ve discussed so far, Poison Ivy. Both are heavily ecologically themed in their introductory episodes, with Catwoman committing crimes to fund her activities to protect animals, particularly wild cats. Both are also depicted as being extremely attractive women who have a secret criminal identity. However, there is a major difference between the two: Catwoman has sexual agency, while Poison Ivy does not. More accurately, Poison Ivy is depicted as possessing sexual power, but only in a form both passive and menacing, namely exploiting the attraction of men to her. She herself gives no sign of experiencing sexual desire; she exists, in her first appearance at least, only to be the dangerous and forbidden object of desire. By contrast, Catwoman is presented from the start as experiencing desire, namely for Batman, and her active pursuit of that desire is not shown to be menacing or harmful at all. At the same time, she is emphatically not that old standby, the evil woman turned good by her love for a good man; she wants him, but continues her (illegal) work because they’re two separate aspects of life for her. In the end, when he can’t accept that, there’s every reason to believe that their nascent relationship is over.

What should be clear from this discussion of Catwoman is that this two-parter is far more interested in exploring the emotions and relationships of its characters than engaging with anything political–which, of course, is itself a political statement, namely “Things are okay enough that politics is not as high a priority as relationships,” a mild endorsement of the status quo. That makes the choice of a terrorist organization as the primary villains an odd one, as it results in mysterious terrorists with no apparent motives, who want to topple U.S. society but somehow have the willing cooperation of a corporate magnate–which is to say, one of the rare winners of the game of American capitalism–in their scheme. Mostly it seems an excuse to give Batman and Catwoman a mutual enemy, which works as far as such excuses go. Still, it would be nice to get some sense of what Red Claw was trying to accomplish by unleashing her plague. The generic pseudo-European accent her voice actress (Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager and Orange is the New Black fame) puts on, coupled with a reference to the virus they seek to unleash having been developed in Eastern Europe, suggest they are from the former Soviet bloc, which means most likely they’re just terrorists substituting for Communists as the generic mustache-twirling foreign villains who seek to subvert and destroy us, a staple of American pop culture. That is, their only cause is our destruction; the actual political reasons they might exist are secondary to their status as subversive foreign elements who threaten the status quo—once again, the episode mildly endorses The Way Things Are.

Really, though, all of that is secondary to the tragedy of two bored rich people with dual lives pursuing their visions of justice, finally finding someone else who could understand, and instead forced to oppose one another by the artificial barrier of the law. Everything in both episodes is leading up to that lovely, quiet final scene in which he rejects the idea of them being together, but is also reluctant to hand her over the police. Just as we think he’ll let her go, they kiss, and then he cuffs her.

So maybe The Animated Series managed to sneak in some of those BDSM themes after all.


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