Like you, alone (Cult of the Cat)

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It’s September 18, 1998. Aerosmith tops the charts with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; Monica, Jennifer Paige, and Usher also chart. At the box office, buddy-cop comedy Rush Hour opens at number one; There’s Something About Mary, Saving Private Ryan, and Blade are lower in the top ten.

On The New Batman Adventures we have the final televised appearance of Catwoman in the DCAU, the rather lackluster “Cult of the Cat.”

Catwoman stories tend to fall into two broad groups. The first consists of episodes which depict her as one half of a complex BDSM-tinged psychodrama, a skilled manipulator whose genuine (and requited) affection for Batman is complicated by her criminal impulses, such as “The Cat and the Claw” or “You Scratch My Back.” The other group depicts her as just a cat-themed thief, physically skilled but prone to bizarre predicaments, such as “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Tyger, Tyger,” and, well, this.

If you’ve been following along, you can guess which depiction I prefer.

“Cult of the Cat” is very much an episode that exists. It is not, by any means, a bad episode. It is competently executed, but it has no particular ambition and no particular point to make. It takes no risks and attains no heights. It is about as comfortably middle-of-the-road as TNBA episodes get, which in itself serves as a clear signpost that it’s time to move on. When a Catwoman-centric episode about a secret cult of cat-worshippers who capture Batman with her help elicits no more response than “meh,” there is a good chance the show is running on fumes. There just isn’t that much to say about Batman or his supporting cast anymore–at least, not without extensively recontextualizing them.

Which of course is exactly what happens–but other than the occasional mention, that recontextualization more or less necessarily leaves Catwoman out. Diegetically, there’s no reason she couldn’t have appeared in Justice League or Justice League Unlimited; unfortunately, due to the infamous Bat Embargo (about which more when we reach the shows impacted by it), JL(U) had to be extremely judicious about its use of the Batman supporting cast, and Catwoman never made it in.

So we have here, possibly unintentionally, her sendoff, and viewed that way the episode actually becomes mildly interesting. After all, though I pegged it as a bizarre-predicament Catwoman episode, there are hints of the other Catwoman as well. She and Batman both spend some time in bondage, and he gets slashed up quite a bit–enough to destroy clothing, but never break his skin, which is likely due to network censorship but nonetheless only makes the violence seem that much less serious, and therefore kinkier. She tricks and manipulates him to keep the cult from suspecting her intent to rob them, then rescues him so that he can cover her escape–and she ultimately does, with piles of jewels. She wins–and then she leaves for Paris, never to return.

Especially coming right after “The Ultimate Thrill,” this episode stands out as a rare happy ending for a Batman villain. Recall that, as most villains are created to be villains, they are most interesting as villains. Generally, then, the two end-states they can achieve are to reform, which makes them less interesting as characters, or to remain villains, which is depressing and implies that criminality is a character trait rather than an action.

Here, Selina Kyle does neither. She remains proudly free forever, in Paris enjoying her ill-gotten loot. Like Roxy, she is a thrill-seeker; she will steal again. But she’s beaten Batman and gotten away with it. He has been repeatedly stated and shown to be the ultimate crimefighter; if he can’t contain her, no one can. She’s going to keep getting away with it, offscreen somewhere with Isis.

And that’s glorious. From the start, before the Harlequinade, before Poison Ivy rejected her femme fatale role, there was Catwoman, topping Batman, their dance injecting a decidedly feminine sexual energy to the series that pushed back against its early boys’ club tendencies. When Harley shattered that world, she left cracks and openings through which others could slip. One such was Supergirl, but she is a constrained and contained sexuality, a Good Girl pinup presented for the male gaze to consume. Catwoman eludes that gaze, however. Even as she moves sinuously across the screen, she does not allow herself to be dismembered; she owns the camera when she’s on it, commands the gaze, and will happily interrupt it with a whip or slash if it lingers too long.

Or she’ll just pick the gazer’s pocket and slip away.

Where Supergirl is a Good Girl pinup slipped in through a crack, Catwoman is an adult woman slipping out through the same. The two reflect their associated heroes: one sunny, conventional, innocent; the other shadowy, deviant, jaded. Supergirl pushes back against the show’s constraints with varying success, but Catwoman escapes them entirely. No one else really achieves this. Harley comes closest, but even she ends her story within the confines of the show. She is still Harley, and can only ever be Harley. (Perhaps that is the price she paid for her magic. Perhaps it was worth it. We cannot know.)

But Catwoman isn’t even Catwoman in the end. She’s not even Selina Kyle! Her altered hair style and color in the final scene suggest that she shed that identity as she left the show. She has, Utena-like, left the world and its rules about who and what she can be, to ascend to someone and something else. But that necessarily means she is gone from this world, fading to an empty costume and a photo in a file. That’s the price she pays for this magic. She seems pretty clearly to feel it’s worth it–but for us, it remains a loss.


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