I owe Christopher Nolan and Anne Hathaway an apology.
Four years ago, I left The Dark Knight fuming at the death of Rachel Dawes and its utter predictability from Nolan, who likes to kill off his heroes’ wives and girlfriends. While hashing out the movie with a friend, we agreed that we didn’t want this director to get his hands on Catwoman. He’d butcher the character’s feminist potential, we said. Plus, “he’ll probably cast Anne Hathaway.” “Ugh. Not interested.”
Turns out that we were prescient – and completely wrong. Hathaway’s Selina Kyle is the best part of The Dark Knight Rises. Here’s why (with spoilers).
Catwoman is a departure from Nolan’s usual roles for women. Christopher Nolan likes to do horrible things to his female characters, especially those romantically entangled with his heroes: rape, torture, insanity, death and death and death. Victims of this “fridging,” who die in service of the hero’s plot, include Jorja Fox’s character in Memento, the wives of The Prestige, Rachel in The Dark Knight and Mal in Inception.
The other main role for women in Nolan’s movies is that of the villain trying to avenge a man in her life, including Carrie Ann Moss’s character in Memento and Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises – not quite victims, but not independently interesting characters. A few of Nolan’s women fall outside of this victim-villain spectrum, including those played by Hilary Swank and Maura Tierney in Insomnia and Ellen Page in Inception, but those characters are all supporting roles, people who exist in order to react to the hero rather than to pursue their own goals.
The Selina Kyle of The Dark Knight Rises is a welcome and long overdue departure from all of those tropes. She’s a protagonist in her own right, with problems and motivations unrelated to the hero or to the actions of men in her life; she’s the hero of her own story, which overlaps with Batman’s but doesn’t rely on it. He saves her a couple of times, and she returns the favor. That’s my platonic ideal of the Catwoman character, but not one I thought Nolan had any interest or ability in portraying.
Better yet, he didn’t stop at making her any old protagonist – he made her Han Solo. Selina may not have been the main character of The Dark Knight Rises, but she gets to inhabit the lovable-rogue spot usually reserved for wisecracking men. Nolan gave her the best role from Star Wars: the pragmatist in too deep with underworld villains, she’s initially only looking out for herself but returns in the nick of time to help the good guys win the battle.
She likes practical weapons, she takes out the main bad guy, and maybe best of all, Nolan spared her the obligatory showdown with the female villain that’s become inevitable in most action movies, because it’s hot to see ladies fight and it wouldn’t look right for a guy to be the one to kill a girl. (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I am looking at you so hard.)
As a corollary to playing Han Solo, Selina also gets to have a rare sense of humor. Nolan is not exactly known for his levity, and his Catwoman provides pretty much the only playfulness next to Batman and Bane and their oh-so-serious Tale of Back-Breaking Destruction. It’s nice to see someone roll her eyes at Bruce Wayne and his cane and his manpain every once in a while, especially after Alfred’s weepy monologues about his vacation fantasies for his employer.
It’s also nice to see Anne Hathaway having fun again. Four years ago, I dreaded her inevitable Catwoman, and apparently I wasn’t alone in this widespread antipathy. She’s seemingly ubiquitous these days, and while I’ve liked her comedic roles, she can appear uptight and uncomfortable in more serious efforts. The often-grim Nolan was the last director I expected to bring out Hathaway’s playful side, but somehow together they managed to create the character Slate has dubbed “the best Catwoman yet.”
Anne, Christopher, I’ve never been so glad to say, “I’m sorry.”
Maria Aspan is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Movieline, Reuters and American Banker. She writes about movies, pop culture and feminism on her blog.