Batman: The Animated Series, “Catwalk”

29Dec11

In rewatching this series, I’ve occasionally had the feeling an episode was a half-remembered dream of some kind, where I’m left going “That happened? How did I forget that?” Often that’s for a particular scene, but sometimes it’s for the entire episode. “Catwalk” definitely qualifies, because while I remembered that Catwoman was a quasi-good guy for a while and then became a bad guy again, I didn’t remember how it had happened. In fact, I was anticipating having to talk about how jarring the lack of a transition was. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut on that for the time being, which is why I only have to eat crow privately. This is an odd episode in another respect, in that it brings back Scarface, which I also did not remember. I knew he would show up again in the series, but not as a focus for a whole episode again; I was convinced he would just be a supporting character from now on, as he was in “Trial.” I’m glad to be wrong about that too, since I enjoy Scarface quite a bit, at least in moderation.

Some time back in “The Cat and the Claw,” I brought up the idea that Catwoman is a moral grey area for Batman, and that’s the underpinning for this story. It’s not subtle, either. The whole scenario is Catwoman gladly falling for temptation and going back to crime, because she’s desperately unhappy being forced onto the straight and narrow. It’s a pretty short character arc, but the details make it an enjoyable fall. She doesn’t immediately leap at the chance to steal as Catwoman again, but an unpleasant and provocative night out make her more amenable to the idea…and this after a conversation with Bruce Wayne makes it clear she was already feeling trapped as a law-abiding citizen.

And really, this is the right move for her. It would be wrong to say that Catwoman can’t be heroic, or at least be closer to the right side of the law than the wrong, but the series has had a lot of trouble deciding what to do with her after her introduction. The fact that it followed up on that initial arrest with an actual trial and civilian life was impressive in the abstract, but as I’ve noted in previous Catwoman episodes, it ended up forcing her into roles where she needed to be rescued. Of course, you can’t avoid some amount of that when Batman is the series protagonist. However, you can still make sure she doesn’t seem completely helpless. Returning Catwoman to being an antagonist means she can’t be helpless if she’s going to be a credible threat, and it brings back the moral grey area for Batman. Obviously a kid’s cartoon can’t handle too many grey areas, but it’s still a good thing to have him be conflicted about how to deal with one of his rogues, and I don’t mean because he’s attracted to her. The real issue is that Catwoman is clearly breaking the law…but compared to the other criminals in Gotham, she’s fairly benign. She targets wealthy people and specific valuables, stealing for the thrill rather than a financial need, and is generally not dangerous to others who don’t threaten her first. So unlike the Penguin or Croc, there’s a question of whether stopping Catwoman is worth the time Batman could spend on more serious crimes. Surely stopping a smuggled shipment of drugs, or disarming a bomb, is going to benefit the city a whole lot more. At the same time, Batman is close to Catwoman in a way that’s only matched with Two-Face, and the remnants of Harvey Dent inside of him. It’s personal because he wants Selina Kyle to stop her thefts. But the same things that attract him to her in the first place get smothered if she tries to stop being Catwoman, and there’s nothing he can do to make her stop wanting those thrills. It’s not a personal failure for Batman if Selina Kyle goes back to crime, but it sure feels like it, just like he blames himself for how Harvey became Two-Face.

As for Selina herself, of course, there’s only so much she really resists here. Sure, she tries to turn Scarface down at first, and even after she accepts, she might tell herself it’s the one job, to get back at a spoiled rich girl whose daddy killed many endangered species. But having decided to go back out on the town, she doesn’t hold back at all. It’s only around Batman that she tries to hide her regained commitment to being Catwoman, and not very well. This actually fits well with Scarface’s character as well-despite being a personality in the Ventriloquist’s head, his planning not only involves betraying Catwoman to make his real theft, but in reading Selina Kyle and perceiving she’d be a good ‘partner’ to take the blame. No one else would be ruthless and arrogant enough to bring Catwoman into their plans just to betray her for a whole other scheme. Not to say others wouldn’t betray her, but I can’t see how they could convince her, let alone see a need to involve her; Catwoman is too sensible and, well, sane to go along with most villainous schemes. Both “Cat Scratch Fever” and “Almost Got ‘Im” demonstrated that she’d work to stop them first.

This is by far the strongest Catwoman episode yet, helped by the fact that this is probably the best animated Catwoman episode as well, and it’s probably the first time the character has really lived up to her potential in the series. For the first time she feels like a real match for Batman; even if she’s not his physical equal, she can win by getting away to steal again. Scarface’s presence helps contrast her behavior (and relative lack of mental issues) to the rest of the rogue’s gallery, and in the end, she’s living on her own terms again. The fact that she has to live on terms that oppose her potential lover makes it less triumphant than it could be, but at least she’s making a choice rather than needing Batman to step in for her.

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