Catwoman Throughout The Years (and Batman and Robin, Too!)

Superman’s tights. Spiderman’s mask. Batman’s nipples.

When making a movie based on a superhero comic, there’s probably no aspect of production that will invite greater scrutiny than that pinnacle of all things superhero: the costume. And not to stereotype, but let’s face it, gay and bisexual guys probably have a special interest in superhero costumes. We certainly have a definite appreciation for the often, um, revealing outfits sported by the male superheroes, while many of us can also appreciate the aesthetic styles worn by the women.

Which means that costume designers have to create a look that will somehow both be true to the source material, but is updated while also looking good on flesh-and-blood actors who have to actually move around in the real world.

One thing that designers have learned over the years is that while many comic book heroes look like their costumes were simply sprayed onto their bodybuilder physiques, the use of spandex or other clingy material often appears ridiculous on screen. Even when actors have perfect bodies, the results can end up looking more like a very dicey choice for bicycling attire.

The characters that inhabit the Batman universe have a long and checkered history when it comes to their cinematic wardrobe. And with the long-awaited release of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman costume this past week, we have one more item to add to Catwoman’s gallery of highs and lows.

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in “The Dark Knight Rises”

Catwoman is, quite frankly, all about sex. A character that began as a jewel thief and evolved into a martial artist and whip-wielding antihero, she’s had several filmic incarnations, beginning in the ‘60s on the campy Batman TV show.

Played in turn by Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and Lee Meriwether, the super-cheesy series actually came up with a pretty decent costume, and set down the basic rules that have yet to be broken: Catwoman’s costume is skintight, black, and shiny … and must be inhabited by a woman with an amazing figure.

When Tim Burton made Batman Returns in 1992, his Catwoman, played to psychotic perfection by Michelle Pfeiffer, was a liberal revision of the character. Rather than partaking in thievery, she was instead an insane woman hellbent on revenge against the man who tried to kill her. She also liked to blow a lot of things up.

That costume was, in my humble opinion, the best Catwoman costume to date. Clad head to toe in black stretchy rubber stitched together with thick white thread, it was clear her alter ego, Selina Kyle, constructed it hastily in a manic burst of energy, and as the film went on and she was involved in physical altercations with Batman, it literally started coming apart at the seams, a perfect metaphor for the character’s damaged psyche. Complemented with a whip, the costume had a very clear S&M flair, and oozed sexuality, which Catwoman should. 

Here’s what happens when they try to take the “sexy” angle too far. 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, is the subject of almost universal scorn, and deservedly so. What I think irks fans the most is how much it feels like a missed opportunity, because a Catwoman movie should have been one for the ages: a broody, action-packed female version of the Batman films.

Really, everything about this movie felt wrong, but nothing more so than the costume. No one can argue that Berry doesn’t have a body to die for, and I guess they felt they had to show as much of it off as they could in order to please fans. But unfortunately, after shredding off as many layers as they could and still keep a PG-13 rating, what they ended up with looked like a cross between a stripper and a rejected costume from the set of Mad Max. (Not to mention her mask makes her look more like Minnie Mouse than Catwoman.)

Which brings us to the latest Catwoman suit. Christopher Nolan’s Batman-universe is one grounded in reality, so it makes sense that they’re going for a tougher, less comic book-esque look, but what they’ve ended up with reminds me more than anything of Mrs. Peel from The Avengers. (No, the other Avengers.) Actually, the costume looks like the generic girl-in-black-vinyl that we’ve come to expect from action heroines these days, and there’s not much to differentiate her from Trinity, Aeon Flux, Selene from Underworld, or many others.

And no ears? Come on. It’s Catwoman — you have to have ears.

Of course, Catwoman isn’t the only character whose look has been tinkered with over the years. Her nemesis/love interest Batman has had quite a ride on the fashion train as well.

In the ’40s, actor Lewis Wilson was the first man to don the Batsuit, and … yeah. With its uneven ears and granny-panties, this one is probably best to forget.

Adam West brought a campy silliness to the part, and had a laughably over-sized utility belt to hide the fact that his gut was constantly straining at his spandex.

In 1989, Tim Burton brought the character back to its dark roots, and began the trend that lasts to this day: rather than the standard blue-and-grey, Batman’s outfit is pitch-black body armor with the exception of his belt and insignia (shown here on Michael Keaton). The sculpted male physique sure wasn’t too difficult to look at, either, thus beginning a history of subdued sexiness for the crime fighter.

As we venture into the Joel Schumacher years, Batman once again started leaning towards camp, such as the above mega-shiny version of Batman as played by Val Kilmer. The fetishization of the male form continues, and it’s … uh … pretty hard not to notice that he had quite a codpiece there. Of course, nothing will ever compare to …

… nipples. Nipples on the Batsuit. Between those and George Clooney’s smarmy grin, most fans choose to forget about Batman and Robin. (Although, secretly, I think that look is pretty hot.)

And that, of course, brings us to the latest incarnation, the Christopher Nolan era Batman played by Christian Bale. This Batman costume is tough and armored, much like the earlier Burton costume, and in The Dark Knight the costume was upgraded with a less rigid cowl that actually lets Batman move his head from side to side. Which seems pretty important when you’re fighting crime, doesn’t it?

And hey, where would Batman be without his ever-faithful kid sidekick, that boy wonder known as Robin?

In the aforementioned Lewis Wilson vehicle, a young actor named Douglas Croft first donned the … well, it’s hard to describe that outfit, exactly. But it looks like you could most of it from a 99-cents store.

For the Batman TV series, Burt Ward pulled on the green undies as Robin, and was pretty much the perfect example of why being too close to the source material can occasionally be a very, very bad thing for superhero costumes.

Fortunately, they changed it up when Chris O’Donnell took on the role in Batman Forever. While the movie was ultimately forgettable, they did earn points for bringing the sexy to the Robin character.

For Robin’s next appearance in Batman and Robin, they modeled the costume closer to the persona Robin would adopt after his time with Batman, the hero named Nightwing. In keeping with the established Schumacher aesthetic, the combination of the nipples, molded muscular physique, and prominent bulge make this costume look like a young gay comic geek’s fevered daydream.

And it would all be well and good were it not for what happened at the end of the movie:

I’ll still never understand what they were thinking.