What Went Wrong: Catwoman
By Brian Pew
September 7, 2009
The summer of 2004 was an exciting time for Batman fans, full of anticipation and promise. The following year would bring the reboot of the beloved character, finally free from the meddling little fingers of Joel Schumacher and his caravan of nipple suits. More immediately, that very summer a classic character from Batman's Rogue's Gallery, Catwoman, finally got her own film. Instead of a tasty appetizer for Batman Begins, audiences were instead treated to a bona fide disaster.
Although Catwoman is regarded as one of the greatest flops of our time, prior to its release it was positioned with a blockbuster pedigree. Recall that Halle Berry was at her apex of both critical and commercial success. She was in the midst of a string of blockbusters such as the X-Men series and her turn as a Bond girl in Die Another Day. Berry was also a few years removed from being the first African-American to take home the Oscar for Best Actress. Casting her for the title role was considered a major coup for Warner Bros. Throw in a $100 million budget and this project had some considerable expectations. To be sure, there was negative hype swirling around, but this was the type of project that was supposed to be impervious to critical reception.
Catwoman was released on July 23, 2004, opening to a paltry $16.7 million over the weekend. It ended up making just north of $40 million domestic and $42 million from foreign receipts. The feline antihero was savaged by the critics, as evident from its 10% score at RottenTomatoes. Rejected by both critics and audiences alike, Catwoman failed in virtually every respect. Although there is plenty of low hanging fruit to pluck, discussing the direction, screenwriting, and costume design would suffice in explaining the major missteps.
Warner Bros. handed directorial duties to Pitof. The unusual moniker was a nickname given to him in his youth, but for whatever reason the 50-something director still insists others address him as such. He is widely respected in the French film industry as a special effects wizard, yet is entirely unknown stateside. Reviewing Pitof's CV does not take much time, either. The only movie Pitof directed prior to Catwoman was Dark Portals, a French language sci-fi flick. To recap for those playing along at home, the brilliant minds at WB placed a $100 million movie in the hands of a one-named Frenchman with a solitary prior credit, scant experience working on an English language set, and zero experience directing with a big budget. Trifecta!
More unappealing than watching Pitof's direction was listening to the actors recite lines from script! Describing the dialogue as wooden does not go far enough. We are talking nails across the chalkboard painful. It was so atrocious that the limited dialogue in the film's trailer was noticeably bad. That means the studio execs could not even find two minutes worth of suitable lines. Feedback was overwhelmingly negative and the studio had to re-cut a new trailer completely devoid of talking. It is a pity they could not have done the same for the rest of the movie. Reportedly as many as 28 scribes worked on writing the script, recalling the old adage of "too many hands in the cookie jar."
Costume design rarely pops up on the radar for average moviegoers, and when it does it is almost unanimously bad news. Catwoman is a classic case in point. It is the costume equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. This is not to belittle the team who worked hard on the catsuit, but their goal could not have been utter revulsion. The suit would easily blend in with the surroundings of a dominatrix dungeon. Maybe that is a bit harsh, but when you combine tight leather pants, a leather bra, a mask, razor sharp gloves, and a whip...let's just say it is not a difficult conclusion at which to arrive. All that was needed was a safety word and the movie might have gotten interesting. At least the costume shops (and S & M parlors) have something to profit from. Bloggers, critics, and fanboys alike rejoiced in derision when the catsuit leaked onto the Internet. Message boards burned up with ridicule aimed at the suit, killing any whatever precious positive buzz was left. The groundswell of negativity snowballed so much so that even a decent movie would have been eviscerated at the box office.
The fallout of Catwoman was steep, if deserved. The WB lost heaps of money on the production. Berry "won" a Razzie for Best Actress, but at least had the good humor to accept the award in person. Her career is not in jeopardy. The same cannot be said for ol' Pitof. According to IMDb, he has not completed a picture in the past five years. Screenwriters John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris have been gainfully employed, though they just put their finishing touches on killing the Terminator franchise with Terminator Salvation (yet another potential column).
Rumors have surfaced recently about a Catwoman reboot. The Berry version aside, it is not difficult why. The character has a complex history and could be a perfect popcorn flick if done right. We shall see if the execs at Warners learn from their mistakes or if history will be repeated.