She’s bought into what was still the heteronormative fairytale (or American dream) of the late 20th century, and it leaves her lonely and aggrieved. It also leads to her literal death after her thankless efficiency causes her to discover the corrupt malfeasance of her boss, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). When faced with a woman who sees through his generous billionaire illusions, Shreck silences her by pushing her through a window. In a post-#MeToo world, Batman Returns’ opening moments are more disturbing than ever.
They also make the allegory that follows so much more satisfying. In any other film, cats resurrecting a character from the dead by nibbling her frostbitten fingers would be the stuff of queasy camp (see the Catwoman movie of a decade later). But in Burton’s world where dream logic is as mundane as Christmas lights, it’s a natural catalyst toward the arc of Selina’s journey and, subsequently, the romance at the center of the movie. She is a metaphor for female liberation from patriarchal forces and expectations, circa 1992.
Risen from the dead and now with the power of nine lives, Selina is enraged by her murder yet freed from the pressures her previous life left shattered on a snow-encrusted alleyway. Her anger might make her seem “crazed” to the men around her, but that’s only because she has yet to find a way to channel it. So initially she contains it with needle and thread, sewing together a new psyche and persona to replace the one that was broken. And, indeed, for much of the rest of the movie Selina’s mental stability is visually linked to the state of her costume. As with the German Expressionist masters Burton channels furiously in both of his Batman movies, Selina finds internal meaning from her external appearance, and as that deteriorates from fights with Batman and the Penguin (Danny DeVito), so does the image of the “evil” Catwoman supervillain she has concocted.
In the meantime though, she becomes a perfect foil to Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, who is himself escaping the pressures of mainstream heteronormative life. Notably, this is in contradiction of what Batman (1989) screenwriter Sam Hamm originally intended for the character. After helping create a scenario in which Kim Basinger’s not-Lois Lane, Gotham Globe reporter Vicki Vale, discovers Bruce Wayne is Batman and agrees to wait up for him at night with Alfred, Hamm’s original draft for Batman II ended with Bruce proposing marriage to Vicki while adopting a young Dick Grayson on Christmas Eve. It was the American dream come true for the city’s benefactor.
It is also close to what probably a lot of audiences might’ve expected in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s from a sequel. It’s just so clearly not how Burton or, ultimately Keaton, saw the character. To hell with continuity and audience expectation; they were not going to introduce Catwoman as simply a naughty foil for Vicki Vale to defeat in the bedroom (read the early script!). Instead Vicki is only dismissed off-hand in the finished version of Batman Returns, with Bruce suggesting she had trouble “reconciling” his darker side to Selina.
Catwoman retorts, “It’s the so-called normal guys who always let you down. Sickos never scare me, at least they’re committed.” Selina then passionately kisses Bruce first.