In an intimate moment between Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns, Selina confesses: "I would love to live with you in your castle... forever, just like in a fairy tale." Selina, otherwise known as the sometimes villain, sometimes heroine Catwoman, is the reason why Tim Burton's 1992 masterpiece works so well. Since her first appearance in 1940, Catwoman has been arguably the most important relationship in Batman's life beside Robin and the memory of his dead parents. Now, 77 years later, Batman has finally asked Catwoman to marry him in this month's issue of Batman.
Their flirtation was obvious from the jump — Catwoman's first appearance in a short story titled "The Cat" had her stealing jewels with Batman and Robin in pursuit. Batman, clearly smitten with her, lets Catwoman escape. It's one of those very jewels he's kept that he uses to propose to Catwoman in Batman #24 after realizing that he's not happy being Batman and would be much happier with Catwoman in his life. If this sounds out of character to you, then you've probably only been introduced to the grittier representations of Batman shown in the DC film universe since Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.
In these films, Batman's girlfriend Rachel Dawes (first played by Katie Holmes, later replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal) exists as a damsel in distress who gets blown up in The Dark Knight so he can mourn her in The Dark Knight Rises. As a character, she's somewhere above Elle Macpherson's Julie Madison in Batman & Robin and just below Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian in Batman Forever. Then there's Zack Snyder's films, which focus on Batman vacillating between being depressed and deranged. It's the sophistication of Burton's films that get to the beautiful mix of off-kilter playboy and hopeless romantic that Batman truly is. Hopeless romantic, yes, because anyone that devoted to the memory of a city that could never be, a world where the Batman could end the crime that infests Gotham, is on some type of unrequited love high.
Bruce experiences a bit of romance with Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale in Batman, but not until Batman Returns does one of his relationships truly crackle. Burton's film is a funhouse: campy and dark and completely unlike anything audiences had seen before from a superhero film (or even Burton's first Batman film). It also grants equal weight to its villains, giving arcs to Danny DeVito's Penguin as well as Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. At first glance, Penguin's origin might have more in common with Batman — they're both orphans — but he exits as a cautionary tale of someone who takes the poor hand they've been dealt and uses it to turn on innocent people.
By contrast, Catwoman is first seen as secretary Selina who's preyed upon by Christopher Walken's Max Shreck. She's treated to misogynistic jokes before eventually being hurled from a window. In a brilliant sequence, Selina is licked and bitten by feral cats, which leads her to return to her apartment and fashion a leather jacket into her Catwoman costume. The moment is much like the No Man's Land scene in Wonder Woman, a moment that shows a woman becoming who she's truly meant to be. For Wonder Woman, it was turning into a superhero on a World War I battlefield. But for Catwoman, it's smashing the cutesy effects in her apartment and spray painting them black (one sublime moment is a neon sign glowing the phrase "Hello There" losing partial light to become "Hell Here"). Much like Batman lost his innocence from watching his parents die, Catwoman lost hers when she fell from that window and was embraced by Gotham's felines.
It's the embrace of darkness that initially draws Catwoman to Batman and establishes a mutual respect for how they shield themselves from a world neither of them trust. Their sexual tension in the film remains simmering yet unrequited, but in DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch of Catwoman's solo series, the characters finally had sex on a rooftop, still wearing their masks. The story, as written by Judd Winick was a tender and necessary moment, even if the art by Guillem March looked awkward and unrealistic.
But their costumes remaining partially on shows how devoted Batman and Catwoman are to their exterior identities. That they can share one another's flesh but still keep part of themselves hidden is what makes both characters so fascinating and much more exciting than Batman's previous love interests, even Talia Al Ghul, who practices her anti-heroism without a mask. Batman could never truly embrace love while keeping at least one part of himself in the shadows; he's addicted to the darkness in his heart too much (even if he doesn't love it, as he says aloud in Batman #24). That's why Catwoman as his soulmate, as the woman whom he asks to marry makes perfect sense.
In an interview with USA Today, writer Tom King said of the issue: “Everyone’s done vengeance, everyone’s done ‘The night is so dark.’ Giving Batman more pain doesn’t reveal anything about his character because he’s taken as much pain as he can. But giving him love and joy, that combines with the tragedy of his past into something new and never done before." Batman's marriage proposal isn't iconic merely because he asked someone to marry him — it will resonate in comic history for a long time because Batman has finally made a conscious decision to reject, in some part, the tragedy and vengeance that has consumed his entire life. He's ready to experience a life full of joy and love. One of the things people loved about Wonder Woman was how full of life Gal Gadot was compared to Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck's heroes. Perhaps her Amazonian desire to heal the world with love has started to affect other members of the Justice League.
It's hard to reboot a character without making them unrecognizable to readers, but allowing Batman to choose a new path with a character who understands his addiction to darkness is the kind of twisted story Batman fans have loved for nearly 80 years. And the decision to end Batman #24 on a cliffhanger gives Batman a vulnerability Bruce rarely allow himself to have. It puts control of his heart in Catwoman's hands, in gorgeous visuals by Danny Miki and David Finch — a stark contrast to March's art that was often reviled by fans for being exploitative and misogynistic, particularly when Catwoman and Batman finally consummated their relationship. DC's greatest relationship couldn't have a more fitting tribute — at least until the (maybe) wedding.