The Acclaimed '70s Drama That Inspired The Batman

Warning: spoilers ahead for "The Batman."

In my perfect world, Selina Kyle would have been the protagonist of "The Batman." Catwoman has gone through plenty of on-screen incarnations in the past, from Michelle Pfeiffer's powerful survivor to Halle Berry's much-maligned minx to Anne Hathaway's competent cat burglar. But something about Zoë Kravitz's performance as an anxious but brave club hostess struck a chord with me. A familiar chord. If I had to name the tune, I'd call it "Klute."

"Klute" is a 1971 thriller from "All the President's Men" director Alan J. Pakula. The film has the distinctive legacy of being at once well-recognized (it won an Oscar) and still underrated, rarely mentioned in the same breath as the major classics. It should be, though: "Klute" is a sexy, scary, simmering masterpiece. It also inspired some of the best parts of "The Batman."

The Klute connection

"Klute" stars Donald Sutherland as the titular character, straight-laced detective John Klute. When Klute takes a gig looking for his friend, a chemical company executive, he winds up crossing paths with Bree (Jane Fonda), a sex worker who's being hounded by creepy letters. To say that "Klute" treats Bree with empathy would be an understatement; despite the title, it's her movie. Bree is a fully developed character, a young woman making it on her own in the city and living according to her own set of rules. But when her own friend — another working girl — goes missing, she starts to get skittish.

"The Batman" features shades of "Klute" from the beginning. As far as we know, Selina isn't a sex worker, but it's clear from the way she approaches the men at the Iceberg Lounge with a practiced, distant cool that she's used to being objectified. Hell, her own dad calls her "beautiful" instead of her own name. We also know there's a secret club within the club called 44 Below, where even skeevier stuff goes down, and that Selina's loved one Annika (Hana Hrzic) was seen on the arm of a prominent Gotham figure before going missing. All of this heavily implies that Gotham has an underground sex trade going on along with its rampant culture of drugs and bribes.

In an interview with Den of Geek, Reeves cites "Klute" as a direct inspiration for Selina and Bruce's relationship, saying:

"Klute's such a straight arrow and he seems so naïve. I think he judges her and he assumes because of the world she's in that she is a certain kind of person. And yet he can't help but be drawn to her and he can't help but be affected by her. He's putting himself above her only to discover that he's deeply connected to her."

A quiet vulnerability

Batman approaches Selina with a clear outsider perspective, and very nearly steps on her toes when he starts to question her lifestyle and decision-making. But the pair soon grows closer, and their paths become ever more intertwined when Annika's disappearance ends up being seemingly related to the Riddler's killing spree. This is almost exactly what happens in "Klute," which functions as a slow-burn romance just as well, if not better, as it does a mystery. Like Batman, Klute is more an observer than a participant in Bree's life, but he steps in to get heroic when she's truly in danger. Mostly though, he makes her feel less alone during a scary time, a simple pleasure that leads to the pair opening up to one another in unexpected ways.

Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle never quite get to a "Klute" level of loving vulnerability, mostly because they can't get over the batsuit in the middle of the room. Selina blatantly questions the intentions of rich white men, and Bruce blinks awkwardly under his disguise, unable to figure out the right way to tell her he's one of them. Still, the two have a crackling chemistry that's sharpened by the life-or-death scenarios they find themselves in. Unlike most heroine sidekicks, Selina is more than capable of getting along without Batman, but the two loners still find a sweet little bit of comfort together.

Spoiler alert: the films share a climactic moment

"The Batman" makes its "Klute" connection clear in one of its most heartbreaking and disturbing scenes. The '70s thriller ends with the revelation of an audio confession in which a man is heard strangling Bree's friend as she screams for her life. It's a truly spine-chilling moment; I remember sitting in the theater, hearing it for the first time and thinking, "Maybe this is a horror movie." "The Batman" dabbles in horror too, and uses the same exact narrative device to bring about a bleak end to Annika and Selina's story.

This time, the revelation comes through a harrowing voicemail. It's not quite as brutal as the scene in "Klute," but it may hit even harder for superhero movie fans who didn't expect DC to go quite so dark. Selina finds a voicemail that Annika left her the day she vanished, and we hear a man choke the life out of her. For a lesser heroine, this would be the moment she breaks, but Selina isn't built that way. She ends the movie riding into the night, keeping pace with Batman as an equal all the way. Like Bree, she builds space to be vulnerable, to reveal her emotional wounds and maybe even let a little love in — all without giving up any of her hard-won freedom.

Zoë Kravitz is an incredible, restrained Catwoman, conveying so much with the flutter of her eyelids or the set of her jaw. There's no use comparing incarnations of Selina, because each one is different and, more often than not, remarkable in their own way. But Reeves' characterization is by no means thin: Selina's not just a desperate girl with a secret or a slinky, feline femme fatale. Instead, she's a well-rounded person who cares deeply — about Annika, her late mom, and the disadvantaged people of Gotham. If she has any cool cat affectation, it's only because she's been molded by the harsh world around her. This Selina is a star, and drawing inspiration from "Klute" helped make her so.

"The Batman" is in theaters now.