Although Catwoman is traditionally an anti-heroine and love interest of the vigilante hero Batman, the plot features new characters and few direct references to Batman characters. In Catwoman, the meek designer Patience Phillips discovers a dark conspiracy within the cosmetics company she works for, involving a dangerous product which can cause widespread health problems. As she is falling into a pier, she dies but is then revived by Egyptian cats that grant her with superhuman cat-like abilities. These allow her to become a superhero crime fighter, Catwoman, so she can save humanity, while also falling in love with a police detective that pursues her.
Artist and graphics designer Patience Phillips is a meek people-pleaser whose main support is her best friend Sally. She works for a cosmetics company called Hedare Beauty, which is ready to ship a new skin cream, called Beau-line, that is able to reverse the effects of aging. However, when Patience visits the R&D laboratory facility, she overhears a discussion between the scientist, Dr. Ivan Slavicky, and Laurel Hedare, the wife of company-owner George Hedare, about the dangerous side effects from continued use of the product. Laurel's guards discover Patience and are ordered to dispose of her. Patience tries to escape using a conduit pipe, but the minions have it sealed and flush her out of it, drowning her. Washed up on shore after drowning, Patience is mysteriously brought back to life by an Egyptian Mau cat, which had appeared at her apartment earlier; from that moment on, she develops cat-like abilities.
From Mau's owner, eccentric researcher Ophelia Powers, Patience learns that Egyptian Mau cats serve as messengers of the goddess Bast. Patience realizes that she is now a "catwoman," reborn with abilities that are both a blessing and a curse. Disguised as Catwoman to hide her identity, Patience, under cover of darkness, searches for answers as to who killed her and why. Eventually, her search (which includes finding Slavicky's body, and later being accused of his murder) leads her to Laurel. She asks Laurel to keep an eye on George, to which Laurel agrees. However, when Patience confronts George (who is at an opera with another woman), he reveals he knows nothing about the side effects. The police, led by Patience's love interest Detective Tom Lone, arrive and Catwoman escapes. Later on, Laurel murders her husband for his infidelity, and admits to having Dr. Slavicky killed because he wanted to cancel the product's release. She contacts Catwoman and frames her for the murder. Catwoman is taken into custody by Tom, but not before Laurel reveals the side-effects of the product: Discontinuing its use makes the skin disintegrate, while continuing its use makes the skin as hard as marble. She also plans to release the Beau-line the following day.
Patience slips out of her jail cell, and confronts Laurel in her office, (rescuing Tom, who'd come to question Laurel after second thoughts about Patience's guilt, in the process), revealing that Laurel is the one responsible for her death. During the fight, she scratches Laurel's face, and Laurel falls out of a window, grabbing onto a pipe for her life. Laurel sees her face in a window's reflection and, horrified by her skin's rapid disintegration, fails to grab hold of Patience's outstretched arm and falls to her death. Though Patience is cleared of any charges made against her regarding the deaths of Dr. Slavicky and the Hedares, she decides to end things with Tom, choosing to continue living outside the law and enjoying her new-found freedom as the mysterious Catwoman.
Missy Peregrym appears uncredited as the Hedare factory computer monitor image (Beau-line graphics model), depicting the bad effects of the beauty product. A photograph of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns can be seen among the pictures that Ophelia shows to Patience.
With Warner Bros. moving on development for Batman Forever in June 1993, a Catwoman spin-off was announced. Michelle Pfeiffer was set to reprise her role from Batman Returns. Tim Burton became attached as director, while producer Denise Di Novi and writer Daniel Waters also returned. In January 1994, Burton was unsure of his plans to direct Catwoman or an adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher". On June 16, 1995, Waters turned in his Catwoman script to Warner Bros., the same day Batman Forever was released. Burton was still being courted to direct. Waters joked, "turning it in the day Batman Forever opened may not have been my best logistical move, in that it's the celebration of the fun-for-the-whole-family Batman. Catwoman is definitely not a fun-for-the-whole-family script." In an August 1995 interview, Pfeiffer re-iterated her interest in the spin-off, but explained her priorities would be challenged as a mother and commitments to other projects.
The film labored in development hell for years, with Ashley Judd set to star as the lead as far back as 2001, but eventually dropped out of the role. Nicole Kidman was also reportedly considered for the role after Judd stepped out of the project, until Halle Berry was chosen and production began.
The catsuit was designed by Academy Award-winning costume designer Angus Strathie together with Berry, director Pitof, and the producers. Strathie explained, "We wanted a very reality-based wardrobe to show the progression from demure, repressed Patience to the sensual awakening of a sexy warrior goddess."
Berry started intensive fitness training with Harley Pasternak in June 2003. Choreographer Anne Fletcher was brought in to develop Catwoman's signature style and teach Berry how to think like a cat. She also oversaw Berry's training in the Brazilian martial art style Capoeira. Berry was trained to crack a whip by coach Alex Green.
Principal Photography began late September 2003. Shooting took place on 4th Street in downtown Los Angeles, California and Winnipeg, Manitoba as well as Lions Gate Film Studios, Vancouver, British Columbia, and Warner Brothers Burbank Studios, 4000 Warner Boulevard, Burbank, California. Most of the cats cast in the film came from animal shelters throughout California.
The film had its theatrical premiere in the United States on July 23, 2004.
It was given an IMAX release coinciding with the general release as evidenced by a poster with the tagline "CATch Her in IMAX", but was cancelled because Warner Bros. decided that the delays on the visual effects did not give IMAX enough time to re-master the film in time for release. The decision to cancel the IMAX release was announced on June 30, 2004.
The film was released on VHS and DVD on January 18, 2005, and on Blu-ray on September 8, 2009.
Catwoman earned a gross of $40,202,379 in North America and $41,900,000 in other territories for a worldwide total of $82,102,379 against a production budget of $100 million.
The film grossed $16,728,411 in its opening weekend playing in 3,117 theaters, with a $5,366 per-theatre average and ranking #3, next to the titles The Bourne Supremacy and I, Robot. The biggest market in other territories being France, Spain, Japan and Mexico where the film grossed $5.2 million, $4.05 million, $3.05 million and $2.9 million.
Catwoman was largely panned by critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, Catwoman has a rating of 9%, based on 179 reviews, with the site's critical consensus reading, "Halle Berry is the lone bright spot, but even she can't save this laughable action thriller". On Metacritic the film has a rating of 27 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
The film appeared on the list of Roger Ebert's most hated films. He criticized the filmmakers for giving little thought to providing Berry "with a strong character, story, supporting characters or action sequences," but his primary criticism came from the failure of the film to give the audience a sense of what her character experienced as she was transformed into Catwoman. He rather referred to it as being a movie "about Halle Berry's beauty, sex appeal, figure, eyes, lips and costume design. It gets those right." Heldman et al said that as the film ends with Catwoman choosing "a solo existence as her sexualized body slinks into the full moon; even this otherwise agentic act is constructed for the consumption of the male gaze that follows her. The film presents her agency, power, and freedom as derivative of her hypersexualization." In their onscreen review Ebert and his former co-host Richard Roeper both gave the film a thumbs down. Film critic Bill Muller of the Arizona Republic suggested that Berry should possibly give back her 2001 Academy Award as a penalty.
The film received seven Golden Raspberry nominations in 2005, including Worst Supporting Actress (Sharon Stone), Worst Supporting Actor (Lambert Wilson) and Worst Screen Couple (Halle Berry and either Benjamin Bratt or Sharon Stone). It won in the categories of Worst Picture, Worst Actress (Halle Berry), Worst Director (Pitof), and Worst Screenplay. Berry arrived at the ceremony to accept her Razzie in person, with her Best Actress Oscar for Monster's Ball in hand, and said: "First of all, I want to thank Warner Brothers. Thank you for putting me in a piece of shit, god-awful movie... It was just what my career needed."
A video game was published by Electronic Arts UK and Argonaut Games. Featuring the voice talents of Jennifer Hale, the game varied from the film's plot and received negative reviews much like the film.