The femme fatale is a character archetype as old as fiction itself. So long as there have been virtuous male heroes (and that’s stretching all the way back to the days of myth), there have been sultry women of questionable repute there to tempt them. For every Samson, there was a Delilah; of a slightly more recent but still formative vintage in the medium we’re dealing with, for every Spirit, there were a dozen vixens trying to steal his heart and his wallet, and pretty much every other pulp or comic author followed Will Eisner’s lead with their own creations.
Batman received his token bad girl in 1940 in the form of Catwoman. Though she would be squarely on the wrong side of the law during her first five decades or so of existence, Selina Kyle always carried a torch for the Caped Crusader that made her reform at least a possibility, and our hero seemed close to reciprocating on each occasion they met.
26 years later, the Batman Rogues Gallery gained its second-most prominent female member in the form of Dr. Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy. In her early, pre-Crisis appearances Ivy didn’t differentiate all that much from Catwoman in terms of being a hot lady who made out with Batman nearly as often as she fought him. However, as the grim 80’s dawned, comics became a bit more serious, feminism rose in stature and Catwoman edged closer to being a hero, Poison Ivy began to take on a harsher tone and represent a new breed of femme fatale for her genre.
In her modern incarnation, Poison Ivy stands out from the crowd of sexy seductress types because while she will flaunt her sexuality to achieve her goals, said goals never have anything to do with attracting the attention of a man, either on the surface or subconsciously. Catwoman and most of her ilk talk a good game about using boys as playthings, but there’s always that one unattainable dude—generally the hero of the piece—who can turn the tables on her.
There is no man for whom Poison Ivy would give up her mission.
That mission is one of ecological extremism, as Pamela Isley values plant-life more than humanity, and would gladly eradicate the latter to protect the former. The origin of Poison Ivy came about when appropriately a man—in this case Jason Woodrue, aka Atom and Swamp Thing villain The Floronic Man—seduced a young Pam and transformed her into a walking toxin capable of—and partial to—killing with a kiss.
When I first got into Batman, I always found Poison Ivy to be more interesting than Catwoman—and yes, more attractive, since I was after all a pre-teen boy—precisely because she was so unattainable and aloof. With Catwoman, you got the sense that if Batman really wanted, he could turn her to the side of good, which made her no real kind of threat. On the other hand, Poison Ivy was fully aware that with her green one-piece and overflowing sensuality every hot-blooded male she came into contact with including Batman felt like they were climbing the ropes in gym class when she showed up, but while this amused her, it didn’t interest her outside of how she could exploit her physical attributes to gain pawns and achieve her goals.
It’s one of the oldest romantic clichés in the book: the girl you can have you don’t want, but the girl who you’ve got no shot with is the one you think you need.
My all-time favorite portrayal of Poison Ivy came from the same place many of my favorite Batman-related things come from: Batman: The Animated Series. Series co-creator Paul Dini has never made a secret that Ivy’s one of his favorite characters—he’s utilized her several times in his comics work, most recently as one of the stars of Gotham City Sirens—and he clearly understands what makes the character work and keeps her unique from similarly motivated or powered villainesses.
Dini and the rest of the B: TAS brain trust demonstrate perfectly their grasp over Ivy in the episode “House and Garden,” where she seemingly reforms, gets married, and endeavors to live a normal life, fooling everybody including possibly Batman (he always seems at least a bit suspicious). It’s all a lie, of course, but via Ivy, the writers really lure you into rooting for and wanting to believe this character can be good only to harsh that buzz decisively in the end. Indeed episodes—and comics—where Ivy displays a false humanity only to pull that “Gotcha” moment in the end only underline how truly monstrous and detached from being a feeling person she really is, and make her that much more intriguing along the way.
Ivy pulls a similar trick in her first B: TAS appearance, “Pretty Poison,” where she seems to be Harvey Dent’s perfect fiancée, only to reveal her uncaring interior with an assassination rooted in revenge for his financing a construction project that unwittingly killed off a rare breed of flowers. In another episode—the name of which escapes me—Ivy tricks Alfred and Leslie Tompkins into attending a sort of spa weekend for the wealthy, then turns them and several others into trees as vengeance for their neglect of ecological issues, a visual which stuck with me a long time.
The people who worked on B: TAS got the essentials that make Poison Ivy work so well as a villain in my mind: first that she has a more complex reason for committing her acts of crime or terrorism than lust for power and one that she can justify in a way that readers must recognize as at least rational on some level (she’s trying to save the world, albeit in a complete insane way), and second that is a beautiful woman who recognizes her own assets and derives a sadistic glee from using them but not one that comes from being validated by men or a single man.
I actually don’t think Uma Thurman was too far off from creating a decent Poison Ivy in the reprehensible-to-the-masses Batman & Robin, in that she got the first part of that equation right and seemed to at least try to portray a certain lack of interest in her male pawns, but the makers of the film seemed to push her—or maybe she pushed herself—too far in the willing sexpot role, and never pulled back to the cold-blooded predator the way the cartoon did.
Of course as with any comic book character who has a significant backlog of appearances, Poison Ivy’s portrayals over the years have hemmed and hawed as far as quality, but as mentioned, there’s a pretty basic formula for getting her right that many writers latch onto nicely. Dini writes a great Ivy in his books and adding the element of her bizarre but passionate friendship with Harley Quinn certainly freshened up her dynamic. Of course I dug her role in John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, particularly in regard to her giving the arrogant Count Vertigo his comeuppance by making her his slave and in turn being metaphorically spanked by maybe the one character in the DC Universe who can pull such a thing off, Amanda Waller.
However, even in her most banal of appearances, it seems creators have enough of an understanding—respect?—for Poison Ivy that she never falls head over heels for Batman or decides Nightwing is hunky enough to trump keeping the world’s plants alive. That’s a good thing, as we always need at least one femme fatale who’s a bit more fatale than the rest.