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In Tim Burton's Batman Returns, Max Shreck throws Selena out a high story window where she plunges to the ground. It's not quite clear to me if she dies upon landing or just knocking at death's door.

Regardless, cats come out of nowhere and start licking her and nipping at her fingers:

Selena screen capture from Batman Returns

Next thing you know, she's more assertive, confident and has quite the spring in her step (the back-flips and whatnot).

What role did the cats play making Catwoman?

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up vote 18 down vote accepted

The way I've always read that scene is that she fell, but did not die. She did however suffer severe trauma. The larger part of that trauma was to her psyche. An oft used story telling instrument in movies is the personality switching trauma. This happened to Selena when she fell, it changed her into a more assertive character. Having the cats around her when she woke up as the new Selena "impressed" on her mind a more feline personality. Not only is she more aggressive and independent, she also moves and acts more like a cat. You could say that the trauma to her head made her more than a little bit 'insane'.

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I have not watched Batman Returns but if it is like Catwoman; Patience (the Catwoman incarnation of this movie) died and cats make her alive again.

It is told by the old woman (who is slightly implied to be Selena Kyle) that cats have magical powers and revived her from the dead and gave her abilities.

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