The early buzz is that "Batman Begins" puts the darkness back in The Dark Knight. But let's face it, for a guy who is supposed to strike fear in criminals -- and to a lesser extent, his audience -- Batman hasn't looked so fearsome in Hollywood sometimes.
Warner Bros. is resurrecting the franchise that first became a blockbuster in 1989 with Michael Keaton in the lead role and Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman." Over the course of three sequels, the franchise was ridiculed by fans and critics.
The latest movie, starring Welsh actor Christian Bale, is set to open Wednesday.
"It's a darker take on Batman than any of the previous movies," said Bale, who became interested in the character after reading the graphic novel "Batman: Arkham Asylum," which was given to him by a friend.
Created by Bob Kane and debuting in Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939, Batman -- whose alter ego is wealthy Gotham socialite Bruce Wayne -- was an amalgamation of an affluent playboy and masked hero with the bat-like features of Dracula. As a child, Wayne saw his parents fatally shot by robbers and avenges their deaths by dressing like a bat and fighting crime.
Senior citizens may remember Robert Lowery's slightly paunchy Batman in Columbia Pictures' black and white "Batman and Robin" serial movies in 1949.
Many more people recall the pot-bellied, chicken-legged Caped Crusader portrayed by Adam West in the campy 1960s series.
Keaton and Val Kilmer captured some of Batman's brooding darkness in the films in the 1980s and 1990s, but they were often upstaged by Batman's villains, Nicholson's Joker and Jim Carrey's portrayal of The Riddler, respectively. And George Clooney, who wore a benippled batsuit in 1997's "Batman & Robin," did not win credibility with some diehard fans because of his sometimes affable demeanor onscreen.
The most reliable portrayal of the Dark Knight has been in comic books and graphic novels. "Batman Begins," which explores the hero's origin, has its roots in DC Comics' "Legends of the Dark Knight" and graphic novels such as "Batman: Arkham Asylum," "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" and "Batman: The Long Halloween."
Bale, best known for his role in 2000's "American Psycho," said he had seen the previous movies and "wasn't very affected by them." Then a friend gave him "Arkham Asylum."
"I begrudgingly read it, thinking I wouldn't enjoy it. But I read it and thought, this is a really fascinating character," he said on ABC News' "Good Morning America."
Batman was dark and tormented long before Marvel Comics was credited with humanizing comic book superheroes in the 1960s. Batman was among the most popular comic book characters until a more vulnerable, sometimes awkward crime-fighting web crawler named Spider-Man made his debut in Marvel Comics in 1962.
Readers saw humanity and a vulnerability in Marvel characters like Spider-Man and others that was sometimes missing in Batman, despite the circumstances of his origin. But in some ways, Batman is more haunted than most comic book characters and uses tactics and crosses moral lines that they wouldn't cross.