The New Batman: Darker, But Gentler?

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.

From Pot-Bellied Batman to 'American Psycho' Dark Knight

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."

Chink in Heroes' Armor

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.

"All of our heroes in our society tend to have a chink in their armor, making them more endearing to the American sensibility," said M. Thomas Inge, author of "Comics as Culture" in a previous report. "They tend to have a compromised morality. … Huck Finn was not an ideal character. He did some questionable things to get what he wanted and faced a moral dilemma with Jim the slave before he ended up doing the right thing."

Batman Showing His Vulnerable Side?

As Spider-Man was gaining popularity, viewers saw West portray Batman -- laden with "Pow!" "Bang!" "Zoom!" bubble-word onscreen special effects -- on the TV series, which premiered in 1966. Though the series had its followers, The Dark Knight seemed to have lost his edge.

Batman's character underwent a resurgence, helped by the 1987 publication of Frank Miller's graphic novel "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns," which tells the story of an embittered Caped Crusader who comes out of a self-imposed exile to save Gotham.

Hollywood hopes "Batman Begins" will remind fans why they liked seeing Batman on the big screen while showing them a hidden side of the hero. The movie is directed by Christopher Nolan, the mind behind the critically acclaimed 2000 independent film "Memento."

"It's much more human," Bale said of the portrayal of Batman. "It focuses on Bruce Wayne and answers many questions like, why the hell is a guy dressing as a bat running around the city as a way to fight crime? He is facing his fears. You get to see his origins, you get to see him at age 8. You get to see him as a lost cause, as an angry young man who doesn't know what to do with his life."