Published June 15, 2005
The Dark Knight gets reinvented again in "Batman Begins," (search) which rescues the character from recent, over-the-top films and makes the vigilante more frightening.
"Fear is what sets this Batman story apart," says David Goyer, who wrote "Batman Begins." "Usually Batman is driven mostly by revenge."
In this dark go-round, Batman is driven mostly by his deep-rooted childhood fears that he wishes to pass on to the criminals of Gotham City to avenge the murder of his parents.
"It's the subtext of the entire film -- not just [his alter-ego] Bruce Wayne's own fear [of bats], but also his fear about living up to the shadow cast by his father, of not letting the memories of his parents down and dealing with the fears of other people. It's something that the villains of the film prey upon," Goyer says.
The new film is set in an intensely believable world," adds DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz, as compared to the cartoonish universe of 1997's "Batman & Robin."
"You feel that what happens is more possible and important. It's a place were you can see yourself living," Levitz says.
A Bat Is Born
Batman was created in 1939, right about the time Superman became a national craze. But the character, invented by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, was a very different kind of hero -- a sort of caped, souped-up character, moving like a wraith over the rooftops of Gotham to fill criminals with white-knuckled fear.
Superman operated in the light; Batman, the dark.
In every Batman story, his rage and hunger for revenge stems from the horror of witnessing the murder of his wealthy parents at the hands of muggers when he was a young boy. As he grows, Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne uses the unlimited funds he's inherited to devote his life to martial arts and acquire or build crime fighting gadgets.
"It's almost a perfect origin story," says Denny O'Neil, the legendary DC Comics editor who wrote Batman comics from 1968 until 1986 and then oversaw the editing of all of the hero's tales until 2001. "The costume is very iconic and has evolved over the years. Every comic artist wants to draw him at least once."
Kane, who died in 1998, said he was inspired to draw Batman by the Dick Tracy newspaper strip and after studying some of Leonardo da Vinci's drawings.
Batman appeared in the May 1939 edition of Detective Comics No. 27, and was an immediate hit. Less than a year later, Batman's sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, was introduced in Detective Comics No. 38, and sales doubled.
But for many, Batman came alive in a jingoist 15-part serial from 1943 called "The Batman." In it, he and Robin take on a WWII Japanese spy (played by a white actor in yellowface) who turns people into zombies.
By 1945, the crime-fighting team, now dubbed the Dynamic Duo, could be heard weekly on the radio. They popped up on screen again in another multi-part serial in 1949's "Batman and Robin."
Even in those early years, despite the lighter tone of most pop-culture, Batman was still a dark character in comics. One early appearance even had him wielding a gun at two thugs while they slept.
But over time, portrayals of Batman have differed wildly.
His personality has seesawed from threatening to corny, to violent to sublime and back again, depending on the audience and era. For example, in the current kid-centric animated show on The WB network, "The Batman," he is far less violent and dark than he is in "Batman Begins."
Batman's temperament makeover became most apparent in 1950s, when the federal government enacted the Comics Code to assure parents that mainstream comic publishers were not playing up violence and sex in their books.
Batman mellowed out and fought outlandish villains in crazy surroundings instead of his more familiar gritty fare. New loopy friends were introduced like his dog, Ace the Bathound, and Bat-Mite, a magical creature from another dimension that decides to help the hero fight crime in Gotham.
The height of silliness was the extremely popular, campy '60s TV comedy starring Adam West.
Burt Ward, who played Robin on the show, became famous for his character's wacky penchant for pairing the word "Holy ...!" with whatever was going on around them -- as in "Holy hairballs, Batman!" during a face-off with vixenish villain, Catwoman.
Yet, at the same time, people were exposed to more and more real world violence as the Vietnam War unfolded on TV and Batman regained his harder edge in comic books. O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, the main forces at DC behind the character at the time, are credited with ushering in the modern version of the vigilante that most people are familiar with today.
By 1986, artist/writer Frank Miller ("Sin City") sparked a new wave of Batmania when he reintroduced Batman as an old, angry man in "The Dark Knight Returns."
The limited-run comic book series became a smash hit, and a year later Miller offered a modern take on the character's origin story in what would go on to become one of the most beloved Batman tales of all time, "Batman: Year One." The story partly served as a template for "Batman Begins."
It also inspired an Emmy-winning animated show on FOX, which was noted for its surprisingly adult themes.
"We wanted to do a more serious, dramatic superhero show," says Bruce Timm, one of the creators of "Batman: The Animated Series," which ran for three seasons in the early 1990s.
Ironically, as the animated version of Batman became more brooding, the film version got more ridiculous. Michael Keaton's low-key portrayal of the character in "Batman" (1989) gave way to garish sequels in the late 1990s.
But through all his changes, there's one bit of consistency. No matter how violent or hokey Batman was, he has never intentionally killed anyone.
"That's what separates him from his enemies," Timm says. "Batman would never kill anyone."
The other enduring theme: There's a real man under the Batman suit, someone who is threatened by more than kryptonite. Batman frequently faces death, and has even suffered temporary paralysis, in his comic career.
"One of the things that made me enjoy writing Batman, rather than Superman," O'Neil says, "is he can be hurt and killed. It was always easier to get him in trouble.