The latest Hollywood superhero blockbuster, The Dark Knight, has broken all box office records, raking in almost $160 million on its first weekend in the US.
This bleak incarnation of Batman is heavily influenced by writer and artist Frank Miller’s reimagining of the character in the 1980s.
That had an apocalyptic feel and showed the contradictions in the central character – not to mention the right wing implications of his obsessive hunt for justice.
But Batman has not always appeared this way. The character is pulled is different directions, from back alley brutality at one extreme to the camp 1960s TV series at the other.
Batman made his debut in Detective Comics in May 1939. The strip, created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, was grim and violent, owing much to the brutal heroes of the popular pulp adventure magazines such as The Shadow, who dispensed rough, bloody justice in the Depression-wracked US.
The Batman strip reflected a society imperilled by social collapse and war.
In this world the corrupt police could not be trusted. Only an outlaw vigilante like Batman could protect ordinary people from the grotesque villains who terrorised Gotham City.
Unlike most other superheroes, Batman had no super powers. He relied on his Sherlock Holmes-like detective skills, and an ability to instil terror into his enemies.
He was shown as a damaged character, taking revenge on the criminal underworld for the murder of his parents during a robbery.
Superman on the other hand represented the safe self-image of the US. His secret identity was mild mannered Clark Kent. Such an everyman alter ego would not do for an nightmarish outlaw figure like the early Batman.
For the comic to be acceptable he had to show faith in the American dream at some level. And how better than by revealing his real identity as Bruce Wayne, playboy industrialist with a mansion and a butler?
When Batman first appeared he was armed with a gun and used it to dispatch his foes.
But a year into the comic’s run – in what was to become a recurring process – the character was mellowed. His gun disappeared to be replaced by a sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder.
This change was part of an attempt to dissipate the bleak atmosphere, and resulted in a near doubling of the comic’s circulation.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, as US capitalism boomed and the bad dreams were put aside, Batman himself became ever more camp and comic.
Batman moved from being a driven vigilante who passed for a normal member of society, to a rich playboy, whose philanthropy was furthered by dressing in a funny costume and playing with gadgets.
A whole stable of other bat characters joined him, including Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite, while the grotesque villains became merely bizarre.
This was the version that inspired the comic TV series.
The unsettling darkness was to reappear in the early 1970s, during the period of the radical upsurge against the Vietnam War. Years of bat-kitsch were discarded and Batman was restored to his roots as a driven vigilante with an ambivalent relationship to the law.
It was Frank Miller’s extreme take on this version of the character that inspired director Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. It was enormously popular, but the sheer perversity of the character was a problem for Hollywood.
In the third film in the sequence Burton’s dark vision was jettisoned for a slicker, glossier and less edgy version. By the fourth, Batman and Robin (1997), the descent into kitsch was complete. The slickness had an initial appeal, but no sense of conviction and its popularity soon waned.
It is as though the artistic needs of the character are constantly overridden by the desire to make Batman palatable to the widest possible audience.
Dark Knight is a sequel that builds on 2005’s Batman Begins – another journey back to the story’s roots.