For more than 70 years, the caped crusader has captivated our imaginations. He’s headlined comic books, videogames and cartoons; been the center of a campy television show; and served as the main attraction in seven mega-grossing films. In "The Dark Knight Rises," opening at midnight Thursday, he is once again portrayed by Christian Bale as an emotionally damaged, justice-seeking vigilante. But here’s how the character first created by D.C. Comics in the midst of the Great Depression has evolved over the decades.
DETECTIVE COMICS (1939): Billed as "The Batman," Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting alter ego was brought to life by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger in issue #27 of the popular comic series, titled "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate." This Batman was far more cold-blooded than later incarnations and less skittish about killing bad guys.
BATMAN (1940): Batman's popularity quickly grew, and by 1940 the masked avenger was starring in his own spin-off comic. The first issue of the series would introduce two of the hero's greatest enemies, the Joker and Catwoman.
"BATMAN" MOVIE SERIAL (1943): The Dark Knight's first big screen appearance came in a series of Saturday afternoon shorts courtesy of Columbia Pictures. Starring B-actor Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin and produced at the height of World War II, the crime fighting duo were often tasked with taking on Nazi and Japanese agents.
"BATMAN" TV SHOW (1966-68): Pow! Bam! Zonk! With its cornball humor and lava lamp aesthetic, ABC's TV series -- starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin -- found the goofy side in the superhero's vigilantism. For much of its three seasons, the often cheesy show was one of the most popular programs on television, with big names like Burgess Meredith and Julie Newmar routinely stopping by to play super-villains.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT (1986): Comic-book legend Frank Miller's ("300") moody interpretation of Batman as a 55-year-old crimefighter pushed out of retirement was a hit with graphic-novel fans and is considered to be a high-water mark for the art form. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have both credited the series as an inspiration for their big-screen versions of Batman's story.
"BATMAN" (1989): Tim Burton revived the brooding hero for a whole new generation. Fans were outraged when funnyman Michael Keaton, then best known for "Beetlejuice," was cast as Bruce Wayne, but most fell in love with his off-beat take on the character, and the movie shattered box office records en route to becoming the highest grossing film of the year.
"BATMAN RETURNS" (1992): The massive success of "Batman" made a sequel inevitable. In short order, Warner Bros. brought back Tim Burton and Michael Keaton. It added new villains like Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. The film was a financial success and Pfeiffer's performance as the slinky cat burglar earned raves, but some griped that "Batman Returns" was too dark and downbeat.
BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-95): Launched in part as a spin-off to Burton's popular films, this cartoon version of the caped crusader's exploits aired on Fox throughout the early '90s. The film noir look and feel of the show was dubbed "Dark Deco" by its creators.
"BATMAN FOREVER" (1995): After Warner Bros. was turned off by the violent and hyper-sexual tone of "Batman Returns," Burton and original star Keaton departed for other pastures. They were replaced by Joel Schumacher, who brought a jokier and more family-friendly approach to the material, and Val Kilmer, who was a sexier, but far blander Bruce Wayne. The film was a big hit, earning the second most money domestically the year it came out and the studio quickly fast-tracked a sequel.
"BATMAN & ROBIN" (1997): After the success of "Batman Forever," Warner Bros. pushed forward with a Schumacher-directed sequel. But the director had clashed with Kilmer on the previous film and, in his words, the actor "sort of quit, and we sort of fired him." He didn't miss much. To this day, his replacement George Clooney continues to poke fun at the film and his suit's outlandish codpiece. With a hammy performance from Arnold Schwarzenegger and an incomprehensible plot, "Batman & Robin" bombed with audiences and critics, killing off the film franchise for nearly a decade.
"BATMAN BEGINS" (2005): Christopher Nolan, best known for the low-budget mystery "Memento," took on his first big-budget assignment and pulled it off beautifully. Unlike Schumacher's brightly colored vision of Gotham City, Nolan saw the project as a crime film like "Heat" that just happened to be centered on a man in tights. To fill out the face behind the mask, Nolan tapped Welsh actor Christian Bale, who mined new emotional depths in the playboy Bruce Wayne, but sported an odd and guttural voice as Batman. The film was a hit with critics and a financial success, though not a blockbuster on the scale of other films in the franchise. It was the eighth highest grossing domestic release of the year, but managed to build up a more devoted following after its home entertainment release.
"THE DARK KNIGHT" (2008): Nolan's follow-up to "Batman Begins" took the franchise to new heights. Heath Ledger's lunatic menace as the Joker instantly achieved iconic status and earned the late Aussie actor a posthumous Oscar. As for the film itself, Nolan used the Batman saga as a meditation for such heady topics as terrorism, showing that men in tights movies don't have to sacrifice artistry for eyeballs. No slouch at the box office, "The Dark Knight" went on to gross north of $1 billion worldwide, a new record for the film series.
BATMAN: ARKHAM ASYLUM (2009): Developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Eidos Interactive, this multi-player game holds the distinction of being the most critically acclaimed superhero videogame of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The action game finds Batman forced to battle a dizzying array of super-villains after his old nemesis the Joker frees them from prison. Strong sales led the game makers to release a sequel, "Batman: Arkham City," which hit stores in 2011.
"THE DARK KNIGHT RISES" (2012): And so it ends ... well, at least until the inevitable reboot. The final film in Nolan's Batman trilogy takes up eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight." Still physically and emotionally shattered after his confrontation with the Joker and the death of Rachel Dawes, Gotham City's protector must heed the Bat Signal one more time and take on the combined threat of Bane (Tom Hardy) and Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Will he succeed? We’ll know Friday.