Why do we love Batman?

Holy bull's-eye: After decades of off-the-mark screen incarnations, "Batman Begins" finally nails the essence of the Caped Crusader.

Forget about death traps. How did Batman survive all those botched attempts to bring him to life, and why does he remain one of the world's most popular fictional characters?

As played by Christian Bale, the Dark Knight of "Batman Begins" is the one readers have wanted to see ever since Bob Kane created the character in 1939 in Detective Comics No. 27: grim and furious, haunted and driven by the murder of his parents, genuinely fearsome to crooks and, for a hero in tights, even sort of plausible. Unlike his predecessors, Bale, 31, is athletic enough for convincing action (which he even showed in the 2002 turkey, "Equilibrium"). And for once, the film's villains, Ra's al Ghul and The Scarecrow, aren't over-the-top ham showcases that steal the Bat Signal — er, the limelight, from the hero.

After watching rival Marvel Studios clean up at the box office with "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," while it has slogged along with stinkers ("Catwoman") and underperformers ("Constantine"), DC is finally poised for its first critical and commercial smash in many years.

Like any sensitive parent, DC won't pick a favorite child, but Batman seems to be its most popular one. (Quit whining, Superman.) The company lists a half-dozen different monthly bat-titles: the long-running "Batman" and "Detective Comics" as well as "Superman/Batman," "Batman: Gotham Knights," "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" and "The Batman Strikes!" Another starts in July: "All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder."

But wait, there's more. At Seattle's Comics Dungeon, Nicolette Butler counts at least 15 Bat-related titles, in addition to countless miniseries, including "Gotham Central" (about a police precinct affected by Batman's battles), "Batgirl" and "Catwoman." DC President Paul Levitz has estimated 5,000 Batman stories told.

"We've been a little apprehensive after the last couple of Batman movies," Butler says. The chunky new Batmobile doesn't thrill her. Still, she says, based on customers who have seen "Batman Begins," "The word on it's great."

Although screenwriting credit goes to David Goyer ("Blade Trinity") and director Christopher Nolan, "Batman Begins" also draws from at least a couple of well-known comics' story lines:

• Frank Miller's 1986 "Batman: Year One," a masterful retelling of Bruce Wayne's shaky beginnings as Batman and his friendship with honest young cop (and future commissioner) Jim Gordon.

• The early '70s appearances of terrorist and would-be father-figure Ra's al Ghul ("The Demon's Head") by writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. After decades of inanity that included "Bat-Mite" and a "Bat-Hound," their work — especially the realistic renderings of star cover-artist Adams — returned to the darker, grimmer persona that has reigned ever since.

What's given Batman such longevity? As inherently absurd as costumed comic heroes are, he should be awfully dated, too. Hey, you don't see a lot of Doll Man or Blackhawk these days.

In short: He's a badass.

Kane introduced him a year after Superman debuted but didn't give him a single power. He's not even a superhero. Strictly speaking, he's a masked hero, in the tradition of Zorro and the Green Hornet. Batman has anger, nerve and intellect (he is, after all, the World's Greatest Detective). He plans ahead like a chess master. He's in top physical condition and an expert martial artist. The only thing he has that you and I don't is a vast fortune that has bought him an array of gadgets that would give James Bond's "Q" an inadequacy complex.

He works at it.

Seattle writer Tom Peyer, who wrote an outstanding three-issue story in "Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight" in 2003, says, "He's braver and more capable than anyone, and he cares about what happens to us. And no one dresses better. I've admired him since I was a little boy, so, brief as our encounter was, I'm honored to have put a few bat-words into his bat-mouth."

Then there's both the darkness and the vulnerability. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jules Feiffer put it this way in his landmark 1965 essay, "The Great Comic Book Heroes" (available reprinted from Fantagraphics, $8.95): "Batman got more meaningfully into the fray and, in consequence, was more clobbered. ... If you pricked him, he bled — buckets. Superman's superiority lay in the offense, Batman's lay in the rebound. With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own.

"The Batman school preferred a vulnerable hero to an invulnerable one, preferred a hero who was able to take punishment and triumph in the end to a hero who took comparatively little punishment, just dished it out. I suspect the Batman school of having healthier egos."

Speaking of punishment, that brings us to the cinematic ancestors of "Batman Begins." First, a couple of black-and-white adventure serials:

"The Batman" (1943, not on DVD): Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are FBI agents battling the evil Chinese Dr. Daka (hammy, white Irishman J. Carrol Naish), who turns people into zombies with a funky electric hat. Wilson is an ungainly, doughy Batman with bulky black trunks that look like a diaper over his gray tights.

"Batman and Robin" (1949, Columbia Tristar): Robert Lowery isn't much of an improvement in the tights, as a Batman who apparently never exercises. He and the Boy Wonder (Johnny Duncan) fight a villain wielding the deadly power of — wait for it — remote control over vehicles.

"Batman" (1966, not available on DVD): ABC's colorful, campy half-hour show was a huge hit that captured the '60s zeitgeist and spread Batmania around the globe — from Bat-bangs to the Batusi dance to Bat-merchandising that would make George Lucas look restrained. Star Adam West (again, not much with the exercise) delivered the most preposterous lines superbly straight-faced. He taunts a defeated Mr. Freeze thusly: "Naturally you didn't know I was wearing my special super-thermal-B long underwear for extreme cold."

Unfortunately, it took Batman and the entire comics art form another 30 years or so to shake off the "Pow!" "Biff!" stigma. See "Holy bulls-eye" above. (And while we're on the subject, RIP Frank Gorshin, Emmy-nominated as The Riddler, who died May 17.)

"Batman — The Movie" (1966, Fox, unrated): Series regulars made the feature between the TV show's first and second seasons. Even more of an outright comedy, it featured a hilarious sequence in which the Caped Crusader races around a pier looking for a place to ditch a bomb, and the first ever use of Shark-Repellant Batspray.

"Batman" (1989, Warner, PG-13): They should have called it "The Joker," because it was mainly a showcase for Jack Nicholson's strenuously manic character. Still, it was an enormous hit. Director Tim Burton scored with the shadowy, nightmarish look of Gotham City. But casting comedy actor Michael Keaton remains the subject of bitter nerd debates. He looked like he needed help lifting his leg when he kicked someone. And changing the long-established mythology to make the Joker the killer of young Bruce Wayne's parents is one of the all-time most bone-headed revisions.

"Batman Returns" (1992, Warner, PG-13): Burton cranked up the darkness another notch and introduced Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, cool) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito, just kind of repellant). Keaton gets to do some world-class brooding, but little else of interest.

"Batman Forever" (1995, Warner, PG-13): Director Joel Schumacher earned himself a few acres in Cinema Hell for the next two increasingly silly installments. Val Kilmer was an unmemorable cipher as Bruce Wayne/Batman, eclipsed by an exhausting Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face.

Enter Chris O'Donnell as Robin, and a fleeting acknowledgment of the longtime gay innuendo that officially began with Dr. Frederick Wertham's infamously ignorant 1954 treatise, "Seduction of the Innocent." Even in the cynical Michael Jackson scandal universe, that's way tedious. As Michael Chabon put it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," it's a father-son thing, plain and simple.

"Batman & Robin" (1997, Warner, PG-13): Schumacher put a stake in Batman's heart with this pile of guano. It had the costumes with nipples. And with the third different actor as Batman in four films, the series now officially suffered from Jack Ryan Syndrome (see the Tom Clancy films). George Clooney played Batman as, well, swaggerin' George Clooney. A hyper-camped Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) gave off a whiff of the TV series. But it was a whiff, not an aroma.

Based on all of these, it's easy to imagine Batman calling filmmakers, not criminals, "a superstitious, cowardly lot."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com