Since he made his debut nearly 70 years ago, Batman has generated nine movies, three TV series, and hundreds of comic books and graphic novels that run the gamut from cartoonish sci-fi to stark social drama. As Les Daniels documents in his book Batman: The Complete History, the Caped Crusader’s story has proved extremely plastic. Created by comic-book artist Bob Kane, he began as a grim vigilante who sometimes killed criminals on the spot, but by the 1950s he’d become a strapping father figure whose nuclear family included not only Robin the Boy Wonder but Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Hound, and the elfin Bat-Mite. Over the years the Batman saga has drifted toward foolishness again and again, periodically corrected by young artists and writers who restored the character’s seething anger and devilish appearance.

The latest purification rite is Batman Begins. Christopher Nolan, director of psychological noirs like Memento and Insomnia, sold Warner Brothers on the idea of playing the story relatively straight and delving deeper into Batman’s origins as a child orphaned during a mugging. The film is too constrained by commercial demands to do anything really interesting with this idea, but by harping on the superhero’s tragic past it pinpoints the reason he’s stayed alive so long: the horror many Americans feel toward the modern city.

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The Batman creation myth dates back to November 1939, when Kane and story man Bill Finger used it as the two-page preface to an adventure called “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom.” Young Bruce Wayne and his parents are confronted by a stickup man while walking home from a movie, and both parents are murdered. Wayne pledges to spend the rest of his life fighting crime, and 15 years later he’s ready to begin. But he needs the right costume. “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,” he reasons. “So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible.” As if in answer, a bat flies through his window, and in the next panel his serrated black cape billows out behind him as he perches on the edge of a rooftop.

Sophocles it’s not, but it gave Batman enough of an inner life to distinguish him from his predecessors (Superman, Zorro, the Shadow), and it came at the end of a decade in which urban crime, fueled by prohibition and then the Depression, seemed to be devouring civilized society. At first the Batman stories were set in New York, but Finger changed that to the more universal Gotham City. Skyscrapers and shadowy rooftops became a primal backdrop for Batman’s adventures, a world where thugs ran wild and larger-than-life masterminds like the Joker and the Penguin were the logical extension of celebrity criminals such as John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. As the writers ran out of ideas, Batman and Robin began hooking up with Superman to battle villains from outer space, but in the noirish early stories their enemies were often the cigar-chomping crime bosses who owned the city.

Most of the campaigns to reinvent Batman have amplified the sense of Gotham City as an urban hellhole. The most dramatic makeover began in 1968, shortly after Kane retired and shortly before Richard Nixon won the presidency on a law-and-order platform. In the landmark comic-book story “One Bullet Too Many” Robin was hustled off to college, the Bat Cave was boarded up, and Bruce Wayne traded in Wayne Manor for a city penthouse. In a soliloquy to his loyal butler he declared, “We’re moving out of this suburban sanctuary, to live in the heart of that sprawling urban blight—to dig them out where they live and fatten on the innocent.” As part of this new phase, Wayne starts a program to help victims of violent crime, and his words could have been pulled from a stump speech by Spiro Agnew: “We suffer great pain over true justice—’rights of the individual,’ ‘innocent until proven guilty’ . . . all for the accused parties. But what about the ‘proven’ innocent—the victims?”

An even darker urban landscape looms in the Batman comics of artist-writer Frank Miller, who would go on to create Sin City. His series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Batman: Year One (1987), and Batman: Year Two (1987) were so popular they were republished in book form and helped launch the graphic novel genre. Year One gives Miller a chance to update Batman’s creation myth, which now transpires in a Gotham roiling with junkies, hookers, and homeless people. The police commissioner is on the take, his detectives are as cruel and repugnant as the criminals they shake down, and sensational TV news coverage only adds to the cesspool. The only honest man on the force is Lieutenant James Gordon, and his secret liaison with Batman places him in jeopardy with the cops, who want to snuff the spectral figure.

These changes were off the radar screen of the moviegoing public, which associated Batman with the pow-zap-zowie 60s TV show until Warners tapped Tim Burton, a former animator with a pronounced sense of the macabre, to direct Batman’s 1989 big-screen comeback. Burton ignored the TV show altogether and reached back to Bob Kane’s earliest comic books for inspiration, and for the first time Batman’s childhood trauma became part of the screen story, with the stickup man (later to become the Joker) memorably asking a terrified Bruce Wayne, “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” As many critics noted, this new Batman (Michael Keaton), with his jet-black fetish suit and spiky horns, seemed almost as disturbed as his clownish archenemy (Jack Nicholson).

Burton and production designer Anton Furst, who would win an Oscar for his work, conceived of a Gotham in which not the police but the planning commission seemed to be on the take—a monochrome jungle of clashing architectural styles. “Gotham City is definitely based in many ways on the worst aspects of New York,” Furst told writer Adam Pirani. “We even took things like prison architecture and stretched it into skyscrapers, and then the buildings of Louis Sullivan and ziggurat structures going back and then cantilevering out, and fascism, and putting it all together into huge massive vent structures, so you’re always expressing the underground. And just brutality, absolute brutality.” Two years after the movie came out, Furst committed suicide.

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After Burton bowed out with Batman Returns (1992), Warners handed the franchise over to Joel Schumacher, whose Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) slid back into the candy-colored camp of the 60s TV series. Warners kicked around several ideas for a fifth movie, including a Batman-Superman adventure and a live-action version of the animated Batman Beyond series. Frank Miller and director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream) took a crack at adapting Batman: Year One into a screenplay, but the idea of retelling Batman’s creation myth with a noirish director led the studio to Nolan.

Unfortunately Batman Begins developed as most Hollywood action movies do: it was budgeted at $180 million—Burton’s first movie cost $40 million—yet the script, by Nolan and Blade screenwriter David S. Goyer, is a hack job. For all the hype about exploring Batman’s damaged psyche, Nolan and Goyer haven’t added much beyond a corny opening in which he falls down a well and is attacked by bats. Various story elements have been lifted from Year One and the 1999 graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween; Nolan and Goyer’s main contribution is an overblown sequence in which Wayne (Christian Bale) travels to a small village in the Himalayas and trains to become a ninja with Obi-Wan Kenobi stand-in Liam Neeson. Once the action shifts to Gotham City, Batman Begins has more genuinely frightening moments than any of the other movies, but the theme of fear and how it affects people is developed only through an endless series of portentous epigrams.

Like his predecessors, Nolan visualized Gotham as “New York cubed,” and in keeping with the downbeat-realism aesthetic, the cityscape is pocked with vast hillside shantytowns like those in Rio de Janeiro. Some exteriors were shot in Chicago, most memorably a hell-for-leather car chase on Lower Wacker Drive. The climax, in which supervillain Ra’s Al Ghul plots to poison Gotham’s water supply, unfolds along the Chicago River. This is the first Batman movie since the September 11 attacks, and I wasn’t exactly pleased to see a plot to annihilate an entire city transpiring on a bridge I cross several times a week. It reminded me of a recent Harper’s story by Jeff Sharlet, in which a Christian fundamentalist in Colorado Springs learns that Sharlet is from New York City and responds, “Ka-boom!” Ra’s Al Ghul expresses much the same sentiment when he tells Batman, “No one can save Gotham. . . . Purging is inevitable.” If that’s the way Americans generally feel about cities and city dwellers, somebody better crank up that Bat Signal, and fast.