Batman started serious, went campy in the '60s, and was steered by a superfan back to the grimness of Tim Burton's 1989 movie and of Christopher Nolan's present-day trilogy.
The Batman who shows up in Friday's The Dark Knight Rises actually is something like your grandfather's Batman. Uttering a barely intelligible growl, facing off against villains that recall real-life terrorists, and confronted again and again by his own mortality, the Bruce Wayne imagined by director Christopher Nolan reflects the grim avenger that debuted in 1939, so po-faced that in 2008's The Dark Knight the Joker took to taunting him about it: "Why... so...serious?"
Batman has been so successfully remade in recent years that we scarcely remember how, for a generation, the Dark Knight lived in the public imagination as a pot-bellied caped crusader with a goofy sidekick. ABC's live-action Batman TV series, which ran from 1966 to 1968, was deliberately campy ("To the Batpole!") and created a long-enduring association between the superhero and the cartoonish onomopeias "Pow!" "Zap!" and "Wham!"
The story of how the farcical Batman of the '60s transformed into the solemn one of today mirrors the elevation of the comic book in general from belittled kiddie fare to the subject of academic inquiry and box-office-breaking, R-rated action movies. It's also a story of a 73-year-old franchise returning to its roots, reflecting its times, and helping build a multibillion dollar industry that churns out branded merchandise, video games, theme park attractions and annual conventions. And it's the story of one fan named Michael Uslan, who, as an 8th grader in the '60s, made a vow to save Batman.