Under the stewardship of three very different directors - Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan - the Batman of the big screen has had vastly different guises. Some are beguiling, some are baffling - and some have nipples on them.
Join us today for our final look back at the first two entries in the Dark Knight saga: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight...
Batman Begins (2005)
"You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman," said Sam Hamm, screenwriter of the 1989 Batman. Pity Christopher Nolan, then, who threw away a promising directorial career to do just that in Batman Begins, Warner Bros's roll of the dice to rescue the status of the franchise from that of a laughing stock after the risible Batman & Robin.
Whereas that film managed to do absolutely nothing right, Batman Begins does nigh-on everything right. The dark, muted cinematography of Wally Pfister is beautiful, and the sprawling yet understated production design is perfectly suited to the more grounded Gotham City of the Nolan universe.
Where Nolan really demonstrates is his ability for incredibly rewarding, intelligent storytelling - while the Burton movies had paid lip service to classic Batman tales such as Year One, The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns, before Batman Begins none of the screenwriters had the skill or inclination to properly delve into the complex themes that were explored in them, such as the duality of the Batman/Bruce Wayne persona, Batman and his enemies' conflicting views on the nature of society, the ways fear and guilt can motivate behaviour, and the moral relativism of vigilantes.
Bear in mind here that we're talking about a character who in his last big-screen outing bid on Poison Ivy at an auction with a Bat-credit card, so it's hard to convey the sense of relief felt by long-time Bat-fans to see someone actually tackle the stuff that made the very best stories so interesting to fans.
Perhaps the greatest success of Batman Begins (and possibly the whole saga), however is its impeccable casting - with the solid foundations laid down here, how could the series fail? Bale is the best Batman/Bruce Wayne by a country mile - seamlessly switching between as the wisecracking billionaire playboy of the public Bruce Wayne; his tortured, thoughtful private persona, and a controlled, terrifying Batman.
Michael Caine and Gary Oldman provide definitive versions of Alfred and Lieutenant Gordon, Morgan Freeman offers some dry wit as Lucius Fox, while Tom Wilkinson, Cillian Murphy and Liam Neeson provide appropriately villainous scenery-chewing. Katie Holmes is generally regarded as the weak point, but she's still far from being bad.
Batman Begins took a risk by actually being the first Batman film to be actually about Batman, with the villains taking a back seat to the exploration of the Caped Crusader's fragile psyche. The gamble paid off, as the film achieved huge commercial success and pleased mainstream audiences alike.
It's a magnificent film that only improves on repeated viewing - richly layered, surprisingly funny, scary thrilling, emotionally rewarding, and superbly acted - that lays the foundations spectacularly for the 'Nolanverse'. Anyway, if memorable villains were your thing, the film's brilliant tease of an ending left no doubt that we'd be in for something special with the next instalment.
The Dark Knight (2008)
"You complete me."
One of the most treacherous aspects of the internet is that, as Rooney Mara says in The Social Network, it's not written in pencil - it's written in ink. Which means we can all look back and have a good laugh at some of the internet reaction to Heath Ledger's casting as the Joker.
"And now begins the second downfall of the Batman series...", "I am NOT seeing this movie if he is in it", "Probably the worst casting of all time", "I'll keep expecting him to have sex with Batman", and so on.
It sounds ludicrous now, of course, but then hindsight is 20/20: despite a scintillating performance in Brokeback Mountain there really was nothing to suggest Ledger was able to provide a character as iconic as his Joker in The Dark Knight.
Finally, thanks to him, the snarling, twitching, psychopathic creep of the comics and the excellent animated series made it on to the big screen, with Ledger mixing aspects of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Mark Hamill's animated version and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet into his own warped creation.
Nolan takes the opportunity to use his expertly drawn Gotham City to tell a sprawling crime epic with the grandeur of a Greek tragedy, as the main participants become involved in a savage war for the soul of the city.
Batman believes people are inherently good, while the Joker believes people will devolve into animals if placed in the right situation, with DA Harvey Dent/Two-Face (the fantastic Aaron Eckhart) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal filling in for Katie Holmes) reduced to pawns in the pair's violent game of cat and mouse.
The Dark Knight is an incredibly brutal film - it's still hard to believe the Joker's pencil trick made it into a 12-rated movie - and it received criticism from some for being too dark, but while it remains true to its heavy themes it never loses sight of its aim to thrill and entertain.
It's still a very funny film in places, and features by far the best action sequences of any Batman movie. The opening heist is masterfully shot, and the truck-chase centerpiece is a classic; I can't remember a more visceral reaction from a cinema audience to an action sequence than to the end of that sequence.
With The Dark Knight, Nolan finally made the Batman masterpiece that had remained dangling elusively out of reach for so many years - dark (obviously), intelligent, incredibly exciting and cinematically rich, while remaining utterly true to the soul of its source material.
It's all so unlikely - a dour, at times depressing and complex mediation on the transient nature of morality that went on to make more money at the box office than Jurassic Park and The Lion King.
It'll be a tough act to follow.
The Dark Knight Rises opens in cinemas on Friday (July 20).
Watch the trailer for the film below: