s the axe-wielding yuppie Patrick Bateman in the darkly comic American Psycho, actor Christian Bale acquired a taste for torture and Huey Lewis and the News (one and the same to many people's way of thinking). Now, the 31-year-old is tackling the darkest of comic book characters-The Batman-who possesses a similarly psychotic streak.

  After all, it's a certain kind of sicko who dresses up like a flying rat to avenge his parents' murder. Which is precisely why the Hollywood outsider-and admitted comic book non-fan-was drawn to playing the Caped Crusader in this summer's big-budget Batman Begins. "I heard they were doing a Batman not aimed at kids and I was tantalized," Bale says.

  It's been eight years since director Joel Schumacher slapped some nipples on George Clooney's Batsuit and sent the Bat-franchise into the deep freeze. Now, it's up to Bale and director Chris Nolan to resurrect one of the most-profitable movie franchises in history ($1.1 billion and counting), and lend it a little Spider-Man-style respectability.

  At first, the Welsh-born Bale seems an unlikely choice to play the all-American hero: He's a serious dramatic actor with a strong history in the theater (unlike say Michael Keaton, who was best-known for comedic turns in Gung Ho and Beetlejuice before cleaning up Gotham).

  Part of a family of actors -- his grandfather doubled for John Wayne, his mother was a circus clown and a dancer, and his sister is a theater director -- Bale made his big-screen debut as the cute kid stuck in a World War II internment camp in Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. He transitioned to adult roles when he was handpicked by Winona Ryder to star opposite her in Little Women. Turns as a glam-rock fan alongside Ewan McGregor in Velvet Goldmine, a dragon slayer in Reign of Fire opposite Matthew McConaughey, and a futuristic cop schooled in the ways of "gun kata" in Equilibrium have earned him a devoted following. (Entertainment Weekly recently crowned Bale as one of the "Top 8 Most Powerful Cult Figures" of the past decade.)

  So his casting as Batman comes as a relief to die hard Bat-fans. Nolan, however, seems like more of a gamble. Neither of his previous movies were about anything remotely heroic: Memento was a non-linear art film while Insomnia's Alaskan murder mystery had trouble keeping audiences awake. Not exactly the ideal training ground for making a rich man in a cape and cowl cool again.

  But Nolan possesses something Schumacher never did: a passion for the man behind the mask. As Bale points out, "The villains were always the most interesting characters in the other films." Nolan also had a plan to rescue Batman from the cartoonish abyss into which Schumacher had plunged him. Before filming began, Nolan screened Ridley Scott's future-noir classic Blade Runner for the cast and crew, telling them, "This is how we're going to make Batman." The message was clear: Put the "dark" back in the Dark Knight.

  "We set out to make things as realistic as possible, right down to the gadgets and the Batmobile," says Bale. "There's an explanation for everything -- how they work, where they came from."

  Batman Begins isn't a sequel to the Keaton-Kilmer-Clooney films. And despite the title, it's not a prequel.  It's a complete reboot of the series. "We want you to forget there has ever been a Batman before this one," explains Bale. "[It's] his early days, the beginnings of Bruce Wayne. So you do see him as a very young boy, and then you see him at age 22, and then you see him again at age 29 or 30. A very large part of the movie is taken up with that before you even see any ears at all."

  The movie starts with the event that sparked Bruce Wayne's transformation into the vengeance-seeking superhero-witnessing his parents being gunned down in the street. He travels to the Far East to train with the ninja cult leader known as Ra's Al-Ghul (The Last Samurai's Ken Watanabe) and his man-at-arms, Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson again in Jedi master mode), before returning to a decaying Gotham City overrun by organized crime and terrorized by the likes of the fear-mongering Scarecrow (28 Days Later's Cillian Murphy). Rounding out the high-caliber cast are Michael Caine as Bruce Wayne's faithful manservant Alfred, Gary Oldman as Gotham police detective James Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Batman's gadget guru Lucius Fox and Katie Holmes as damsel-in-distress Rachel Dodson.

  And while the story might seem very paint-by-numbers in a Joseph Campbell sort of way, Bale and Nolan are committed to giving fans what's been missing from previous incarnations of the Bob Kane character. "I've never felt like the Batman character was given as much to do as any of the villains," says Bale. He promises Batman Begins will be different, with Batman front and center. "I wanted to attempt to base it in reality, starting from a realistic point of view of the pain and the trauma that a child has been through, and really look at it as that instead of just [he's] this incredibly theatrical character that jumps around in a Batsuit, which to me would be kind of stupid if I met him in the street," he continues. "I'd never really felt the danger of Batman that I felt should be appropriate." 

  This interpretation allowed Bale to dig into the nastier side of the character's psyche. "I really attempted to become a different creature that just kind of ceases to be human at that point. And frankly I had to do that out of necessity just because I felt like an idiot when I was just standing in the Batsuit and being a guy. 'Like, Hi I'm Mr. Batman,'" he says with a chuckle. "This is somebody who is fanatical. He's attempting to take his pain and his guilt and his anger and the rage and do something good with it, even though his impulses are that he wants to break bones and do damage. So there's always that conflict -- he could do good things, but he could just as easily become the ultimate villain."

  Dressing up as Batman was like one long Halloween night for Bale, who tore through 30-odd black rubber Batsuits during the film's seven-month production. "When I put everything on, it made me feel like a creature. I didn't feel human anymore -- I felt like a panther," he says. "It makes you feel like you want to kind of run and jump at people and beat the crap out of them."

  And while shooting 12- and 14-hour days in the summer in Chicago may have been uncomfortably hot, it's nothing compared to the heat the reclusive star will feel once the film is released. But Bale, who has managed to keep the personal life he shares with his wife of five years, Sibi Balzic, out of the limelight, says he's ready for that, too. "There may be a couple of months of madness when it first comes out. But I just feel like, if you're not pursuing that elitist, rarified Hollywood life, which I'm not and which I really do not ever want to be a part of, I believe it'll be okay."

  So what does Bale do to unwind at the end of a day spent playing Batman? "I go out and kick the s--t out of criminals," he deadpans.

- John Black