By Jason Lynch
July 04, 2005 12:00 PM

Saving Gotham City from nefarious baddies, including a psychotic Scarecrow? Sure thing. Juggling dual identities? No problem. Filling out the bat suit? That required some major effort for Batman Begins star Christian Bale. The Welsh-born actor is known for transforming his body for roles: As the yuppie serial killer in 2000’s American Psycho, he turned himself into a perfectly sculpted work of art. In last year’s The Machinist he dropped a third of his body weight to play an emaciated insomniac. After he completed that movie, he spent only five months bulking up—from 121 lbs. to 220 lbs.—as the new Batman. “I will adjust for what is needed,” says Bale, who had pursued the part since reading graphic novels about the character in 2000. “But only if I have quite an obsession about that role.”

He’s not the only one suffering from Batmania. The movie grossed $72.9 million in its first five days of release, and critics are calling Batman Begins—the darkest movie so far in the franchise—the best yet. Bale, 31, has also made the role his own—a superheroic feat considering that the last bat guy was George Clooney. “As sleek as a panther,” raved The New York Times, “Mr. Bale makes a superbly menacing avenger.” Still, costar Michael Caine, who plays Alfred the butler, wasn’t so sure that Bale was quite right. “I’d thought, ‘He’s kind of thin for Batman,’ ” says Caine. “But then when I walked on-set, there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger standing.”

Just months earlier Bale had looked more like Screech. For The Machinist he had lost 63 lbs.; at one point he had only one latte and an apple each day. “I was very weak,” he told the Associated Press. “But I didn’t actually feel bad.” He began rebuilding his body immediately after the movie wrapped in July 2003. Within two months, for a Batman Begins screen test, he had packed on 60 lbs. by eating high-carb foods like bread and pasta. “I did feel,” he says, “like I was putting my body under too much pressure.”

The pressure intensified once he nabbed the part. “I couldn’t do a single pushup,” says Bale, whose muscles had atrophied after Machinist. He added another 40 lbs. over the next few months, with the help of trainer Efua Baker and a strict diet of chicken, tuna and steamed vegetables. “He worked harder than anyone I’ve ever trained,” says Baker, who guided him through daily three-hour running and weight sessions. “Every morning he would look different from the day before.”

Before entering the land of blockbusters with Batman, Bale, who was inspired to act by his older sister, then-stage actress Louise, had largely flown under the media radar. Growing up throughout England—dad David, who died in 2003, was an environmentalist (he married Gloria Steinem in 2000); mom Jenny is a former dancer—he landed his first TV commercial at 9 but was spooked by the resulting fame from his breakout role in 1987’s Empire of the Sun. “I ran from it,” he told the AP. “I said, I like the acting, but I really don’t want anything to do with the rest of it.'” Audiences rediscovered him in the 1994 hit Little Women. Since then, he has alternated big-budget films like 2000’s Shaft with independent fare like 2003’s Laurel Canyon.

Still publicity-shy, Bale lives quietly in L.A. with his wife of five years, independent film producer Sibi Blazic, 35, and their daughter, who was born in March. He thinks she may like playing with the new Batman action figure in Dad’s likeness. “Hopefully,” says Bale, “my daughter will one day be able to enjoy sinking it in the pool or blowing it up.” She might have even more dolls to play with, as Bale, who next appears in the November drama The New World, has already signed on for another Batman film. First, he’s on another weight-loss regimen, this time to play Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in the drama Little Dieter Needs to Fly, though the star says he’ll be picky about altering his physique for future roles. “If you start doing it for the pure showing off value,” he says, “then that gets ridiculous.”

Jason Lynch. Brenda Rodriguez and Amy Longsdorf in L.A. and Sara Hammel in London