Twenty-Five Years of ‘Batman:’ An Interview with Executive Producer Michael Uslan

“You can’t do serious comic book films!”

“You cannot do dark superheroes!”

“No one’s ever made an old television series into a movie!”

Executive Producer Michael E. Uslan remembers well the indignant howls. During the 1980s, every studio executive in Hollywood slammed their doors in his face. They refused to hear his pitch for a comic book movie aimed at adults. None of them believed that a summer blockbuster could be based on a character that the editor of DC Comics at the time referred to as “dead as a dodo.”

That all changed on June 23, 1989.

Twenty-five years ago today, Batman opened nationwide. Before its premiere, producers and audiences laughed about the idea of a dark and serious Batman, much like the two back-alley criminals at the beginning of the film. Just as he ambushes them, Batman quickly hit the box-office and declared its dominance. It shattered preconceived notions of what a movie based on “the funny pages” could be.

Writers such as Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller revived the dark and serious tone of Batman’s comics, but without Uslan’s guiding hand as Executive Producer on every Batman feature film since 1989, mainstream audiences of today would still remember the character for being the campy “Pow! Bam! Zap!” guy in blue underwear on primetime TV.

Imagine what would never have been without that first film: no animated series, no Dark Knight trilogy, no Arkham City, and no seventy-fifth anniversary celebration or the upcoming Batman Day on July 23. Imagine Batman dead as a dodo.

Yes, Uslan still remembers every door slammed in his face; however, to quote Jack Nicholson’s Clown Prince of Crime, it always bring a smile to his face.

When you talk to Uslan today, you get the privilege of listening to a born storyteller. He bubbles with confidence and energy, which comes from his childhood years spent devouring comic books in New Jersey. This was eons before the modern-day geek chic. Teenagers did not consider comic books cool. “We were ‘date challenged,’” he says. “If you were sixteen and a girl heard you still read and collected comic books, good luck.”

Uslan worked hard to legitimize comic books at every stage of his career, including the college course he created at Indiana University that examined comic books as psychological, anthropological, and mythological texts of twentieth-century America. He goes into great detail of the creation of this class in his entertaining memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman (Chronicle Books, 2011). While still in college, an internship at DC Comics led to his writing stories for The Shadow and The Avenger before he got a crack at penning Batman stories. He ultimately entered the entertainment business as an attorney for United Artists. After working at the company for four years on such films as Rocky, he left to pursue his dream of producing “a dark and serious Batman movie.”

It was far from easy.

“Warners had a right of first refusal on the picture,” he says, “and they wouldn’t even come in and let me pitch. They didn’t even want to hear what I had to say about Batman. They just said, ‘We have absolutely no interest in this. Goodbye, and good luck.’” According to him, the only reason Warner Bros. originally purchased DC Comics was for the rights to Superman.

More studios said no to the project. Uslan at the same time was providing for his wife Nancy and two children. “I honestly had no idea where my next dollar was going to come from.” Finally, after years of working with his producing partner Benjamin Melniker, they brought the project to Jon Peters and Peter Guber and attached director Tim Burton.

Tim Burton was unfamiliar to comic books, so Uslan says he met him for three separate lunches and shepherded him through the essential Gotham City stories, which helped Burton avoid the “crazy stuff:” no “Super Batman of Planet X, Bat-baby, or Bat-genie.” Nothing outlandish from the stories in the 1950s. Uslan instead gave Burton the original two-year run of Batman in Detective Comics, stories and artwork by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Jerry Robinson, George Russo, and Shelly Moldoff, along with the original Neal Adams/Denny O’Neil stories and the Marshall Rogers/Steve Englehart run of the same era. This helped define not only Burton’s take on Batman, but also the Joker and Gotham City.

“If we want audiences to really believe this,” Uslan says, “to do the world’s first truly dark and serious comic book superhero movie, number one: they must believe in Gotham City from the opening frames of the movie, because if they don’t do that, they will never believe there could be a guy getting dressed up as a bat and fighting a guy like the Joker.”

“Number two: this is not about Batman. If we want this to succeed as the first dark and serious comic book movie, this thing is about Bruce Wayne.”

It was Burton’s idea to cast Michael Keaton in the starring role. Of the three instances where fans have loudly protested against casting -- Keaton, Heath Ledger, and, most recently, Ben Affleck -- the clamor against Keaton rang the loudest. “Pitchforks and torches,” as Uslan describes it. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television outlets all voiced their dissent. That’s mainstream media. Contrast that to today’s trolls in the comment threads, and you realize how big the dissent really was. Even Uslan disagreed with the casting at first, but he admits Burton was ahead of the curve. Keaton is the actor who pioneered a traumatized Bruce Wayne, somewhat neurotic and even slightly psychotic enough to fight crime in a bat suit.

The film set two other major precedents: it was the first time producers announced a film at a major comic convention in New York (there still exist badges that tout “1980 -- The Year of The Batman”), and it was the first time a poster advertised a film with no title. That first reveal of the Batsignal billboard in Times Square whooped up a frenzy.

From the time he had obtained the rights to the actual release of the finished film, Uslan had spent a total of ten years getting it made.

Now, here we are, twenty-five years later. What legacy has it left? How has the movie influenced the character? How has Batman affected Batman?

“The most clear influences come first with the darkening of the costume [in the comics] and the added concept of it being armor,” Uslan says. He goes on to credit Burton with a brilliant justification as to why a cloaked and shadowed figure would bother to plaster a bright yellow Batsignal on his chest: “If he’s got a suit of armor on, he would want to draw attention away from his face into the chest where the armor is, so why not paint a target on it?”
 
Uslan also sees the late Academy Award-winning designer Anton Furst’s designs as a major part of Batman’s lore that has carried on in the last twenty-five years. “[DC] incorporated the darker Batman costume, incorporated the design work of Gotham City, the Batmobile started to look more like it did in the films . . . ”

Even Danny Elfman’s iconic score set such a standard that the producers of Marvel properties like Spider-Man and Hulk had him compose their respective soundtracks back in the early 2000s. It also ended up being the theme song that preceded every episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Uslan has nothing but praise for that show and the animated features that followed it. “I contend some of the best stories ever in the seventy-five year history of Batman have come out of the animation side. I’m probably most proud of Mask of the Phantasm.”

Uslan’s next project is another major milestone. Coming out this August is the prequel run on “Justice Inc.” that features the first-ever crossover event between classic pulp characters Doc Savage, The Avenger, and The Shadow. “I couldn’t believe that in seventy-five years, Street & Smith, which was the original owner of these properties and had the pulp magazines and had a comic book operation, never ever crossed over their trinity.”

“Everybody’s definition of justice and the law is completely different,” he elaborates. “Their methodologies are different. Their ideologies are different. So, to try to thrust them together into one story, it’s not an easy fit. It’s a shaky, shaky alliance. The question becomes, ‘Who is any of these men to dare judge the others?’”

It’s also no secret that The Shadow, the first comic book character whom Uslan scripted, is the direct ancestor of Batman. Batman’s first story in Detective Comics #27, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” is lifted from the November 1936 Shadow story “Partners in Peril,” and Uslan claims “the spot illustrations from the pulps, Bob [Kane] just virtually redrew them.”

Yet, it is Batman who remains more popular than ever seventy-five years later. Why?

“When you talk about what makes Batman so universal,” Uslan says, “what makes him so popular, he’s got no superpowers, so people anywhere on the planet Earth can identify with him. He’s got this primal origin that anyone in any culture can feel the power of. He’s got the greatest super villains in the world, and it’s the villains who drive the heroes and, ultimately, define the heroes.”

“It’s a great thing to be able to be out there and celebrate,” he continues. “San Diego asked me to write the piece in the Con booklet this year on Batman’s seventy-fifth. The piece I wrote is ‘Batman: 25, 50, 75, 100.’ It’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of our first Batman film, it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Julie Schwartz’s ‘new-look Batman’ in Detective #327, it’s the seventy-fifth anniversary of Batman, and it’s the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Bill Finger. That really adds up to an incredible Bat-year to celebrate.”

Take time today to kick back and watch Batman, twenty-five years old but more relevant now than during its initial release.

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