Interview: Batman Producer Michael Uslan Talks the Legacy of Superhero Cinema

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SHH: You know, it’s funny. Hollywood has changed so much since all of this started, obviously since the Keaton Batman. What’s your take on it?

Uslan: The Batman movie in 1989, it’s important to discuss in the context of the time. And there are so many people today who are not – they don’t keep track of history. And you know I’m a history major, a history buff. And if there’s one thing that history tells us, it’s that if you don’t learn from it and understand it, you’re doomed to repeat it. At the time the Batman movie came out, it was revolutionary. A big tip of the hat to the important and wonderful work of Richard Donner on Superman in 1977. He blazed a path by having Marlon Brando play Jor El. That brought credibility from the mainstream to a Superman movie, to a reimagining of what Krypton looked like, curiousness of the Smallville sequence, yet as soon as Superman got to Metropolis and put on the cape, it got funny. It got very light in tone. By 1989 with Batman, things were changing rapidly. In 1986, the graphic novel was really bursting onto the scene between "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns." 

The importance of those books is that it opened the eyes of the general public for the first time to the concept that comic books were no longer simply being made for eight- to twelve-year-old boys. So that was an important cog in the wheel to all this. And then, to do Batman in a dark and serious way – nobody had done it before and that’s the main reason it took us ten years to get the first movie made. It was too bold, too daring; people thought I was crazy. We were rejected everywhere and it was an unbelievable stressed time. You have to understand that the generation that was running Hollywood at that time were people who had been adults in the 1950s when Fredrick Wertham published his book "Seduction of the Innocent," attacking comic books as the cause of the post-WWII rise of juvenile delinquency. And these people all looked down on comic books, all looked down on the creators. At best, they thought of comic books were cheap entertainment for children. At worst, they thought they were a lurid tool of the devil that was turning an entire generation into delinquents. There were comic book burnings back then, in the mid-1950s. If it wasn’t for the advent of rock and roll, and Elvis Presley moved the spotlight onto that, the tool of the devil that was turning our kids into deviants, the comic book industry might not have survived. 

Interview: Batman Producer Michael Uslan Talks the Legacy of Superhero CinemaStan Lee tells a great story, that in the 1950s, when he was at a cocktail party, he said that he would be at the party, and society people would be there, and they’d get into a conversation and ask him “What do you do?” and Stan always hated when he was asked that question. He would say “I’m a writer” and then quickly walk away so that that would terminate the conversation. And then he said that people would typically follow him and ask what did he write, and Stan would awkwardly say “I write children’s literature” and then he’d walk away. And then they’d follow him and go “Really, what kind of children’s literature?” and he’d say “Well, I write comic books” and then they all walked away. That was the era leading in, so that’s the studio execs, agents, people that I had to deal with. That was the position when I bought the rights to Batman from DC Comics with my legendary partner Benjamin Melniker. Sol Harrison, who became the president of DC Comics (and was vice president at that time) was the lovely wonderful man who had mentored me into the comic book business when he read about me and saw me on TV for teaching the world’s first accredited college course on comic books, which I did in the early 1970s at Indiana University. So l called me, flew me to New York, offered me a job… He and Carmine Infantino, who was president of DC at the time, and he really nurtured me. And it was that job at DC that lead me to write The Shadow and then lead me to write Batman, which was a dream come true for me since I was eight years old. Well, I went back to Sol and said “I want to buy the rights to Batman and do dark and serious movies that show the whole world he is not that Pow! Zap! Wham! pot-bellied funny guy." 

The whole world has been laughing at Batman since the TV show, because there was no other cultural reference for Batman to the world. Us comic book readers, we knew. The rest of the world only knew him from that, and they were laughing at him, and that’s what killed me. So Sol said to me – he blanched – and said “Michael, please. I don’t want to see you lose your money. Since Batman went off the air on TV, he’s as dead as a dodo. Nobody’s interested in Batman any more.” And I said, “Solomon, if I do it in a dark and serious way, it’ll be like a new form of entertainment. Nobody’s seen anything like it.” And he just shook his head and asked if there was any way he could talk me out of this. And I go, “No.” And he says, “All right, schmoozle, come on in.” It was a six month negotiation, and I finally acquired the rights on October 3, 1979, but that gives you a sense of what it was about at the time, and it’s important to understand that. The question I always ask is: How on God’s Earth did a kid in his twenties end up acquiring the rights to Batman? How is that possible? In the context of today’s world it’s totally impossible. But at that time, the true answer – the non-glamourous answer – is that nobody else on the planet Earth wanted them. So that sets the scene.

batman teaser 250So, nobody had ever seen anything like this before, and it was a game changer. Yes it conquered the box office, but its impact was way, way, way beyond the box office numbers. The impact was – let’s start with this – Summer of 1989. You were walking across Time Square in New York or if you were walking through downtown Butte, Iowa, you could not walk 25 steps without seeing someone in a Batman t-shirt or a Batman hat. What other movie has been marketed in history without the name on the posters? Just an oval bat symbol, and everybody knew what it was. What movie in history, to that point at least – and remember, this is before social media, before computers, before cell phones were popular – what other movie was in a situation where people were inundating movie theaters with telephone calls to find out at what movie the Batman trailer was playing at? They would go to the movie theater, pay to see that movie, watch the Batman trailer, and leave. It was unbelievable. It was having this impact that all of a sudden, comic books and superheroes had this new hipness to them. There was a coolness to them. There was an adult market that was taking it in. Again, thanks to another key piece with Jack Nicholson, adding great credibility to what was being done, and I’ll get to the genius of Tim Burton and Anton Furst in a minute. So that became the game changer for the comic book industry. That was a game changer for the movie industry. The movie industry has never been the same since, and if you look at it now, go online and look at the top twelve or thirteen movies of 2014, half of them are comic book movies. The other half are either animated or summer-related, pretty much. It was a complete game changer, and it was stunning. 

The greatest moment for me came, and this will explain in the historical context how revolutionary this was and how it transcended not only borders but cultures. That summer, the Berlin Wall came down, and the people were slamming it with sledgehammers, breaking through, and coming to freedom from East Berlin into West Berlin. I am transfixed, watching CNN throughout the night as humanity is pouring through. And at 1:30 in the morning, here I am watching as a kid comes through wearing a Batman hat. That sums it all up for me in terms of the context of the game changing nature of this, and as a post-script, the people who were running Marvel at the time, that summer called me up and said they’d like to take me to one of the great restaurants in New York City. I said, “This is really nice. I wonder what they want?” I went to lunch, and it was spectacular. And I go, “Okay, so what can I do for you?” They told me “This is our thank you – our sales are up 20%.” It’s like Batman has brought comic books back to the attention of a public that didn’t even generally know that they were still being published and sold in these things called comic book shops, and didn't know where to get them. And they said that my Batman movie had had a major effect on their sales. So it was just a lovely, kind thing to do. That gives you the general idea. 

SHH: That’s amazing. I totally remember when that movie came out, and that was one of the things – I mean, I was into X-Men – but that was one of the things that really got me into comic books. So much so that I write them now. I’m curious, though, about what you think about all of this, what sort of impact it’s had on the comics industry in general. Not just the sales, but do you think it’s hurt it in any way, or do you think it’s just pushed it forward?

wolverine n batman250Uslan: Oh, it’s absolutely pushed it forward. Let’s start with this. Let’s start with the most important impact. As I said before, I became friendly with and I interviewed eight of the creators of the main comics from the 1939s to the 1960s when I was growing up and writing for fanzines. At that time, all of the comic book companies were in New York, so all of the talent pool – the creators and writers and artists were either living in north Jersey, Manhattan, or Long Island, so they were accessible to me because I grew up near New York City, and I had a chance to meet them and establish relationships with all of them, hang out in their offices periodically. And the fact that today, the original artwork of everyone from Joe Shuster to Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, and just about anyone you can think of – Joe Kubert and Alex Toth, Steranko, all the way through – these works are now hanging in major museums, major exhibitions, galleries, in colleges, and it has gotten worldwide attention as a valuable, indigenous, legitimate American art form, and though most of them are gone now, most of these great artists are gone, they were able to experience the fact that no longer were they being denigrated and no longer was their art work being disparaged. But it is now hanging up and I had the pleasure of begin able to speak at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, be an advisor to them on their first exhibition dealing with comics, and a number of comics from my collection were hanging on the walls at the MET and that was the top of the world for me. They had already had an exhibition at the Louvre; now they had achieved it at the MET. So that was a great thing in terms of what it did for the artists with the recognition and the honor that they were finally given.

Secondarily, it has created a worldwide audience for the mythological folklore known as the American superhero. Many of these characters are now part of the world culture, not simply the American culture. They are comic books. It was good for the comic book industry in general, because it’s no longer looked down upon. It has become the breeding ground for creativity for intellectual property whether you’re talking about Broadway, TV, movies, animation, video games… It’s impacting fashion in our culture, and girls are now deeply involved in it, it’s spawned cosplay, which I think is culturally very important. So at the end, what I claim is that this was a stepping stone to the final acceptance and recognition for comics, superheroes, and their creators to the point where I say the geeks have inherited the earth. 

SHH: Yes, we have. 

Uslan: And it’s a win. It’s a win I never, ever, ever imagined that in my lifetime I would possibly see. 

Head over to page 3 to see what Uslan was doing before acquiring the rights to Batman, the status of Shane Black's Doc Savage, and his initial reaction to Michael Keaton's casting!