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

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SHH: Well, I am curious. Obviously you didn’t know where this was all going to go, what did you want to do with your life before this?

Uslan: Before I bought the rights to Batman?

SHH: Yeah.

Uslan: Oh, at various times I wanted to be a comic book writer, I wanted to work for NASA at one point of time in my youth, but I think that if you really stop to think about that, my two dreams in life – my first was when I was eight years old and I, my dream was to write Batman comics, and then, when that came true when I was in college and I started writing Batman, I went back to that night in 1966 when "The Batman" came on the air and I made my little, young Bruce Wayne vow that somehow, some way I would show the world what the dark, serious true Batman was like, the one created by Bob and Bill in 1939 and was a creature of the night, and I would find some way to erase from the collective consciousness of the world culture those three words: Pow! Zap! and Wham!

So I’ve pretty much been on track, I would have to say, since I was eight. And I’m just a fanboy. A blue collar kid from New Jersey; my father was a stonemason and my mother was a bookkeeper. I didn’t know anyone in Hollywood, I had no relatives in Hollywood, I had no money to buy my way into Hollywood. I had to do anything I could to try to stay on course to get my foot in any door I could. I had the endurance and the high enough level of frustration to deal with doors slamming in my face all the time. And even after I acquired the rights to Batman, that only began a ten year human endurance contest of every studio turning me down, with everyone telling me I was crazy. Everyone was telling me my idea sucked; it was the worst idea they’d ever heard. I had to endure that for ten years, and still hold on by my fingertips. Not knowing where my next dollar was coming from… Trying to rationalize if the whole world was right and I was wrong or if I truly believed in myself and my work and what I was doing, and the answer kept coming up the ladder. Thanks to great, incredible support from my parents, my wife, my family, Ben, my partner, going forward, friends, I was able to sustain. 

batmanandsavageSHH: Wow… Well, you know, with everything that’s happening at DC now, of course, you know I talk about all the announcements and big movies and upcoming DC slate… I was just flipping around on IMDb yesterday, and you were listed for Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Shazam. So I’m curious if there’s anything at all that you can say.

Uslan: Not really. I certainly don’t like to talk about upcoming projects, and I will say that I could not be more excited about Doc Savage, and Shane Black, who is the ultimate Doc Savage fan. Everybody connected to the project is super excited, so I simply say stay tuned. Regarding anything else, I would simply say let’s wait and see what happens.

SHH: I’m very excited for Doc Savage too. Is there something character-wise that really sticks out there that you’re really excited about or that you really want to see?

Uslan: In terms of Doc Savage or generally speaking?

SHH: Doc Savage.

Uslan: Well, I am pleased to announce to you that as we speak I am writing a graphic novel and comic book series for Dynamite of Doc Savage teamed up with both The Shadow and The Avenger. These were the three trinity superheroes, owned by Street & Smith, later Condé Nast, from pulp magazines and comic books. It’s impossible to conceive, but in 75 years, they never teamed them up in one adventure. That’s amazing, as if DC had never teamed up Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman; as if Marvel had never teamed up Captain America, Human Torch, and Submariner. It’s too inconceivable. So, historically what I’m doing is of great importance.

I am having an absolute ball writing Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Avenger. When I was in college, I wrote the one and only crossover between The Shadow and The Avenger for DC Comics, and this is a golden opportunity for me. Like this past March, my graphic novel "The Shadow Meets the Green Hornet: Dark Nights" was published. I’m very, very proud of that, and everything I write these days, practically, I use my love for history, and I do three to six months of historic research before I begin to write. And like the books "The Alienist," "Ragtime," or "Carter Beats the Devil," I weave the fictional characters in with real people in history and real events in history, and I love doing that. And all my graphic novels actually have footnotes, which I’m told is a first in graphic novels. So it’s been absolutely a joy and fun and one last thing, which you’ll note from title of the second issue of this, which is called Justice, Inc.

By the way, Doc Savage was the primary inspiration to Siegel and Shuster in the creation of Superman. The Man of Bronze became The Man of Steel, Doc Savage’s secret hideout in the Arctic that he called The Fortress of Solitude was later stolen by Superman, and as most fans know, there are many means of comparison. The Shadow is the direct inspiration for Batman, and in fact it has recently been uncovered that the 1936 Cult Magazine story “Partners in Peril” of The Shadow was lifted, almost verbatim, by Bill Finger, and the artwork – the spot illustrations for the pulp were lifted, almost verbatim, by Bob Kane, in the creation of Detective #27 that launched Batman. So these characters are really important in the evolution of the major characters we know today, and of course The Avenger has influenced a multitude of avengers. So my second story, the title is based on the first name of Doc Savage and the first name of The Shadow. And the first name of Doc Savage is Clark. The first name of The Shadow is Kent. 

SHH: I had read a whole big thing about how you felt that Jack Nicholson should definitely be the Joker but you weren’t convinced right away about Michael Keaton. And I’m curious, because of the way things happen with casting now, somebody gets cast, everybody goes “Oh no, no!” like Heath Ledger, and then everyone’s like “Oh he’s great!” so, especially because Wonder Woman happens to be a favorite character of mine – I’m curious as to what you think about the casting and if, if you want people to chill out a little bit. Do you think this is just part of a normal process?

batmankeaton1Uslan: 1989. Batman. Michael Keaton announced as Batman. That was the secret origin of what is commonly known as fan outrage. And this was again before computers, before social networking. And the dramatic bellowing was so great and huge coming only from mainstream press so it was only magazines, newspapers, radio, and TV. And the world was inundated to the point that I thought the fans were going to show up and surround Warner Bros. with torches and pitchforks. There was never before, I think, anything like that, and what was learned from the process is that by waiting until the film came out, there’s a lot that can be learned about the passion and understanding of a director for a character – for a filmmaker. Does the filmmaker have an understanding and knowledge based on the character, compassion and love for the character? Does he have a vision for the character? Has he proven that he knows how to execute a vision? These are all essential questions to ask along with it. 

I was the very first one that was apoplectic when I heard about Michael Keaton that Tim [Burton] wanted. I went absolutely crazy, and the difference between this fanboy and other fanboys is that I was in the inner circle, and had access, and when I asked Tim about it, that’s when I learned truly the genius of Tim Burton and his vision. Tim said to me, “You understand that we’re attempting to do something revolutionary – the first true dark and serious comic book superhero movie.” He said, “Now, how do we get world audiences to buy this – to take it seriously?” He said, “You’ve got to admit that once Jack Nicholson was hired, we can’t just have an unknown actor play Batman. Nicholson would wipe the screen with the guy.” I said, “I totally get that.” He said, “Now, for me to take a “serious actor” – and this is circa ’88, ’87 – so it would have been people like Dennis Quaid, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, he said “I don’t know how to show them getting into a bat suit without getting unintentional laughs from the audience.” Then he goes, “But I’ve worked with Michael Keaton and I know the whole key to making this work – to capturing the world audiences  to accept a superhero comic book movie seriously is to make it about Bruce Wayne, not about Batman.

"This whole thing has to be about Bruce Wayne. Audiences have to believe in him. First they have to believe in Gotham City from the opening frames of the picture. Gotham City has to be the third most important character in the movie. Once they believe in Gotham, they must believe that Bruce Wayne is a guy so driven, so obsessed to the point of being psychotic that audiences would believe that guy would get dressed up in a bat outfit and fight a guy like The Joker.” Tim said, “I know, with Michael Keaton, we can convince them of that.” And I said, "Yeah, but he’s a comedian. I mean, what’s the poster going to say? That Mr. Mom is Batman?" I said that he’s my height, he doesn’t have the muscles; for god’s sake, he doesn’t have the square jaw of Batman. And Tim said to me, “Going from one medium to another, a square jaw does not a Batman make. This is about Bruce Wayne. I can carve musculature into a costume. I can cheat height. But at the end of the day, it’s all about Bruce Wayne.” And to prove to me that Michael was a serious actor, they set up a screening of the rough cut of a movie called Clean and Sober. I came out of that and said, “I take it all back. The guy is amazing. Just amazing.” 

batman and joker4And so ultimately, I got it, and actually it was the first day I saw dailies that I understood that he had achieved it, that he did have that vision and he knew how to execute it. To this day, that opening sequence, where you see that almost vampiric Batman stalking those criminals on the rooftop, grabbing one and holding him over the ledge, and those two words defined Batman as a movie franchise and as a return to the darkness and dignity of the characters created in ’39. Two words: "I’m Batman." And then he throws them down, jumps off the building, and disappears. So that’s kind of my read on that. This has happened again and again. It happened with Chris Nolan when Heath Ledger was announced to play The Joker. The outrage, people forget really quickly, was humongous. How could you have an actor who played a gay cowboy be Joker? He was going to destroy this character, it’s never going to work, and then of course, what happens always is you have the majority of people who say they never want to have another actor do the role, whether it’s Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne or Heath Ledger as The Joker. So this has happened a number of times in history, and I think it’s fine to get the fans talking about it. I think it’s great that fans, that people are so passionate about the character and they have such strong feelings about them. I think it’s great, but I think at the end of the day, each time, it’s proven once you see the result, that the fans wind up embracing it. 

SHH: I am really glad to hear that, because I am really excited about this Wonder Woman. I remember when all that happened, the whole Heath Ledger thing, and he was incredible. But I do have one final question. Is there a superhero out there – it doesn’t necessarily have to be DC, that hasn’t been done that you’d love to get your hands on? Who is it and what would you do with them?

Uslan: Beyond the stuff that I’m working on currently, I guess it’s a multiple part issue. For Marvel, it would be my favorite character, Doctor Strange. From DC, it would be the character that creatively driven from the 1940s through ‘50s by my dear mentor Otto Binder and the great C.C. Beck corresponded with on almost a weekly basis when I was a kid, Captain Marvel. I think that outside of the DC and Marvel scope, beyond things like Doc Savage or The Shadow, and some of those characters, there was a great, great comic book created almost fifty years ago by the great and legendary Wally Wood and company called "Thunder Agents" and it was absolutely one of my favorite comics growing up. DC has published seven volumes of the archives and IDW is now publishing all the archives in trade paperback and some of the greatest artists in the history of comics were involved in that, including Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Bill Kane, creator of The Atom and Green Lantern, Mike Sekowsky, the original artist of The Justice League of America in addition to Wally Wood. George Perez was involved in that for a long time. Dave Cockrum, who co-created The New X-Men, so I would say that’s one of the things I’ve always loved since I was a kid.