'Dark Knight Rises' Producer Michael Uslan & the Epic History of Batman on Film

July 20th, 2012

‘Dark Knight Rises’ Producer Michael Uslan & the Epic History of Batman on Film

Friday, July 20, 2012 8 p.m. EDT

By Matt Patches, Hollywood.com Staff

It’s hard to believe, but there was a time in Hollywood when no one thought a Batman movie was a good idea. Flashforward to 2012, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is tracking to be one of the biggest opening weekends in box office history. Oh, how times have changed.

If you’re a fan of the Batman movies or any non-comic translation of the Bruce Wayne character in the past 40 years, you have one man to thank: Producer Michael Uslan. A New Jersey native and avid comic book fan, Uslan knew from an early age that Batman was meant for bigger and better big screen adventures, and took matters into his own hands to acquire the rights. After being mentored by DC Comics’ Sol Harrison and completing law school, Uslan became a studio attorney for United Artists, and when he felt he had enough know-how in his back pocket, he aggressively pursued the Batman film rights. The rest is history.

In anticipation of The Dark Knight Rises, I sat down with Uslan to discuss Batman’s history on screen, the turbulent journey to convince Hollywood the character could be a success, and the evolution of style and substance that’s helped Batman remain part of pop culture for nearly 75 years.

In short: you’re the reason Batman ever became a movie.

Michael Uslan: It was one of my better ideas.

But from the sound of it, bringing the character to screen the way you envisioned it was a hard battle in the beginning.

Uslan: It was a really tense fifteen years. By the time Ben Melniker and I bought the rights, it was a ten-year human endurance contest.

If you think back today, it almost doesn’t make sense, like today it would be an obvious thing to do. Why was it so difficult then?

Uslan: Well, you really have to set it in the context of the times. When I was first out there pitching Batman, it was the late 1970s. And the generation that was running Hollywood, and by that I’m including executives, I’m including agents, and a lot of talent pool, were brought up in what I like to call the “seduction of the innocent” generation.

Back in the early-mid 1950s, there was a huge post-World War II rise in juvenile delinquency in America. And Dr. Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist who had his own clinic up in Brooklyn, began speaking at garden parties, and PTAs, and churches, talking about the horror of comic books. That comic books were creating a generation of juvenile delinquents. And he proved it by interviewing some 100 juvenile delinquents at his clinic, each one admitting during questioning that they had read a comic book. Therefore, Dr. Wertham concluded that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. Now, in his book that he published, called Seduction of the Innocent, he also claimed that girls growing up reading Wonder Woman would become lesbians, boys growing up reading Batman and Robin would become homosexuals, and that comic books cause asthma, because children were staying indoors to read them instead of playing in the fresh air. His diatribe was picked up by churches and PTAs and schools, and a whole generation of parents, clergymen, teachers, administrators, and politicians who were looking for an easy witch hunt, an easy place to lay the blame for a generation of children that seemed to have gone wrong. There was a federal investigation that had just started under Senator Estes Kefauver of New York, when things changed.

Two things happened that changed everything (and I’m sorry for giving you this background, but I just want you to appreciate it in the context of the times): the industry decided to self-center itself, so the comic book industry formed what they call the Comics Code Authority, which would be a censorship board that would heavily police comic books for themselves and keep the feds out of it. But maybe the biggest thing that happened was the advent of rock and roll. All of the sudden there was a new, easier, bigger target. And rather than cities like Jersey City and St. Louis burning comic books — which they had done — they started to burn Elvis Presley records.

The devil’s work.

Uslan: Exactly. So there is an entire generation of adults and young adults who grew up under that. And when I went out in Hollywood in the late ’70s, that’s the generation that I ran smack into. Not only did they refuse to believe that Batman would be viable as a big movie done in a dark and serious way, they looked down their noses at comic books, they considered them cheap and probably lurid entertainment for children. Nothing more, nothing less. And had no respect for comics, the characters, nor the creators.

There’s a great story that Stan Lee tells, that during this period in the ’50s and ’60s, first half of the ’60s, when the whole world was pointing their fingers and looking down their noses at comics, he would be at cocktail parties in New York City, and people would come up to him and say, “So what do you do?” and he was embarrassed to admit that he wrote comic books, so he would say “I’m a writer,” and then he’d quickly walk away. He said people would follow him and go, “Really, you’re a writer? Well what kind of things do you write?” And he said, “Well, I write children’s literature,” and then he would quickly walk away. And he said then they would follow him and say, “Well, specifically, what kind of children’s literature do you write?” And he said, “Well, I write comic books,” and then he said that they all walked away. So that kind of sets the background. Even Warner Communications, which had acquired DC Comics at that time, looked down at comics. They were kind of embarrassed that they owned a comic book company.

Next: How Uslan Finally Sold Hollywood on Batman


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[Photo Credit: Ivan Nikolov/WENN.com, DC Comics]


The Batman and Robin TV show was so big in its prime, it’s surprising comics were seen with such distaste.

Uslan: It was huge in its prime, and when it went off the air, the bottom fell out of the comic book publishing market. Batman’s sales figures fell so low that Warner Communications, which was overseeing DC Comics, wanted to cancel Detective Comics, one of the two Batman comics (and [the comic] that gave DC Comics its initials). Batman was in immediate and distinct jeopardy of cancelation. These were tough times. As a result of all of that, editor Julian Schwartz returned Batman to his dark and mysterious roots, doing a 180 to try to get away from the whole concept of the pow-zap-wham potbellied funny guy that had dominated the media and had its impact and was all over the comic books, as well. So he attempted to bring him back to 1939.

And that’s the one you went out to Hollywood with, right?

Uslan: Exactly. When I bought the rights to Batman on October 3, 1979, it was the original first-year’s run by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and then Jerry Robinson, that had Batman in his solo adventures before Robin, and maxing out just at the point where Robin came in to the time of about the first issue or two of Batman Comics, and it was Batman #1 that introduced The Joker and Catwoman to the world. That was what I wanted to concentrate on. And there were two subsequent runs of Batman in the 1970’s that were brilliant in terms of returning it to that, one was by Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams, and one was by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. So, those were the tools that I wound up using over the years to show everybody and anybody at studios, agents, the talent pool, what the Batman was, the dark and serious Batman I wanted to bring to the screen.

What was the factor that finally convinced someone to greenlight a Batman movie?

Uslan: I have no doubt it was a young genius by the name of Tim Burton. Tim had just done, I remember they set up a screening of the rough cut for us, of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and I came out of there and I said, ‘My god, I’ve never seen such a marriage of art, direction, and direction. This guy is incredible.’ They set up three lunches with me and Tim, where I indoctrinated him into the world of Batman. I picked all the stuff from my collection that I wanted him to see. By the end of that third lunch, I was absolutely sure that he got it and he would have the vision and understanding of how to execute that vision to make the dark and serious Batman work, and the studio certainly agreed, everyone who was associated with it agreed. That was the turning point.

Burton’s Batman feels perfect vehicle for him and a perfect blockbuster for that moment in time. As the films evolved, do you find that they’re distinctly reactionary to the times?

Uslan: Oh, absolutely. I think all great films are, and I think all successful films are. And it doesn’t matter if you’re an independent film or a studio picture: if you’re out there in the real world, you have to be influenced by events and tone and the tide of history that’s taking place.

When the first Batman movie came out in 1989 it was revolutionary. People really can’t grasp that. There was nothing like this ever before. And it not only broke all the box office records, but it was, I think, the first of these blockbusters that really impacted the world culture. You could not walk through Times Square that summer, seriously, fifty steps, without seeing someone in a Batman t-shirt or a Batman hat. People were breaking into bus stops to get the posters. People were going to see movies, paying full price, that were showing the Batman trailer. And then they would leave after the trailer. It was amazing what was going on.

That summer I was watching the Berlin Wall fall, it must have been almost two o’clock in the morning, and coming through the broken wall, into freedom for the first time, is this outpouring of humanity — and there’s this young boy coming through and he’s wearing a Batman hat. That’s when I knew something else was going on, on a grander scale. But one of the things I would point out is that that first movie has been such an influence on all comic book and genre films since, that I contend you can barely find a film since then in this style of this genre that doesn’t somehow echo Tim Burton’s vision, or genius production designer Anton Furst’s visuals.

Is there a specific way you see that original film shaping today’s comic book movies?

Uslan: Or even, I was going to say, Danny Elfman’s music. Anton Furst, who is a very good friend of mine, won an Oscar for his work on Batman. He designed Gotham City and the Batmobile and the whole big picture. The concept that nobody had ever done a dark and serious comic book movie before, so how was Tim going to get general audiences to buy tickets to come in without getting unintentional laughs when they see Bruce Wayne putting on the bat costume and going out and fighting a guy like The Joker. How’s he going do that? In his brilliance, he said, ‘The first thing I have to do is make Gotham City the third-most important character in this piece. And from the opening frames of the movie, I must get the audience to suspend its disbelief and believe in Gotham City. If they can believe in Gotham City as this universe within itself, then I can get them to believe that Michael Keaton, I should say Bruce Wayne, is a guy who is so obsessed, so driven, to the point of being psychotic, that yes, he would get dressed up in this outfit to go out and do this, and they will buy that.’ And he was absolutely right about that, and that’s why Gotham City and the look, and the visuals, and the feel, were so important, because he was creating this comic book world that he wanted you to believe in.

What Chris [Nolan] did in returning the franchise back to the dark and serious Batman was, in my estimation, coming at the polar opposite way that Tim did, because Chris didn’t have to convince audiences at that point that comic books could be dark and serious. His vision was to come at it with a complete sense of reality, in which audiences would completely believe Bruce Wayne was a real person, highly traumatized, on a the lost horizon journey. And he wanted them to believe that Bruce Wayne was real in the world in which we live today. He had to make us believe that Gotham City was real. So rather than create it on a back lot, Chris filmed it in a real city. He picked Chicago because if you take two iconic buildings out of the landscape, out of the skyline, most people around the world cannot identify that city. Then he had to convince you The Joker was real, so he came at it again completely from an opposite direction of what Tim did with Jack Nicholson. Because in the comics post-1986 (starting with Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel The Dark Night Returns), Chris needed to convey that this is our real world today, which is grey – it’s not so much good vs. evil today as it is order vs. chaos.

The last thing I would say in tying this together is we can’t lose sight of the comics. Over the decades, and we’re getting close to 75 years of Batman, there have been so many radically different interpretations of Batman in the comic books themselves, in the way he looks, in the way he’s drawn, in the tone of the piece, it’s gone from vampiric to high-camp humor and silliness to Batman as “the super Batman of planet x” where he fights aliens and giant robots and genies.

Part of me wants to see that movie at some point.

Uslan: It’s like the old expression, “over my dead body.”

Next: The Jump from Batman Returns to Batman Forever


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[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures]


When Burton left after Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher took a stylistic turn with Batman Forever. How did you as a producer know this is the jump Batman should make next?

Uslan: I’m going to answer this in two ways. Number one: let’s just go back to the comics for a second. The way I look at this stuff is that the first Batman movie was really the Batman of 1939-40, which has been returned in the ’70s. The second movie, Batman Returns, I thought was so utterly dark that it approaches that almost vampiric Batman that was really the Batman of the comic books in the 1990s. Batman Forever, to me, clearly was the Batman from about the mid-1940s till the early 1960s. It was Bill Finger’s scripts of Batman and Robin punching their way through crime through a grotesque gallery of supervillains, jumping across giant typewriters as they battle them. Batman & Robin was clearly the TV series redux. End of story.

Was that intentional?

Uslan: Let’s go back to the second part of this. In answering this part of it, I don’t want to talk about Batman, I want to talk about is the movie industry generally. In the movie industry, what many years ago used to be movie studios are often today international conglomerates that own many companies. Sometimes, corporations lose sight of the filmmaking part and become too enamored with the merchandising part. When the concentration shifts to merchandising toys and Happy Meals, to the point where movies are being made that are to be light and bright and kiddie friendly and family friendly, catering to the licenses so that as many heroes and as many villains as possible, or not possible, are shoehorned into a movie, with the commandments that each one must have at least two vehicles and two costume changes. Then, to me, the tail is wagging the dog, and what is being produced are two-hour infomercials for toys, not films. Because there’s no room for character development or plot. That’s sad.

I believe that if, instead, filmmakers are found who love the characters, have a passion for the character, have an understanding of the character, have a vision for the character, know how to execute that vision, and you just go out and allow them to make great films, you’re going to sell toys anyway. We have been lucky enough that the focus over at Warner Brothers recognized that and brought in Chris Nolan, and the rest has been history, it’s just been the most exciting ride to take on his trilogy. And literally, everything I could dream and imagine, as the ultimate Batman comic book fanboy, has come to pass between Tim Burton’s first film and the Christopher Nolan trilogy.

I’m fascinated how you got to Chris and to Batman Begins. I know that period after Batman & Robin, there were several Batman projects in development. I know Joel talks about wanting to do Batman: Year One, Darren Aronofsky involved in Year One project, there was a Superman vs. Batman script…how did you end up on Batman Begins?

Uslan: To me, the key has always been that it finally became clear, there have been management shifts and everything like that, but it finally became clear to everyone in every company that the era of campy pow-zap-wham Batman stuff was not the way to go.

I’ve never been a fan of painted eyebrows nor molded nipples on Batman, and enough said about that. You gotta give the studio credit, all the credit, for bringing Christopher Nolan in, and giving an independent filmmaker, who obviously was brilliant, a shot at a major studio franchise. That has made all the difference.

Did any of the other projects ever come close to realization?

Uslan: I am not one of the guys in Hollywood who spends a lot of time looking over my shoulder. I like to look ahead, and to me, the greatest thing about Batman: Year One was the animated movie this year. Speaking of the animation, I just have to add, those folks are brilliant.

With The Dark Knight Returns in the works, it seems like the animation side of Batman is really finding its niche.

Uslan: It’s going to be incredible. The way that everyone slavishly follows Frank’s panels, and uses it as the storyboard for everything. Year One was the most adult Batman cartoon ever made. I just want to honor the brilliance of all of these folks on animation. I think some of the greatest stories and character moments in the history of Batman come through the animation. I mean, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Eric Radomski, Alan Burnett, Andrea Romano, who does the greatest job in the voice casting — these are brilliant people who have just added so much to the franchise, and to the myth and the legend. Because one of my concerns is always this: that in doing the true dark and serious Batman, you don’t want to alienate the next generation, you don’t want to lose the kids. So there should be kid-accessible versions of Batman that can work for them, and whet their appetite as they grow older to then go on to the movies. To me, if they’re doing Batman: Brave and Bold, that’s really for kids. People keep asking me, ‘Gee, can I bring my kids to see The Dark Knight?’ and I say, ‘Well, how old are your kids?’ ‘Four and five.’ I go, ‘Not unless you want to traumatize them for the rest of their lives. You can’t bring them to that movie.’ So, to me, there’s a place for all of these things.

Next: TDKR and the Future of the Batman Franchise


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[Photo Credit: DC Comics, Warner Bros. Pictures]


With The Dark Knight Rises on the way, what were some of the challenges you faced with this latest entry? The villain is always a big question, weaving appropriate members of the rogue’s gallery into a story. Are you happy to see Bane resurface after his brief appearance in Batman & Robin?

Uslan: I’m very excited. I didn’t think Governor Romney was going to be so excited, when he hears that the villain in the new movie is named Bane. But, that aside, yeah, I couldn’t be more excited. You know, some of Batman’s villains are psychologically demented. Others are more physical, where you have characters like Killer Croc and Blockbuster and Bane, and it’s interesting to put that mix together and see some of the actual physical threat, that comes in addition to the psychological threat.

You mentioned The Joker evoking feelings of real terrorism into the Batman world, establishing themes of chaos vs. order. What kind of dramatic curveball does Bane throw into things?

Uslan: Well, see, now you’re talking to the wrong guy for a different reason. You’re talking to the wrong guy because I am the absolute old fart when it comes to the experience of going to the movies, and the whole cinema experience. I do not, at all, believe, no matter how much of a comic book geek I am, I don’t believe, for myself, in learning everything about what’s in a movie, what the alternatives are, knowing every single twist and turn that’s going to be in there, knowing exactly how the shot was done. I am one of these people that the best way I can enjoy the experience of cinema, and I believe the way it was created, was to be able to walk into a theater, be enveloped by the darkness, be transported, entertained, and surprised and shocked and delighted by what is happening over this two, two-and-a-half hour period. So, I just don’t believe in getting into everything that’s coming up.

Now that the the Batman movie franchise has reinvented itself with a realistic tone, do you think the character can go in a direction that’s less not in a similar vein?

Uslan: Oh, are you kidding? Have you seen Avengers?

I have, but it’s hard for me to imagine a Batman movie with the same tone after Nolan’s films.

Uslan: All I can do is point you back to everything I say about, not about the franchise, but about the character, about the comic books. The comic books have been from one extreme to another, many, many interpretations of Batman and the villains, many different tones, many different artistic takes on it. Whenever there was a new editor, new writers brought in, new artists, things changed. And somehow, the writers, editors, artists, publishers, at DC, have brought people back every Wednesday since May 1939 to see what’s going to happen next to this character. Which was it going to go? Has every single story line been successful? No, but it’s amazing how they keep trying and they keep coming up with these formulas for success that hook us in and do bring us back every week, it’s an amazing accomplishment. I just have to tip my hat to the comic books, and I think all the answers for Batman lay in the comics.

But are comic audiences more forgiving for those shifts than general movie-going audiences? Do you think the masses can swallow different shifts in tone?

Uslan: I’ll just go to Watchmen for a second, as something to comment on. I went to Watchmen, and I invited 11 other people to come with me. It was a Saturday night, and I had had some great conversation with Zak Snyder at San Diego Comic-Con way before the movie was happening, and I go, ‘Boy, I know you’re going to do this in three hours or less, I don’t know how you’re going to do this in under 10 hours!’ He really had a vision for what he wanted to do. There’s now me and 11 people at Watchmen — two of us were art and comic book fans, and ten were not. The two of us who were loved the picture, and whatever gaps there might have been in it, we could fill in easily. And we followed this real easily. The other ten people, who were not comic book readers, who had never read the graphic novel The Watchmen, were completely lost almost from the beginning. When I said, ‘How did you get lost?’ They were bored to tears and had to sit there for like two-and-a-half hours, and I said “How could you get lost so early? It’s so clear.”” And it turned out, as we were talking afterword, just the most basic comic book concept of there being two generations of super heroes, one from the old days and then a new version in the new days, kind of like Earth I and Earth II, they didn’t even grasp that. So they were lost six minutes into it.

That, to me, was very, very telling, because those kinds of concepts just come so naturally to those of us who are comic book and science fiction fans, we don’t even think about it. None of them were able to make that leap. So I think there are probably two different audiences, fans and then the general population worldwide. But as Dark Knight and The Avengers have proven, as has Spider-Man, X-Men, and a number of other movies, you can reach both.

Is there an element or version of Batman that you don’t think has been brought to and explored on screen?

Uslan: I think any Batman fan will tell you there have been some wonderful story arcs in the history of Batman. Great villains, great characters who have yet to see the light of day. So I think it’s a goldmine, and it’s a continuous goldmine, because as we speak, we have people like, for instance, Scott Snyder, who is now my favorite comic book writer. I think his work is amazing. His storyline that he’s doing now on Night of the Owls is just wonderful material, there’s great material out there. It’s one of the great advantages when you’re dealing with a character who’s been around almost 75 years.

There was a lot of talk, since the beginning of Nolan’s films, of whether or not Robin could ever be introduced. Was there ever a possibility of including him in the world? Or was there a major hurdle prohibiting his inclusion?

Uslan: I have to retreat back to the comic books. I really believe what Stan Lee’s theory has been. The Stan Lee theory of sidekicks is ‘No.’ When Stan said he started the Marvel age of comics, and tried to bring in older audiences, and tried to make the characters more believable, more real, not just cardboard superheroes, but textured characters, often in conflict, often conflicted. Stan said that the whole concept of having a kid around, that an adult would subject to this level of danger and violence and jeopardy and threat, makes no sense whatsoever. To him, it was always the easiest attack on the believability of the characters in his stories.

So Stan got away from all of that. And when he did write about teenagers, he wrote about them like Spider-Man, where he did deal with their real problems and the human side of their problems and their internal conflicts. Even as a kid growing up with Spider-Man, I enjoyed equally as much the pages about Peter Parker and what was going on with him and the girls and the bully and school and his job. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I liked that even better than when he was in costume fighting Kraven the Hunter or Mysterio. It really worked for me, I really identified with that. I just subscribe to Stan’s comic book concepts.

Thinking of Spider-Man, I was a big fan of Terry McGinnis and Batman Beyond growing up. Is that a character that you’re passionate about?

Uslan: I love Batman Beyond, and I thought Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was one of the best cartoon movies made. In my heart of hearts, I would probably love to see Clint Eastwood playing an 80-year-old Bruce Wayne in a Batman Beyond movie. That would be the stuff that dreams are made of.

Do you think the environment would allow to take a property like Batman to a degree like that, something as extravagant as “the future” or something after what we have seen in the past few years that has been so successful?

Uslan: I can’t possibly comment on that, except to say I’ve learned in life that everything is possible. Seriously, you’re talking to a blue-collar kid from New Jersey who grew up not knowing anyone in Hollywood, not having the money to buy his way into Hollywood, and not having any relatives in Hollywood, and I was able to make my dreams come true, so to me, anything is possible.

Do you have any other movie projects in the works?

Uslan: Yeah, I’ve got a slate of about 12-15 projects.

What’s close to happening?

Uslan: Well we’ve been working on Doc Savage for a while, I feel real excited about that.

Was that Shane Black?

Uslan: Yes

Is that something that he’ll maybe move to after he’s done his Iron Man 3 duties?

Uslan: Stay tuned.

And there’s another great project we have coming that will be an independent film, my first step back into independent film making in many years, called Madame Carr, which is the true life story of an amazing woman in Rwanda. And then I’ve got all my geeky projects, stuff that I loved as a kid that I intend to bring to screen.

Is there one thing that is just the thing you want to bring to screen?

Uslan: There’s like three or four, and I’m working real hard to advance those. But Batman took 10 years, and Constantine took 9 years, and National Treasure took 11 years. These things take an incredible amount of time.

Do you feel as passionate about Batman as you did when you first nabbed the movie rights to the character way back when?

Uslan: I am like a kid in a candy store. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I found the only job where I get to be sixteen years old for the rest of my life, no matter how grey I’m getting, and it’s cool. I was asked recently, I did a commencement speech, and once of the students said to me, ‘Well, what exactly is your job?’ and I said, ‘Well, I guess the best way to describe it is, I report to a sandbox every day and play with my favorite toys. That’s what I do for a living.’ And it’s great, it really is great. Right now, I’m doing a book tour on my autobiography, The Boy Who Loved Batman, which Chronicle Books has published, and it really is the story of how I went to the comic book fanboy to the young man who bought the rights to Batman, put them in his back pocket, quit his job and went out to Hollywood. And then the ten-year, as I said, human endurance contest it took when everybody said no, everybody said it was the worst idea they ever heard, and that I was crazy. And ten years until that first movie came out. So it’s quite the story.

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