Michael E Uslan was born into a family of limited means. He found happiness in comics. He particularly loved Batman, and his fascination with the superhero began the day he found his first comic book.
Over the years, he worked at DC Comics, and his passion for the Caped Crusader took him on a journey to acquire the motion picture and other allied and ancillary rights to Batman. After a decade of persevering and numerous collaborations, he produced the first Batman film in 1989, which starred Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
Since then, over 40 films and TV shows have been made on the character. The phenomenon reached its peak when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy hit the theatres in 2004 with Batman Begins,followed by The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
Notably, his projects have catapulted the careers of legends like Jack Nicholson, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale and Tim Burton. The Nolan trilogy itself grossed over $3 billion worldwide, which was a landmark in superhero films.
He and his partner, the late Benjamin Melniker, have been credited as Executive Producers in every Batman film since 1989, as well as titles such as The Lego Movie, Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Justice League.
He continued to take an avid interest in comic books beyond his childhood and holds the distinction of being the world's first Professor of Comic Books at the Indiana University. He shared a close friendship with Stan Lee; Uslan was instrumental in setting up an event to honour Lee's legacy upon his death.
On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the Batman character and the 30th anniversary of the first Batman film, I caught up with Michael Uslan to discuss his personal struggle, pitching to large studios, his views on the upcoming Joker movie and the decision to cast Robert Pattinson as Batman.
This is the first part of our conversation.
What challenges did you and your partner Benjamin Melniker face while making the first major Batman movie?
The 10 years before the launch of the movie were an endurance test for us. We were turned down by every CEO and every major studio in Hollywood. I was told that I was crazy and this was one of the worst ideas they had ever heard. You have to appreciate it though, in the context of the time. This was the late 70s. They said, 'Michael, you're out of your mind' and that they can’t do serious comic book films. 'We can’t do dark superheroes,' they said, 'Nobody has ever made a movie based on an old TV series.'
In that context — Hollywood in mainstream America — studio executives or agents did not generally have respect for comic books. They looked down upon them. Their reading was that all these things were cheap entertainment for little kids. They were of the generation that was heavily influenced by the 50s attack on comic books lead by a psychiatrist from Brooklyn who claimed that post-World War II crime and juvenile delinquency in America was a result of comic books. This was the same man who cautioned that comic books were causing asthma because children were staying indoors to read instead of playing outdoors. This notion spread among people in garden clubs and churches. There were cases of comic book burnings in different cities. This was reminiscent of what had taken place in Nazi Germany in the 30s. That’s how bad things were.
So a lot of the people I was pitching these comic books to were either not respectful or looked at them as cheap entertainment for kids.
How did Jack Nicholson come to play the Joker in the first Batman movie?
It was the Memorial weekend of 1980, which is a holiday in the US. The weekend was just about to begin. I was in New York and was going back to my home in New Jersey. On the way, I picked up the afternoon newspaper and opened the movie section. There was a big display of two big movies that were screening on the holiday weekend. One was The Empire Strikes Back and the other was The Shining. I saw a photograph of Jack Nicholson looking totally maniacal, purring around the corner. It is an iconic picture now. I looked at it and said, 'This is the Joker! This is the only guy who can play the Joker.'
I ripped out that photo from the newspaper. I got back home, ran to my desk, picked up a Wite-Out pen and coloured out Jack’s face. Then I took a red pen and drew his lips, and did his hair with a Magic Marker. I then showed that picture to everybody who was associated with the film and told them that Jack Nicholson is the only actor capable of playing the Joker. That ultimately led to Nicholson getting hired, which was the greatest moment of my career until that point. I was on cloud nine.
Ten days after, an executive from Tim Burton’s office called, informing me that we were hiring Michael Keaton to play Batman. I laughed and said to him that it was a funny joke. We had been working for seven-and-a-half years to do a dark and serious Batman, and now we were going to hire a comedian and have a Mr Mom as the protagonist? It took them 20 minutes to convince me that this was not a joke. Then I spoke to Tim and understood the man’s genius. He had the vision, the big concept and the big idea as to how to create the world’s first serious and dark comic book superhero movie.
He told me that when you move from one medium to another, it’s not the square jaw that makes Batman. It’s not about how tall or how muscular he is. In fact, in order to make this movie work and to ensure that there were no unintentional laughs, this movie could not be about Batman. I heard him and my jaw dropped. He said this movie must be about Bruce Wayne. Keaton was our Bruce Wayne — that was the breakthrough.
He added one more element: In terms of the worldbuilding, from the opening frame itself, we must convince audiences that Gotham City is real. We must transport them into suspended disbelief, because unless they believe in Gotham City immediately, they would never believe in a guy who would dress up as a bat and go out to fight a villain like the Joker. He said that Gotham City was the third most important character in this movie; he was right. Those two parts of his vision which he faithfully and beautifully executed made all the difference in the world. Every single comic book genre movie since that time is still influenced by Tim’s vision. They are also influenced by the visual design that was done by the late Anton Furst, the production designer, who won an Oscar for this film.
Was there backlash when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman?
This was the era before computers and social media. If you consider that context, there has never been more backlash than what we saw at the time. I thought the studio would be surrounded by fans with pitchforks and torches. It was the sort of uproar that has never been matched; not even by the uproar against Heath Ledger when it was announced that he was going to play the Joker. Fans were distraught that the studio was hiring a "gay cowboy" to play the Joker, that he would ruin the role forever.
Of course, there was an uproar when Ben Affleck was hired and when Anne Hathaway was cast as Catwoman. Everybody said she was the girl-next-door and that she could never do anything edgy. They have been proven wrong every single time. As soon as fans watch the film rather than prejudge it, they always love what they are seeing. It was the same with Michael Keaton. I was as worried about it until Tim explained his vision to me.
What was the source material for the 1989 Batman film?
When Tim Burton was first brought on board in 1986, I had a series of three lunches with him and my job was to indoctrinate him into the world of the dark and serious Batman. I brought comic books from my collection to make sure that he never saw the silly ones or the crazy ones. The ones that I made him focus on were the 1939-1940 detective comics, up to Batman No. 1 that introduced both the Joker and Catwoman. Then I gave him the comic books from the 70s that restored the darkness to Batman, which were written by Denny O’Neil. The artist for these books was Neal Adams.
The third book I gave him was a darkly romantic comic book of a highly stylized Batman by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers. Finally, I gave him my favorite Batman comic book of all time — DC No. 439 — the best Batman story ever written. In that story titled Night of The Stalker Batman doesn’t say one word. It is the story that had the most emotional impact on me. If you see the 1989 Batman movie, you will see a little bit of the influence of that particular element in the opening sequence.
What is the relevance of the 1989 Batman movie today?
People tend to first consider its enormous impact at the box office, both domestically and internationally. That is not the real story of the impact of Batman 1989. The real story is that it was the first movie ever to treat comic books and comic book superheroes in a dark and serious way. It also changed the comic book industry itself, and Hollywood — for better or for worse. Most importantly, it impacted the global culture. It changed the world’s perception of comic book heroes. As a result, adults too realised that this was not necessarily just for little kids. Batman has no superpowers, his greatest superpower is his humanity. People all over the world were able to strongly identify with him. His origin story is so primal that the movie was able to transcend not only borders but cultures too. That is the true impact of this ground breaking film.
The author would like to thank Anshuman Jain for his support.