In Part One of our conversation with Michael Uslan, the Batman movie uber-producer recounted his decades-long journey to bring a “dark and serious” version of the Dark Knight from the comic pages to the movie screen, a journey that is the foundation of his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman. After a string of Hollywood studios and financiers initially rejected the idea, the Batman film franchise has gone on to earn billions of dollars in box office and merchandising and solidify Batman as a cinematic legend, with even more big screen adventures on the way.
After the jump, Michael and I continue our discussion of what makes the Batman such an iconic — and enduring — character.
KEITH: In the past, you’ve talked a lot about how the Adam West Batman was simultaneously mesmerizing and horrifying for you. I’m assuming this is because you were exposed to Batman as a character before the TV series.
MICHAEL: Oh, absolutely! By the time the show came on the air, I had a collection of about 30,000 comic books dating back to 1936.
So your first introduction to Batman wasn’t the brightly colored Batman of the 60s because you were already aware of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger-era comics.
I’d even met them both already. I met Bill Finger when I was 13. He was at the first Comic-Con with Otto Binder, and I met him there. I had met Bob Kane, and it was later in life that I became really close friends with Jerry Robinson. But yeah, I knew this character — having read that first stretch of Detective Comics through the introduction of Robin. I had Batman #1 where the Joker and Catwoman were introduced. And critical to anyone who grew up as a comic book fan of that era, I had the Jules Feiffer book The Great Comic Book Heroes which was the key that unlocked the Golden Age for me.
Because you were aware of Batman’s dark roots, it makes sense why seeing the campy version of the 60s was so traumatizing for you. But at the same time, I think it’s safe to say it was that version of Batman that transcended the character into a pop cultural icon.
It absolutely did. And I always say I was thrilled and horrified simultaneously because that’s the best way I can express what I was going through at the time. Look, up until then, all we had as kids on TV as far as comic book superheroes was George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman — which was wonderful, but they hadn’t made any new ones. And we had Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and that was really it. For those of us who liked superheroes, it was barren. You couldn’t even find cartoons with superheroes either!
That’s also what is so interesting about a character like Batman. He can embody so many different versions. You can have a dark, brooding Batman, but there also seems to be room in the character’s essence to include something like Adam West. It’s interesting that now, in 2014, Batman ’66 is having this cultural renaissance. There was a long period in which people, like yourself, tried to distance Batman from the 60s version.
But Keith, you’re missing a critical point. Again, it goes back to the context of the time. One of the reasons I was so horrified by the show — and that came at the moment he started doing the Batusi, by the way.
The reason was as a lover of comic books and Batman, that was the one and only incarnation available to the world public. The world only had one [definitive] Batman and that was as the Pow! Zap! Wham! guy doing the Batusi. The difference is that now, we are in a situation where the world has been widely exposed to many different interpretations of Batman — between the video games, the brilliant animation, the movies and their different directors — there are many interpretations and thus, it’s okay that audiences have choices. Children can be indoctrinated into the world of Batman via DVDs of the old series that are coming out.
Which is how many of us were first introduced to Batman in the first place, by the way.
What a nice way for a little kid to be introduced to Batman, who can then grow up and graduate to the comic books, to the animation, to the video games, and ultimately, to the darker and more adult movies.
I’m curious why you think now is the right time for the Batman ’66 resurgence, though? I mean, I’m sure a lot of it has to do with all the recent merchandising agreements, but is it because people are craving as many different versions of Batman as possible?
Again, it’s because there are choices. Because you have complete access to the true Batman the way he was created. You’re not limited to just one interpretation, and depending on the age and sensibilities of your audience — and maybe even their cultural background — these choices are now a good thing. I remain convinced that the one true version of Batman is the version you were personally exposed to for the first time — maybe when you were twelve or six.
That was the case for me. While I loved reruns of the 60s show and had the Super Powers action figures, Batman in 1989 is what definitely solidified my Bat fandom.
I can’t tell you how many times — and this warms my heart enormously — people come up to me when I give lectures or do book signings or appear at Comic-Cons and say “Mr. Uslan, when I was six years old, the first movie my dad took me to was Batman in 1989, and our whole summer was about Batman. My dad’s not here any longer, but now I have a chance to share these movies with my son.” Keith, there’s nothing greater in the world that I can process for what we’ve done over these last 25 years. It means an incredible amount.
It goes back to what has made Batman so enduring for so long.
The comics alone have had every incarnation of Batman that you could possibly imagine, from one extreme to the next. And while we tend to talk about the filmmakers and the animators who are so brilliant, sometimes we tend to overlook the comic book people, and we’ve got to remember them. Where else in cultural history can you find a group of creative people who have brought these [kinds of] stories to audiences every Wednesday for 75 years? That is one of the most incredible accomplishments of the last century.
That’s absolutely right. We can never forget or overlook the source material. You always talk about how superhero comic books are American mythology.
They definitely are.
And this is the reason why we gravitate toward superheroes so much. When you think of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and later with the contributions of Denny O’Neil, Frank Miller, Paul Dini, Grant Morrison — the list goes on and on, they are the Homers of our modern times.
They truly are. Whether we’re talking about the adventures of Odysseus or Beowulf, [superhero stories] are still all about brave warriors fighting the demons and dragons of our day. They might be wearing spandex, capes, and armor [now], but it’s still basically the same rooted folklore, and the world needs heroes and sagas. It needs great inspirational stories and characters. That’s what they get from the comics.
You mentioned how different directors have brought different interpretations to Batman over the years. From the time you first acquired the rights in the 70s to overseeing the franchise now, the tone of the movies has also swung from one extreme to the other. I know that you were on this mission to create a dark and serious Batman, and that’s what you accomplished in ’89, but if you look at that movie in the context of, say, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it almost feels campy when you watch it now.
Everything must be appreciated and understood in the context of its time. The ’89 movie was indeed revolutionary. Its impact cannot be calculated. I maintain to this very summer, every comic book or genre movie that has come out since 1989 has been influenced by the vision of Tim Burton, by the design work of my dear friend Anton Furst, and by the musical notes of Danny Elfman. That’s incredible. In the context of its time, that movie was as dark and serious an approach to a comic book superhero as most people could fathom.
Would you say 2005 and Batman Begins was the real culmination of your quest for a dark and serious Batman, though?
When you look 15 years later at another genius like Chris Nolan. This is somebody who came in to restore the darkness and dignity to Batman on the movie screen. He wanted to make it as real and dark and serious as possible, and had a vision that was 180 degrees away from Tim Burton’s. He’s able to do that because of the revolutionary work Burton already did. Nolan wanted to convince audiences that Batman was no longer about a comic book world of black vs. white, with the Joker as the “Clown Prince of Crime.”
The 1989 Batman movie was essentially coming out just as the Modern Age of comics was happening. But it’s like the Nolan films were the ones that really embraced the tone of books like Year One or The Killing Joke.
The comics and graphic novels had changed rapidly beginning in 1986 with Frank’s Dark Knight Returns. Chris wanted to show that today we live in a post-9/11 world that’s gray. [The conflict is] order vs. chaos [instead of] good vs. evil. I loved that so many critics called The Dark Knight trilogy some of the most important post-9/11 movies that had ever come out. That was impactful, and it’s true. Chris wanted to convince you that Gotham City was real and not a place built on a back lot. He wanted to make you believe it was a real city, to believe Bruce Wayne could be a real traumatized young person on a journey of self discovery, to believe the Joker could be a real homicidal terrorist capable of scaring anybody. Heath’s portrayal did that. [Nolan] took on an incredible mission with the Trilogy, which I do not break up. I see it as one movie in three acts.
Especially the way in which Dark Knight Rises kind of bookends with Begins, it really does feel like a 6-7 hour movie. It helps that I saw all three back-to-back-to-back for the midnight premiere of Rises in 2012.
Everything he set up — beginning with Batman Begins into Dark Knight — had a payoff in Dark Knight Rises. It was the unified approach that was incredible. When we were shown the completed trilogy for the very first time, there were eight of us in a huge IMAX theater, and at the end of the movie, my wife turns to me and sees tears running down my face. She gets concerned and asks if I’m okay. I was, but thanks to Chris, what I was seeing was my legacy. I knew it was my epitaph, and it represented for me everything I ever dreamed of doing with Batman on the silver screen since I was fourteen and a half years old. That was powerful for me.
I mean, I had nothing to do with any of these movies, but I felt the same way walking out of The Dark Knight in 2008. I remember thinking that I’d finally witnessed the ultimate live action Batman on the screen. So I could only imagine what you were feeling!
Even more than that, I claim that Chris’ work, as a result of that, when you walk out of one of his Dark Knight movies, you no longer had to say it was a great comic book movie, you could finally say it was a great film. And that to me represents just how much he raised the bar, not just Batman, but for all comic book movies.
If nothing else, the Nolan films, particularly The Dark Knight, deserved at least an Oscar nomination. It’s the reason why the Academy expanded its list of nominees in subsequent years. They felt so bad about leaving it off in 2009! Think about it: it was actually controversial to not nominate a superhero movie for an Academy Award.
It sure was. There were a lot of upset people.
I know people had always been waiting for the moment when a superhero film would be properly recognized by the Academy. At least I had been waiting since I’m a superhero film and Oscar junkie. And Nolan had finally made that film on that level. At least Heath got his Oscar posthumously.
Someday, over a couple of beers, we’ll talk about the Academy and all that.