In recent years, the superhero film has surged from a risky genre to an unstoppable, franchise-driven blockbuster with a vice-grip on popular culture. The Batman enterprise has long been a driving force of the genre. The Caped Crusader, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, has featured in nine live action films across three separate series. On Jan. 17, the ’62 Center hosted Batman executive producer Michael Uslan, whose vision has enthusiastically endorsed the dark and serious portrayal of the franchise.
In a talk that was one part biographical storytelling and one part aspirational pep talk, Uslan narrated his unorthodox rise from a working class childhood in New Jersey to the helm of one of Warner Bros.’ most valuable film properties. Describing himself as a lifelong geek who owned enough comic books as a child to fill a garage, Uslan was drawn to Batman’s conception as a Dark Knight “stalking criminals from the shadows” and dreamed of someday writing Batman comics himself.
Uslan was 15-years-old when the television series Batman, starring Adam West as the title character, premiered in 1966. While the series would become the definitive portrayal of Batman for a generation, Uslan was disappointed with its tone, viewing its colorful camp as having turned Batman “into a joke.” Referring with particular disdain to the series’ iconic sound effect speech bubbles superimposed over action sequences, he began cultivating a new dream: to bring a serious portrayal of Batman to the screen.
With no Hollywood connections or family wealth to buy his way into control of the character, Uslan attributed his unlikely ascendancy to a combination of relentless and opportunistic self-marketing and a series of well-timed breaks and lucky connections. The first of those came when he was a student at Indiana University, where he took advantage of an experimental program that gave students a chance to teach a course of their own design. He received approval to teach the first ever college course on comic books after his sponsor in the Department of Folklore, Henry Glassie, agreed with his vision of the superhero genre as a modern day mythology.
Uslan’s success came through the use of an unconventional tactic. He anonymously called a local newspaper to express outrage that a course on comic books was being taught on a college campus. The deception worked, and the ensuing press coverage ultimately led to a phone call from Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. Uslan then earned a job at rival DC Comics, a massive step up from his initial attempt to break into film, which saw 300 typewriter-produced resumes receive only two positive responses.
Once at DC, good fortune rewarded Uslan’s opportunism again when he landed a job writing proto-Batman character The Shadow. A colleague revealed that he had been caught unaware that a script that was due the next day, and Uslan covered for him by spinning a story together on the fly. When he eventually found himself writing Batman, however, Uslan yearned to move onto his next dream and see his larger film ambitions realized. After leaving DC and attending law school, he used his job as a lawyer, which he was uninterested in for its own sake, as a “backdoor” to Hollywood by becoming a production attorney for United Artists.
Determined to exert creative control over the character of Batman, Uslan ultimately partnered with producer Benjamin Melniker. This partnership was advantageous because of Melniker’s professional network, which allowed the two to raise enough funds to purchase the film rights for Batman. Underlining the necessity of persistence and patience, Uslan emphasized that 10 years and many rejections stood between that acquisition and the release of Batman in 1989.
Uslan credited the film’s ultimate success to the vision of director Tim Burton, who stressed the need to make Gotham City itself a central character. Burton also insisted on the controversial casting of comedy actor Michael Keaton because he believed that Keaton’s potential to portray Bruce Wayne was more important than hiring a stereotypical action hero.
Uslan lauded Burton and art director Anton Furst, who created Gotham’s noir aesthetic, as two of three “geniuses” he has worked with. The third was director Christopher Nolan of the 2000s’ Dark Knight trilogy. Uslan praised Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne as one “for every generation” and the late Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker as a terrifying modern-day terrorist. He also singled out the decision to film in Chicago as masterstroke of making Gotham real, with no recognizable New York landmarks to break the suspension of disbelief.
Amidst effusive praise for the most celebrated Batman films, Uslan notably skimmed over Joel Schumacher’s two colorful and campy installments of the original series. He instead praised Nolan’s reboot, saying that it had saved a franchise that been ruined by studio interference. Also, while praising Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, he made little mention of that Batman’s presence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and its sequel Justice League, the latter of which was tepidly received and the former of which was one of the most reviled films of the decade. His conclusion, it seems, is that Batman operates best alone.