Flashback: Batman

Producer Michael Uslan talks to SciFiNow about a solemn vow made, and the ten years of torture to bring the Dark Knight to the big screen.

Before Thanos ‘snapped’ his way to box office domination, one movie stood up to unprecedented hype, speculation and anticipation, from the moment it was announced to the weekend of its release. That movie was Tim Burton’s modern classic, Batman.

Batman was a visionary masterpiece, the success of which changed cinema forever and was the realisation of one man’s mission to bring a new kind of superhero to audiences.

“What you need to understand is Hollywood looked down its nose at comic books and superheroes in the Seventies,” begins Michael Uslan, a comic book fan since childhood who would make Batman his life’s work. That was due in no small part to the now-iconic Sixties TV show antics of the dynamic duo as portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward. “I go back to that cold night in January in 1966, where I had been waiting for months for the TV series to premiere, I was so excited,” Uslan says. “But then it hit me… they were playing it as a comedy and suddenly I knew that the whole world would be laughing at Batman.”

Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939, Batman began life as a dark, pulp fiction-inspired vigilante, but as the popularity of comics declined, the stories, influenced by the zeitgeist of the era, became lighter and more playful, eventually matching with the tone of the overwhelmingly popular TV show and becoming a DC Comics mainstay alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. “That night in the den, just like Bruce Wayne, I made a vow,” recalls Uslan. “I said that somehow I am going to find a way to show the world the true Batman.”

In the early Seventies, while still an undergraduate law student, Michael Uslan came to the attention of the comic book industry by proposing, and gaining accreditation for, the first academic university course to teach superheroes and comic book mythology. With the ‘unusual’ course having gained mainstream media interest, Uslan was soon fielding calls of support from Stan Lee at Marvel, as well as DC Comics Vice President Sol Harrison, who offered Uslan a summer job and agreed to pay him a weekly retainer throughout his time at university.

Batman was a visionary masterpiece (credit: Warner Bros).

Uslan graduated to become an entertainment lawyer, developing his knowledge of the film industry, all the while continuing to write for DC Comics and maintaining his friendship with Sol Harrison until, one day in 1979, Uslan decided that the time was right to make his bid for Batman.

“Sol Harrison had mentored me into the comic book business and was very fatherly towards me,” Uslan says, “so when I approached DC Comics to buy the rights to Batman, Sol put his arm around me and said: ‘Michael, for God’s sake don’t do this, I don’t want to see you lose your money. Is there any way I can talk you out of this?’ I replied: ‘No way!’ That began a six month negotiation until, on October 3 1979, together with my partner Ben Melnicker, I signed the document and acquired the rights to Batman.”

With the rights to make a Batman movie finally secured, Uslan eventually quit his job as a lawyer in order to develop his credentials as a producer, during which time almost every major film studio turned down his pitch and self-penned screenplay ‘Return Of The Batman’, unable to shake the overwhelming impact that the Sixties TV show had on the Caped Crusader. “Most people aren’t comic book geeks and back then the TV show was the only interpretation of Batman that was available to people around the world… and that killed me,” adds Uslan.

As the Seventies became the Eighties, and after years of knockbacks, Uslan faced the realisation that circumstances would force him back to becoming a lawyer, until he met with producer Peter Guber, who became so enamoured with Uslan’s pitch for Batman, that he ordered his own lawyer to lock himself in a room with Uslan and Melnicker and ‘not to come out until a deal was struck’. Guber secured a production deal with Warner Bros (the eventual parent company of DC Comics), commissioning a screenplay and pursuing potential directors, including Gremlins director Joe Dante, but none could move the project forward as Uslan’s dream remained stuck in development hell.

By chance, in 1985 Uslan was shown a preview of the new movie by an up-and-coming filmmaker named Tim Burton. In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Uslan saw a vision unlike any he had encountered before and became excited by what Batman could become in Burton’s hands. Uslan knew that Batman “was never going to happen until we found a director who had vision and who understood, loved and had a passion for the character, and that occurred when Tim Burton came into our lives.”

Burton added his own uniquely stylised take on Batman’s world when he signed on to direct, and, with the project already gaining media attention, soon began the unenviable task of casting the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne, refusing almost every Hollywood ‘action star’ in favour of Beetlejuice actor Michael Keaton. When the announcement was made public that Keaton, largely known for comedic performances, had been cast, fans were outraged and petitioned Warner Bros, assuming that the casting of Keaton would lead to another comedic take on Batman.

With a director largely untested on a film of this scale, and a hugely unpopular choice as leading man, it fell to the filmmakers to find the ‘right’ actor to portray Batman’s most recognisable nemesis, The Joker. By 1988 Hollywood heavyweight Jack Nicholson had won two Academy Awards and proved the favourite for studio and producers alike, as casting a serious actor like Nicholson would settle the disquiet and add a further level of intrigue to the production.

Fans were initially outraged when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman (credit: Warner Bros).

But the casting wasn’t all that was needed to create the world of Batman – Gotham itself has always been as crucial to the character as all of his villains and allies are, and Uslan was thrilled with how the production design came together. “[Production designer] Anton Furst was an integral part of Batman and the movie is the best example of world-building that I can think of,” Uslan says. “In Sam Hamm’s script, Gotham was described as ‘if hell has erupted from under the Earth’. When Anton came back with his designs for Gotham City, the Batmobile and the whole works, that led to five square city blocks being built on the set at Pinewood.”

To give a sense of the film’s scale, Uslan adds that “Ben Melnicker, who had put together the deal for Ben Hur, was on the set with me one day and said, ‘you know Michael, I never dreamed that I would see sets more extravagant than Ben Hur, but this has it beat completely’.”

In response to fan interest in the film, Warner Bros rushed out an early teaser trailer which proved such a hit with fans during Christmas 1988 that many paid for cinema tickets just to watch the trailer. Bootleg videos of the clip were made and sold, while the poster, which simply showed the iconic black and gold bat-logo, was being stolen from displays more quickly than it could be replaced.

The summer of 1989 became known as the summer when ‘Batmania’ shook the world, with the movie dominating not just cinemas but every cereal box, Happy Meal, toy store, bookshelf and even a soundtrack by Prince… so that, by the time the movie was released in June of that year, the anticipation for Batman had reached fever pitch.

Batman-related merchandising sales rose to over $750 million in the US alone, while the film grossed over $40 million in its opening weekend, defeating the record set by Ghostbusters II just one week prior. It remained in cinemas for almost six months, ultimately taking over $411 million internationally.

Acclaim for Batman would be widespread, with the movie winning an Oscar for Anton Furst’s art direction, and receiving fan (if not critical) adoration. Batman also spawned a direct sequel and two further, non-Burton bat-flicks during the Nineties alone. However, in Uslan’s eyes, the impact of Batman upon Hollywood at large would prove to be a curse, as well as a charm.

“When executives demand that movies be kiddy-friendly and have at least three heroes and three villains with at least three vehicles each and numerous costume changes they can make toys from… that’s when the tail begins wagging the dog,” warns Uslan, as subsequent Batman sequels went on to adopt a lighter tone, in direct response to the licensee backlash and the diminished financial returns of Burton’s Batman Returns.

Batman was a financial and critical success (credit: Warner Bros).

Away from merchandising, Batman became a poster child for a raft of pulp comic book adaptations such as The Shadow, Dick Tracy and The Phantom, while adaptations of The Crow and The Mask became hits.

Later in the Nineties, the unlikely Marvel Comics adaptation Blade led to X-Men and Sam Rami’s Spider-Man successes of the early Noughties, as well as a host of pre-Disney Marvel movies including Ghost Rider and Daredevil. Batman’s success would also resonate throughout the comics industry, driving a widespread interest in the medium, fuelling an overall increase in sales and leading to independent comic book adaptations such as Tank Girl, Timecop, and Barb Wire.

On television, The Flash and Lois And Clark: The New Adventures Of Superman came and went, but owed numerous debts to Batman, while the award-winning Batman: The Animated Series, echoed Tim Burton’s vision in a take which many fans consider the defining on-screen portrayal the Dark Knight.

The final word then, has to go to Michael Uslan, the man who stuck with the cowled hero through thick and thin, and who remains a named producer on Batman movies to this day. He is uniquely qualified to determine what the key ingredients to making a great Batman movie: “If you can find filmmakers, like Tim Burton and Chris Nolan, with a passion and love for the character and the ability to execute their vision, then you are going with something great and have a formula for success,” he says.

After over 30 years of shepherding Batman on the big screen, how does Uslan reflect on a lifetime as ‘Batman’s Batman?’ “I had the ability to protect Batman and ensure that the darkness and the dignity were restored to him in a movie that impacted the world. It changed Hollywood, it changed the comic book industry and it changed my life.”

Michael Uslan’s autobiography The Boy Who Loved Batman is available from bookstores. Batman is available on 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray from Warner Bros.