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