EDITOR’S NOTE: The following interview with my friend, the great Michael Uslan, was conducted in June of 2014 for the 25th anniversary of BATMAN ’89. – “Jett”
JETT: BATMAN ’89 marked its 25th anniversary this past Monday (June 23, 2014), has this been an exciting week for you?
MICHAEL USLAN: (Laughs) Unbelievable! I’ve had so many interview requests – many of them I had to turn down because I simply didn’t have the time. But yes, it’s been very exciting. To read all the retrospectives and articles about the movie, it was special.
JETT: Is BATMAN the most important comic book movie ever?
MU: With all due respect to Dick Donner and SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE – which was groundbreaking, is a classic, and tremendously important to the genre – I’d say yes, BATMAN ’89 is the most important comic book film ever.
Every comic book movie that followed – every single one of them – were inspired by BATMAN.
You can see the influence of Tim Burton’s vision. You can see the influence of Anton Furst’s production design. You can hear Danny Elfman’s influence on the film scores.
Taking it all in, it might not have been the most successful comic book movie in terms of box office. It might not have been the most merchandised comic book film. But I do think it qualifies as the most important comic book movie ever when you take in the worldwide impact. It changed the way people who didn’t read comics viewed Batman. No more “Pow, Zap, and Wham!” Batman aside, it was more than just the first summer movie blockbuster, it was an “event” that people had to attend. People where camping out for days in Times Square waiting in line to see the film on opening day. Everywhere you went you saw the Batsymbol and people wearing Batman T-shirts and hats! There had never been anything like it – especially for something that was a “comic book film.”
It was game changer for the comic book industry as well. For those of us who were Batman “fanboys” and “geeks.” For those of us who weren’t “hip” or “cool” for being into Batman and comic books as well, BATMAN made all of that cool. People who had never read a comic book in their lives were flocking to comic book stores to buy Batman comics and comics in general. It totally changed the perception that comic books were only for eight to ten year old boys. Of course, that started a few years earlier, in ’86, with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, but BATMAN ’89 brought it to a whole new level.
And from the film, you got BATMAN: THE ANIMATED series. You wouldn’t have had that type of animated Batman if it wasn’t for B89. Remember, before BTAS, they were just “cartoons” for kids. All of sudden, we’re now making “animated series” for teenagers, college students and adults.
JETT: What is your favorite “Batman Moment” from B89?
MU: Well, there are three moments that to this day still gives me the chills every time I see them.
One is the opening credits sequence – and I’m not saying that just because my name is on it (laughs)! It was so out of the box – you didn’t know where you were in that stone “thing.” Were you going down into the Batcave – what was it? We didn’t know until we were pulled back and realized that we’d had taken a journey into the Batsymbol.
Number two would be the scene of the Batmobile driving through the countryside at night – including the theme song that was playing with it. Incredible. And when he’s got Vicki Vale in there with him and they pierce the entry into the Cave, incredible.
Then there’s the last scene of the picture when the music is rising and he’s on top of the building facing the Batsignal – it still gets me thinking about it!
Now that you’ve got me thinking about this, let me add another one to the list. The opening sequence of the film was influenced by one of my favorite Batman stories of all time: “Night of the Stalker” from DETECTIVE COMICS #439. That moment, when The Batman appears on the roof – almost vampiric – scarring the living hell out of the badguys. And then grabs one of them and holds him over the edge of the roof and says, “I’m Batman!” And then leaps off the building and disappears. That sequence of the movie also gives me the chills and it is the establishing trademark of the post-Adam West, 60’s TV BATMAN.
JETT: Excluding yourself Mr. Uslan – you’re the reason that film happened – is there an “unsung hero” of B89 that we all should know about?
MU: Oh I think there are a number of people Bill, wonderful question. It’s probably a pretty long list, but let’s start and just see where it goes! Number one, then vice-president and later to become president of DC Comics, Sol Harrison. This movie would not have happened without Sol. Because he was in the position that enabled this kid in his twenties to buy the film rights to Batman. He was willing to put his head on the chopping block and say, “This young man loves comic books, loves Batman, and he’s going to do right by the character and make sure we see the dark and serious Batman on the big screen.”
Then there’s my legendary partner, Benjamin Melniker. For BOF readers who may not know, Ben turned 101 years old in May. He is sharp as can be. He began his career at MGM when it was the tiffany of all movie companies in 1939. So if you stop and think about it, Ben is the only person in Hollywood who has actively worked in nine different decades – (laughs) that is pretty darn amazing! Ben believed in what I was trying to do. I schooled him in Batman and the “Dark Batman” and he went to bat for me – no pun intended. None of this could have happened without Ben Melniker.
Moving on, there were a number of great executives who worked on BATMAN…so many. I’m afraid to name names because I know I’m going to miss someone – but they know who they are. Roger Birnbaum, who was instrumental in bringing Tim Burton and Sam Hamm on board. Peter Guber – who was head of Casablanca Pictures – along with his partner Neil Bogart – bankrolled the development of this and give it its shot. It could have never been launched without them.
Oh boy! A bunch of my friends and my family who coughed up the money originally, so I could have the funds necessary to buy the film rights to Batman. They all believed in me and believed in what I was doing. In particular, my father-in-law who was my guardian angel when nothing was happening for so many years. I was running out of money and didn’t know where to turn, who bankrolled me just long enough for me to get across the finish line. My parents. My Mom let me keep my comic book collection when all my friend’s moms were throwing them out or burning them! My Mom and Dad would take me to those very first comic cons and take me into the city [New York] to interview comic book writers and artists. Two of my English teachers in school – 7th and 8th grades – who believed in me and told me I had creative ability and could do comic books for a living. They challenged me creatively and made me learn the writing craft properly.
I don’t even know where to stop or where to start this list – it literally could keep going on and on and on. Anton Furst – in so many different ways – was integral to the success of BATMAN. Tim Burton. And everyone over at DC Comics who helped along the way: Jenette Kahn, Paul Levitz, Diane Nelson, and everyone on the comic books side who have so supportive, doing such an incredible job over making people come back every Wednesday to follow the adventures of Batman now for 75 years. My friend and mentor Jerry Robinson who was so important to what happened with Batman and how he evolved, how the villains evolved, Robin and The Joker. Bill Finger, the singular most unheralded and important person when it comes to Batman. His granddaughter Athena is working very, very hard on his behalf for him to finally get the proper credit he deserves.
So as you can tell Bill, it’s a very long list and, like I said, I don’t know where to stop or start (laughs)! I am just a lucky soul to have so many people help make the dream come true. At the end of the day, all the possible accolades and credits go to Tim Burton, Chris Nolan and Anton Furst – they are probably the three most important persons when it comes to the success of the Batman film franchise.
JETT: And the Batman film franchise continues to this day. Now, we have a new Batman on film in Ben Affleck. Thoughts?
MU: Well, let’s first address the “fan outrage” over his casting as Batman. The birth of “fan outrage” when it comes to casting started back in ’88 with the Michael Keaton announcement. Keep in mind that was back in the day before any internet or social media. Just from the “outrage” being reported and being ran in traditional mainstream press – TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. You were there; you remember that it was almost a torches and pitchforks situation (laughs). The outcry was unceasing – it was there everywhere you turned. And I understand it because I wasn’t happy with it when I was first heard the news. The only difference between fanboy Michael and fanboy everybody else was that I was involved with the film! I had access and I could ask Tim questions and get the answers and understand what his vision was. That’s why he can be called genius today for what he saw that very few other people were able to see.
So having been through the Keaton situation, then when Heath Ledger was hired by Chris Nolan to play The Joker [in THE DARK KNIGHT], there it was again – people forget quickly, don’t they? “Oh my God, they are taking the guy who played a Gay cowboy…it’s the end of the world…they are going to destroy The Joker!” And you know, in all of these cases – Keaton, Heath, Anne Hathaway for Catwoman [in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES] – when people finally see it, the response is always the same: “Oh my God, I don’t want anyone else to play that character again!” So, you know, we’ve been through this two or three times before.
But back to Ben Affleck. To me, Ben Affleck playing a Bruce Wayne who is in his mid to late 40s…look, I grew up on the George Reeves Superman. George Reeves was my hero! Ben Affleck had me totally convinced he was George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND. I thought it was simply a fantastic performance despite the fact that he’s a Red Sox fan (laughs)! Bottom line: I couldn’t be more thrilled to have an actor, writer, and director of his caliber playing Batman.
JETT: He looks great in the costume, doesn’t he Mr. Uslan? I mean, it’s different from what we’ve seen on film before in terms of the Batman costume, but he looks just like “Batman.”
MU: Question: Who is, or what is, “Batman?” If you ignore the movies, TV, animation, video games, and focus on the comics – the primary source – you find a Batman from one polar extreme to the next. A dark and serious vampiric guy with a machine gun mowing down people and throwing them off of buildings. A Bat-Baby, a Bat-Genie, and a Bat-Robot. You can find a Batman taking a family snapshot with Robin, Bat-Woman, Bat-Girl, Ace the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite and the rest of the Batman family. So, if the comic books can give you every single possible interpretation of Batman, then I think it’s fair that you can do the same in the movies, TV, and animation. There is room for everybody’s own version of Batman.
So what is the “True Batman?” Who is the “True Batman?” I believe it is the one that you first encounter. In the old days, we’d say that it was the Batman you found when you were 12 years old because that’s when most kids found comics. But today, age and the medium really don’t matter.
I know you found Batman through the 60’s TV series, right? My problem with that series was that it was the only point of access to Batman that the rest of the world had. That was the only thing “Batman” that they knew. And since he was being treated as a joke, that absolutely killed me. Today, I would welcome it. Look at BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, Bill – I know you loved that series. It probably opened up the world of Batman to A LOT of children. Then as they get older, they can discover the more intense animation, movies, and video games. Anytime you have “Batman Product” for younger children, you’ve hooked the next generation on the character.