Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” co-starred Jack Nicholson of Neptune City. The sequel, “Batman Returns,” brought in Neptune Township’s Danny DeVito. And “The Dark Knight Rises” shot extensively in Newark. But the biggest New Jersey influence on the Batman franchise has been Michael E. Uslan, who grew up in Ocean Township and currently lives in Essex County.
The lifelong comic book fan had the vision to buy the rights to the Batman character back in 1979. And that leap of faith has turned into an entire Bat-world of cartoons, TV shows and some of the biggest (and darkest) blockbusters the superhero universe ever has seen.
With the latest installment, “The Batman,” opening this week (Uslan is one of its executive producers), and his new book “Batman’s Batman: A Memoir from Hollywood, Land of Bilk and Money” (Red Lightning Books, 192 pp., $20) now in stores, Uslan took some time to fill us in on the secret of the Dark Knight’s appeal — and his own life-long love of comics and superheroes.
Q: You’ve been a comic book fan since the ’50s. What was fandom like back then?
A: Completely different. There was something almost subversive about reading comics, which I kind of miss. Very few of my friends were even allowed to bring them into the house. But my mom sat down and read them and said, “There’s nothing wrong with these.” She said I could have as many as I liked, as long as I promised to read other things, too. It was the best deal I ever made!
Q: And you ended up becoming a serious collector, at a time when not a lot of other people were.
A: If you were over the age of 12 back then and a storeowner saw you buying comic books, they would look at you as if there was something wrong with you. And if a girl found you reading comics … well, let’s say I was definitely date-challenged in high school. But I loved superheroes. And back then, you could still buy old comics for a nickel apiece. I got a Superman #2 that way. The first issue of MAD. By the time I graduated high school, I had 30,000 comics in our garage. My dad couldn’t get the car in.
Q: So out of all these comics, what made Batman stand out?
A: I think the key factor was, unlike Superman or the Hulk, this guy had no superpowers. I believed in him, I believed I could be him. The second factor was, his supervillains were the best, with the Joker being the best of the best. The third thing was the Batmobile, which was magic. What kid didn’t want that car? And the fourth thing was his origin story. Losing your parents … I couldn’t imagine something like that happening. Reading that story … that was primal.
Q: You ended up teaching the country’s first course on comic books while you were still in college, then actually going to work for DC. But how did you go from that to getting the rights to the character?
A: I went to the president, Sol Harrison, and I said, “I want to show the world the true Batman. I think it could be a great movie!” And Sol, who was very fatherly, very kind to me, said, “For God’s sake, don’t! Ever since the TV show went off the air that brand’s been as dead as a dodo.” But in 1979, after six months of negotiations, my partner Benjamin Melniker and I closed the deal and I quit my job. I had no pension, no health insurance and my wife was like 9.1 months pregnant but we said, “Okay, let’s roll the dice.”
Q: Which weren’t in your favor at first. There really wasn’t such a thing as a “serious” superhero movie then.
A: Well, there had been “Superman,” and bless Dick Donner for that. But even that, you look at it and the stuff on Krypton is serious, and so is Smallville, and then you get to Metropolis and he’s rescuing kittens from trees. No one wanted a dark superhero movie. For 10 years, I was told it was the worst idea they’d ever heard. It wasn’t until the genius of Tim Burton that we had a breakthrough. I mean, that was really a revolution.
Q: You write about how you saw your job as protecting Batman’s image, but wasn’t it hard at first? I love the first two Burton movies with Michael Keaton, but then it starts to get campy again. It’s only with Christopher Nolan that we seem to get back to your original vision.
A: How can I say this as politely as I can? What used to be studios are now conglomerates. And sometimes they get very enamored of toys and merchandizing and Happy Meals. The licensees want every picture to have three heroes, and three villains, and each one has to have two costume changes and two vehicles. And suddenly you’re not making a movie about characters, you’re making an infomercial for toys. It’s the tail wagging the dog. If you can find a filmmaker with a passion, though, and a vision, you can have your merchandizing and a great film. And Christopher Nolan proved that.
Q: The Nolan films are really the peak Batman films for a lot of fans. Who’s your favorite Batman?
A: That’s like, “Who’s your favorite child?” I think the real question, though, is, “Who’s your favorite Bruce Wayne?” Tim Burton’s genius idea was, if we’re going to have audiences buy into this, the movies have to be about the guy in the Batsuit. And he was so right about that. I tell you, I was apoplectic at first when Tim said he wanted Michael Keaton. But he was right. Because he knew Keaton could give Bruce Wayne that almost psychotic obsessiveness. And since then, every one has been 100 percent that actor’s interpretation. Val Kilmer was romantically dark, and George Clooney was the boy next door. Christian Bale gave audiences someone trying to figure out who he is, and Ben Affleck created this older, frustrated character. And now with Rob Pattinson … well, his Bruce has only been Batman for a year or so, so he’s young and still evolving.
Q: Obviously, you had this amazing success with Batman. You also did “Swamp Thing,” and “Constantine,” and brought “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” to TV. But what I like about this book is that it suggests you learn as much from a failure as a success.
A: I go back to Indiana University every year for three weeks and talk to students about the business. And what I tell them is, “This is your time to find your passion. There’s no wrong move you can make. Actually, you can learn more from learning what you don’t like than from what you do.” And it’s kind of the same thing with learning what doesn’t work. I probably learned more from the projects that went south than from the ones that came to fruition. It can be very frustrating at times. But you just have to find your passion, incorporate it in your work, honor your commitments, dig a foxhole if you’re under siege — and be careful who you let into that foxhole with you. And I learned all that growing up in Jersey.
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