Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” co-starred Neptune City’s Jack Nicholson. The sequel, “Batman Returns,” brought in Danny DeVito from Neptune Township. And “The Dark Knight Rises” was largely filmed in Newark. But New Jersey’s biggest 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 a vision to buy the rights to the Batman character in 1979. And that leap of faith turned into an entire world of cartoons, TV shows and some of the most great (and darkest) superhero blockbusters. the universe has never seen.
With the latest installment, “The Batman,” out 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 let us in on the secret to the Dark Knight’s appeal — and his lifelong love of comic books and superheroes.
Q: You’ve been a fan of comic books since the 1950s. 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 that. She said I could have as many as I wanted, as long as I promised to read other stuff too. It was the best deal I’ve ever made!
Q: And you ended up becoming a serious collector, at a time when few other people were.
A: If you were over 12 at the time and a store owner saw you buying comics, he would look at you like something was wrong with you. And if a girl finds you reading comics… well, let’s just say I definitely had a high school dating problem. But I loved superheroes. And back then, you could still buy old comics for a nickel apiece. I had a Superman #2 like that. The first issue of MAD. By the time I graduated from high school, I had 30,000 comics in our garage. My dad couldn’t get the car up.
Q: So out of all these comics, what made Batman stand out?
A: I think the key factor was that, unlike Superman or the Hulk, this guy didn’t have superpowers. I believed in him, I believed that I could be him. The second factor was that his villains were the best, with the Joker being the best of the best. The third thing was the Batmobile, which was magical. What kid didn’t want this car? And the fourth thing was his origin story. Losing his parents… I couldn’t imagine something like that happening. Reading this story…it was essential.
Q: You ended up teaching the country’s first comic book class while still in college and then went 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 said, ‘I want to show the world the real Batman. I think it could be a great movie! And Sol, who was very paternal, very kind to me, said, “For God’s sake, don’t! Ever since the TV show went off the air, that brand has 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 about 9.1 months pregnant, but we said, ‘Okay, let’s roll the dice’.
Q: Which were not in your favor at first. There weren’t really any “serious” superhero movies back then.
A: Well, there had been “Superman,” and bless Dick Donner for that. But even that, you watch it and things on Krypton are serious, just like Smallville, and then you get to Metropolis and he rescues kittens from trees. Nobody wanted a dark superhero movie. For 10 years I was told that was the worst idea they had ever heard. It was only through the genius of Tim Burton that we broke through. I mean, it was really a revolution.
Q: You write about how you see your job as protecting Batman’s image, but wasn’t it hard at first? I love Burton’s first two films with Michael Keaton, but then it starts to get campy again. Only with Christopher Nolan do we seem to return to your original vision.
A: How can I say this as politely as possible? What was once studios has become a conglomerate. And sometimes they become very enamored with toys, merchandising and Happy Meals. Licensees want each image to have three heroes and three villains, and each must have two costume changes and two vehicles. And suddenly you’re not making a movie about characters, you’re making an infomercial about toys. It is the tail that wags the dog. If you can find a filmmaker with a passion, however, and a vision, you can have your merchandising and a great movie. And Christopher Nolan proved it.
Q: Nolan’s movies are really the best Batman movies for a lot of fans. Who is your favorite Batman?
A: It’s like, “Who’s your favorite kid?” I think the real question, though, is, “Who’s your favorite Bruce Wayne?” Tim Burton’s genius idea was, if we want audiences to accept this, 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 this almost psychotic obsession. And since then, everyone has been 100% interpreting this actor. Val Kilmer was romantically dark and George Clooney was the boy next door. Christian Bale gave audiences someone trying to figure out who he was, and Ben Affleck created that older, frustrated character. And now with Rob Pattinson…well, his Bruce has only been Batman for about a year, so he’s young and still evolving.
Q: Obviously you had this incredible success with Batman. You also did “Swamp Thing” and “Constantine” and brought “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” on TV. But what I love about this book is that it suggests learning as much from failure as from success.
A: I go back to Indiana University every year for three weeks and talk to students at the company. And what I tell them is, “It’s time to find your passion. You can not be wrong. In fact, you can learn more by learning what you don’t like than by learning what you do. And it’s kind of the same with learning what doesn’t work. I probably learned more from the projects that went south than from the ones that came to fruition. This can sometimes be very frustrating. But you just need to find your passion, incorporate it into your work, honor your commitments, dig a hole if you’re under siege – and be careful who you let into that hole with you. And I learned all of that growing up in Jersey.
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