The Rumpus Long Interview with Michael Uslan
Comics and movies with the man who has owned the film rights to Batman for thirty years.
Michael Uslan has received much acclaim in recent years for his role in bringing the current iteration of Batman films to the big screen. The executive producer of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the owner of the Batman film license for 30 years, Uslan has been a key player in the struggle to bring comic books and the comic book aesthetic into the artistic and commercial mainstream. His work in comic books and film is too extensive to list. He was the first person to teach a course on comics at an accredited university, “The Comic Book in America” at Indiana University. He is currently associated with projects to bring Shazam!, Doc Savage, and the Shadow to theaters, and the next Batman film is currently projected for a release date of 2011. An animated Superman/Batman film will be released to DVD in late 2009.
What follows is a conversation between two guys who love Batman in all of his many different, conflicting, complementing, immortal forms. – Jonathan Nathan
The Rumpus: Traditionally, many comic book fans distrust adaptations of their beloved characters. What do you see as the strengths of the medium of film in telling the Batman story, as opposed to the comic book, the novel, or even the radio program?
Michael Uslan: They’re different media. Yet, in a sense, comic books are frozen movies. If you look at a comic book, you are generally seeing the storyboard for a film. The great advantage of comic books, over the years, has been that, if they are frozen movies, they are not limited by budget. They are only limited by imagination. So the planet Mogo, or empires under the sea, or parallel universes, can easily be portrayed without worrying about it looking cheesy. So that’s always been an advantage. They’re also different [media], in a number of ways, because in comics you traditionally have got to read the word balloons and know what a character is thinking, as well as what a character is doing. That leads to something quite unique to comics.
Rumpus: M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable was one of the early films to usher in the second incarnation of the dark, serious, post-modern take on superheroes in film. One of the most striking aspects of the movie was the cinematography, which seemed to be trying to capture the broken, static imagery of the comic book page. To what degree do filmmakers focus on translating the comic book feel to the screen?
Uslan: I think every filmmaker makes different choices. I remember in the early days, in some of the early comic book movies, certain white dissolves were used that would try to emulate the look and feel of comic book panel borders. Sometimes they would frame shots in panels or circles that gave it a real comic book feel. With the Batman television show, they always liked to skew the camera and give it a tilted look, and often played with colors and lighting, and many of the comic book-based movies and TV projects over the years, particularly some of the early ones, loved to play with primary colors, reflecting the fact that at that time, all comic books were done at a four-color press. But you could have somebody like a Tim Burton, who, in creating the first serious comic book movie, chose to create an entire universe. As Tim brilliantly said, from the opening frame, Gotham City had to be created in a way that audiences would believe in Gotham City, in order for them to suspend their disbelief and truly believe there could be a guy dressing up as a bat and going out and fighting criminals like the Joker. That was critical to getting over the threshold with the general public, achieving that believability, and not getting unintentional laughs from the audience, along with the casting. Chris Nolan’s genius in revising the franchise is to go as realistic as possible, and shooting in Chicago. Think of some of the iconic buildings there are in Chicago—but many people around the world have no idea that’s Chicago. It creates a believability factor, letting you believe that Bruce Wayne is a guy, or that it’s possible that he could be out there making a difference, going through training, and becoming this man, Batman, whose greatest superpower is his humanity.
Rumpus: You brought up Tim Burton’s Batman film. How do you feel now, 20 years later, about Batman? How do you feel that it holds up?
Uslan: I think it holds up very well. It was revolutionary. You have to put it in the context of the time, because nothing like that had ever been done before. And if you look at all the comic book films that have come since then, in terms of tone, in terms of look, even in terms of Danny Elfman’s music for Batman, so many that followed have been inspired by that, specifically. It had a cultural impact worldwide. People see today the impact and success of The Dark Knight, and a lot of people forget that the first Batman movie had an impact pretty darn close to it. For me, the highlight came later that summer, when I was watching the Berlin Wall come down, about 1:30 in the morning on CNN, and some kid is coming through the wall into freedom for the first time, wearing a Batman hat. It was a real indicator of what that movie had done, how many people worldwide it had been reaching. It was really pretty incredible.
Rumpus: The current generation of superhero films is, in many ways, a genre unto itself. The films are not wholly action films, and they are not wholly comic book films, and they are not wholly character films. Cinematographically, how are they visually tied together from these disparate genres into cohesive works of art?
Uslan: Well I reject the concept that comic books in movies are a genre. I have been fighting that for 33 years, with the powers-that-be in Hollywood. All I used to hear for the first 20-plus years of battle was, “Oh, Michael, comic books are hot this summer at the box office, but they’ll cool at the box office next year.” My answer to that has always been that they are not a genre, they are not something to get hot and cold from one year to the next, they’re the exact same thing as books and plays: they are a source of great stories and colorful characters. If you talk about genres—I don’t care if you’re talking about war, Westerns, science fiction, horror, fantasy, humor, romance—anything you can find, strolling the aisles of a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, I can bring you many comic books representing each genre. Part of that battle has been getting Hollywood to recognize that comic books and superheroes are not synonymous. That’s been a huge breakthrough, just in recent years really, and as a result of that recent breakthrough, we’ve had movies like 300, Road to Perdition, and A History of Violence, that very few people realize were based on comic books and graphic novels. It’s very important to make that differentiation.
Rumpus: What do you think was the film that created that breakthrough?
Uslan: I think you really have to go to maybe Road to Perdition, where you’ve got a star of the caliber of Tom Hanks, where you have a story that has nothing to do with what the general public would think of as comic books—I think Road to Perdition really qualifies as the one that really shook things up.
Rumpus: The visual element of a character like Batman is an undeniable appeal, and although he’s gone from the original Detective Comics #27 suit, to the New Look in the Silver Age, to a cowl with eyebrows, to a bulked-up Liefeldian nightmare in the early 1990s, to the various movie suits, certain elements of the character’s look remain timeless. What goes into the design of a new costume for Batman in the films?
Uslan: I think there again, you have to start with the first film, in 1989. As you say, there have been so many different interpretations of Batman in the comics over the decades, from one extreme to the next, from a Batman that is cold and ruthless almost to the point of being vampiric in the 90s, to the pow-zap-wham, funny, pot-belly guy in the 60s, to the Batman-in-outer-space character who was always fighting robots and aliens in the 50s and early 60s. There have been so many interpretations, and I think that Tim, on that first film, tried to achieve an effect of timelessness, where there were combinations of elements and design work from past, present, and future, all merged together. I went on a tour speaking at colleges after the first film. At the end of the discussion, I would ask the audience, “Do you think that this takes place in the past, present, or future?” And no matter where I went, the answer was always approximately, a third of the people voted past, a third voted present, a third voted future. And that, to me, was an indicator at how successful Tim was at executing that timeless vision. It’s one of the reasons that the movie stands up so well. You can’t simply look at it now and say, “Oh, there’s another 1980s movie.” It really helps the piece survive the years. In terms of the costuming, Tim’s first thought was, “Well, if there was a Batman, who really did exist, would he be out there in a gray cloth costume with a blue cape and a blue cowl and blue tights? Or would he be operating at night in a suit that was black? And would he have armor in his suit, as opposed to simply spandex? And why would he have a yellow symbol around the bat—why does that make sense? So these were all considerations that were taken into account at the time, in terms of the design work.
Rumpus: As you point out, not only has the visual element of the character evolved quite a bit, but so too has Batman himself. He’s killed his enemies, he’s sworn off of killing, he’s danced the Batusi, he’s been a bitter paranoiac, he’s put batteries to power and turbines to speed, and he’s done everything in between. What first drew you to the Batman character, and what about the character continues to hold your interest?
Uslan: I really became a hardcore Batman fan when I was eight years old. What was clear to me, the reason I liked him better than Superman or Spider-Man or the Hulk or whoever, was the fact that he was human, and I could identify with him, and I really believed in that character strongly. In my heart of hearts, when I was eight years old, I believed that if I studied real hard, and worked out real hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could be this guy. Add that factor to the fact that Batman has had the greatest supervillains in history—his rogues’ gallery is unparalleled. Stan Lee always said that the measure of longevity and success for a superhero is via the villains. Unless he has unique and powerful villains, the superhero is not going to last that long. I think he’s absolutely right about that, and I think that is one of the greatest strengths of the Batman strip.
Rumpus: The current Batman films have been known since the early stages of Batman Begins for surprising, unconventional casting. Although Christian Bale and Cillian Murphy had already done excellent work in films like The Machinist and Intermission, they were relative unknowns to wider mainstream audiences. How do you go about finding these surprising, yet always effective, casting decisions?
Uslan: That’s part of the genius of Christopher Nolan. His casting is always not expected, and always unique. He has a vision that’s absolutely incredible. I think if you asked people in Hollywood a few years ago to give you a list of 100 actors who might play the Joker, I wonder how many of them would have had the name Heath Ledger on it. But Christopher Nolan, in his genius, saw something, realized something, recognized something, and then executed. And Heath was absolutely incredible. Chris Nolan deserves full credit for that [decision].
Rumpus: Although he has found his highest orders of success in other media, Batman is first and foremost a comic book character. Do you still follow his adventures in the monthly comics?
Uslan: I follow them. I do. I have great admiration and respect for the editors, writers, and artists of the comic books. They’re turning out, I don’t know, maybe 100 Batman stories a year, and the character turns 70 years old in May. It’s incredible: for 70 years, on a weekly basis, every Wednesday, there is some Batman story coming out, if not a bunch of Batman stories coming out. To keep the readers interested, and coming back, and to keep coming up with new and exciting ways to present stories and to present the character in a reflection of the times, is an absolutely incredible accomplishment. Hats off to all these people who have done such incredible creative work and still do every week.
Rumpus: In the current Batman comics, Grant Morrison uses the narrative to express the idea that every single Batman story that’s ever been written, really all happened, in one way or another, whether in a dream or in a hallucination or in an actual adventure, to this one man, Bruce Wayne, Batman, and to explore what that would mean to a human being. What do you think of this all-encompassing take on the character?
Uslan: Well, why not? How else do you explain the existence of Bat-Mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, and the Super-Batman of Planet X? It may be the only logical explanation for all of them. I think part of the resonance of the character is his ability to mean so many different things to so many different kinds of people, to be viable in so many different scenarios. He can be cold and detached and almost vampiric, but he can also be the pow-zap-wham character from the TV show in the 1960s.
Rumpus: No discussion of Batman is complete without a look at his supporting cast. What does Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler, represent to you, and what makes him so indispensable to Batman?
Uslan: Alfred is the parent figure, the father that Bruce Wayne hardly ever had. He is the link to humanity. It’s interesting, watching the Watchmen movie the other night, the link between Dr. Manhattan and his girlfriend. As he was becoming more and more godlike and in jeopardy of losing his humanity, she was his anchor. I think that’s exactly the role that Alfred plays. He is the one thing that keeps Batman grounded, when he gets too extreme and too far out there and too consumed in his mission, he is the one bringing him back down. But for Alfred, I do not believe Bruce Wayne would exist anymore.
Rumpus: It’s been made clear that Robin is not a part of the new Batman film franchise. What makes characters like Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake so important to Batman in the comics, but less workable in Christopher Nolan’s vision of Gotham City?
Uslan: I think it’s one thing if you are turning out dozens or even a hundred stories a year, you’ve got to have a great supporting cast behind you. Superman had a family that developed, and it’s only natural that Batman has a family of sorts that developed. I think it’s a great way to keep the comics interesting and varied, to appeal to different segments of an audience, to bring new perspectives to it. But when you are dealing with approximately two-plus hours every few years to do a story, you don’t have the luxury of having excessive screen time to explore, in detail and in-depth, lots of other subsidiary or ancillary supporting characters. Again, going back to the brilliance of Christopher Nolan, what he has been able to do, in bringing not only Batman and Bruce Wayne to life, is to give screen time to the way the relationships work, and to the arc of characters like Commissioner Gordon and Lucius Fox and Alfred and the romantic interests in Bruce’s life. I think it’s extraordinary how successfully those characters have been portrayed in the movies, when you think of how very little screen time you have to do this. If you’re doing something as a feature film as opposed to a weekly television series or an animated series, you don’t have the luxury of time, week after week, episode after episode, to explore, in-depth, a lot of supporting characters.
Rumpus: Do you think there are characters that are workable in comics but are basically not sensible on film?
Uslan: I did until I saw Watchmen, and Zack Snyder convinced me otherwise. That was one of the ones that I didn’t think was filmable in under ten hours. I think they did an extraordinary job.
Rumpus: The Joker may be one of the most emotionally powerful and compelling characters in all of fiction. He’s been written as a goofy clown, a psychotic serial killer, an insane comedian with a bad attitude, and a simple agent of chaos, a force of nature working against civilization itself. What makes the Clown Prince of Crime so compelling?
Uslan: I think he’s the greatest supervillain ever created. I don’t think any other villain can touch him. I love the way Tim Burton explored the operatic values to it. I’m always intrigued by the fact that, as you had this battle portrayed between them, over the decades, at times representing good vs. evil, at times representing order vs. chaos, that you have a force of good that is cloaked in the guise of a terrifying monstrous bat, and then you have this force of evil that is garbed in the visage of the carnival. It kind of reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado.”
Rumpus: When it comes to comics, being true to the source material doesn’t always mean what it sounds like. On the one hand, you have an almost frame-for-frame adaptation like Sin City or Watchmen, and on the other hand, you have the Spider-Man films and the Batman films, which go for more of a tonal faithfulness. Given that reality, out of Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and Heath Ledger, which Joker actor do you feel has stayed the most true to the original comic book character from Batman #1, and why?
Uslan: That is a question that has to be left to personal taste and personal interpretation. As we’ve already said, there have been so many interpretations of both Batman and the Joker in the comic books themselves over the decades, from one extreme to the next, and in the media, from one extreme to the next. I know some people who say that the only true Batman is the Batman from Mask of the Phantasm and the animated series. I know people who say that the only true Batman is the Batman from the other animated series—the older one, with Batman and Scooby-Doo. To most people in the world, prior to the last few years, it was the pow-zap-wham pot-belly funny Batman that was the one true Batman. It really depends on you individually, when you were reading the comics or seeing it on TV or seeing it in the movies that determines what is the real, true Batman. I think when a filmmaker approaches it, they have to make peace with that, and they have to be respectful to the integrity of the character. It’s funny, you can point to a lot of the comic books themselves and claim they were not respectful to the integrity of the character, certainly not as he was created in 1939. You might want to maintain that if that perspective had stayed, they would never have changed it to Batman fighting aliens in outer space. But times change, audiences change, and in order for comic books to survive, they have to keep pace with the times. If in the 1950s, the people who read comic books were predominantly 8- to 12-year-old boys, and the hottest things in the world at that time were UFOs, and astronauts, and science fiction movies, and flying saucers and rocket ships, and if that was what was fueling their readership, then that’s what they had to cater to. There are so many factors that go into it. Who is most true to the first Joker story in 1940? I think all these people who have played the Joker, in their own way, shape, or form, have been true to that story. I think we could pick out specifics from everyone from Cesar Romero to Mark Hamill, and back again to Jack and Heath. For the same reason, I think a lot of the different Batman movies truly represent Batman of the comic books. To me, the first one was always the Batman of 1939, pre-Robin. Creature of the night, stalking criminals from the shadows. The second one was more the Batman of the 1990s comics, a serious, aloof, almost vampiric portrayal of Batman. Batman Forever was clearly the Batman of the mid-1940s to about the mid-1950s, Batman and Robin together, chasing a grotesque villain across giant typewriters, and that was Batman Forever. And I think Batman & Robin was an echo of the 1960s pow-zap-wham guy. It all keeps coming back to the question of, “Who, to you, is the true Batman?” There’s one school of thought that the one true Batman to an individual is whatever Batman he was exposed to when he was about 12 years old. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I think it’s an interesting way to think about it.
Rumpus: You’ve been involved with some very disparate visions of Batman, and you’ve mentioned films like Batman & Robin and Batman Forever. Do you feel that audiences and critics may have missed some of what Joel Schumacher was trying to do with those films?
Uslan: The best way I can answer that is probably to talk generally about the industry, as opposed to talking specifically about Batman. There are times when you need to step back and realize that movie studios today are not necessarily the same things that they were many years ago. Many movie studios are international conglomerates now. They own everything from theme parks to toy companies to T-shirt companies to video companies. There’s a lot of different wheels to be greased. Sometimes, over the decades, the tail started wagging the dog. In some cases, decisions were being guided more by toys and Happy Meals than by creative filmmaking. The danger there is that the entertainment you’re making starts to feel like an infomercial for toys, as opposed to great film. Rather than being in a position where a studio dictates that a movie should be light, bright, and kiddie-friendly and family-friendly, with three or four heroes and three or four villains, and each one having two costume changes and two vehicles, to satisfy the toy and merchandising requirement, I think just letting filmmakers—great filmmakers—just go out and make great films, with a belief that if they make great films, you’re going to sell merchandising and video games and things anyway, is the best way to do it. All I can say now, in retrospect, looking back over the years, is: what a wonderful, wonderful place to be, where a great filmmaker like, in our case, Chris Nolan, or in the case of Watchmen, Zack Snyder, are just being given the opportunity to go out and make great films. I think that’s one of the key reasons why this is now a Golden Age for comic book movie-making.
Rumpus: Michael, it’s been great talking to you. Thanks a lot!
Uslan: Glad to do it, Jonathan.
See also: The Rumpus Interview with Bertrand Tavernier
See also: The Rumpus Long Interview with Zack Snyder