The boys who love Batman

Hunter Kelley

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My parents always told me to enjoy my college years while I can because before I would know,it, they would be gone.

They were right.

Sadly, my days as an undergrad at Western are coming to an end. With this being (probably) the last time I write for the Western Courier, I am happy to say it will also be my most genuine and heartfelt piece.

About a month and a half ago, I was given the opportunity to read a memoir by Michael Uslan, a very successful and established Hollywood executive producer, comic book writer, college professor and family man.

The book, titled “The Boy Who Loved Batman” is about Mr. Uslan’s lifelong struggle to bring a dark and serious version of the caped crusader to the silver screen.

While I don’t know much about being an executive producer, I do know what it feels like to be a genuine Bat-fanatic. I also know how it feels like to be told comic books and superheroes are childish, and I need to grow up. Good thing I never heeded that advice.

Mr. Uslan’s work over the course of his life is not only inspirational, it has also helped the world as a whole have a better understanding and appreciation for the Dark Knight Detective. When I grow old I will never look back on my days as a Bat-geek with disdain. The success that movies like “Batman Begins,” and “The Dark Knight” have had changed people’s minds about what it means to be a comic fan and has also changed their opinions on comic book characters as source material for movies.

I love Batman, plain and simple.

Mr. Uslan seems to love Batman just a little bit more. If I am going to leave Western with one thing it is going to be this: “He’s not a hero: he’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Hunter: What about “The Batman” resonated with you? Why not Superman, Green Lantern or other comic book characters? Although in your book you mention you are a fan of those characters, what makes Batman stick out more in your mind than all the other aforementioned comic book characters?

Uslan: He’s a super-hero who has no super-powers. His greatest super-power is his humanity. I could strongly identify with him and believe in him. Also, he has the most primal origin story that anyone can relate to on a deeply emotional level. And… he has the world’s best super-villains!

H: In your book, “The Boy Who Loved Batman,” you mention having immense respect for filmmakers Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, and praise their own unique visions of “The Batman.” I did notice, however, that there was no mention of the Joel Schumacher Batman films “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin;” both of which you served as executive producer on. Both movies are generally considered to be the worst films in the franchise among Batman fans and general audiences alike. For you, what didn’t work with the Schumacher films that did work with the Burton/Nolan films? Lastly, how did the studio manage to transition from the dark, serious Tim Burton Batman movies to the campy, over the top Schumacher films?

U: Speaking generally about the motion picture industry, what used to be just movie studios are often today international conglomerates that own many other businesses from theme parks to toy companies. Sometimes, generally in the industry, those folks become so obsessed with merchandising and Happy Meals that the tail begins to wag the dog, and that isn’t good for anyone. When filmmakers are directed to accommodate toy companies and licensees and have multiple characters in comic book movies, each with mandated two costume changes and two vehicles, there is no room for character development or plots; and, the result can be light, bright, kiddie-friendly, family-friendly, two hour infomercials for toys rather than real films. But when a studio like today’s Warner Bros. finds a passionate filmmaker with an understanding of and love for a particular comic book character and has a vision for it and knows how to execute that vision, then great films are made, as in the Christopher Nolan trilogy. When great filmmakers are allowed to make great films, studios will sell toys anyway.

H: Speaking about campy, over the top Batman, you mention throughout your book your dislike for the “Pow, Zap, Wham” Batman. Looking back on the camp of the ’60s television show and movie, and now looking at what you and many others have achieved over the past 22 years starting with “Batman 1989,” “Batman Returns,” “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and the upcoming “The Dark Knight Rises” can you say that you have achieved your life’s goal? Do you still hold a grudge against the ‘60s Batman?

U: I don’t “hold a grudge.” In 1966, the TV show was the only non-comic book version of Batman the world was being exposed to and people were laughing at Batman. That’s what just killed me. Now that the world has embraced a dark and serious version of The Batman; if children today become Batman fans by watching those old TV episodes or watching the cartoon, “Batman Meets Scooby-Doo,” that’s great… because soon they will discover the more advanced animated Batman and the comic books and the “Arkham Asylum” games, and the PG-13 movies.

H: I was born in 1990, so my first images of Batman were from “Batman Returns” and “Batman: The Animated Series,” two very dark interpretations of the caped crusader. I was never exposed to the “Pow, Zap, Wham” Batman you speak of in your book. Commercially, Batman Returns did very well, however many critics and fans alike did not accept it, including Jett over at Batman On Film. Why does “Batman Returns” work for you? Why do you think it just didn’t catch on with some people?

U: I loved the Catwoman in “Batman Returns.” Visually, it is an amazing film.

H: Personally, my favorite Batman story arc was the “A Death in the Family” storyline. I can’t help it; my roots are in the ‘90s. What is the one definitive Batman story arc in your mind? If you don’t have one definitive story arc, what are some of your favorite ones?

U: In my book, “THE BOY WHO LOVED BATMAN,” I detail my Top Twenty Batman stories. I loved The Ras Al Ghul arc. Individual favorites include “Night of The Stalker”, The Joker and The Catwoman stories from Batman #1, the Silver St. Cloud arc by Marshall Rogers and Steve Engelhart, “Robin Dies At Dawn,” Batman: Year One, “The Killing Joke”, and “Night of The Reaper.”

H: Surely a day in the life of Michael Uslan is anything from ordinary. Could you explain exactly what it means to be an executive producer and what your job entitles?

U: There are different kinds of executive producers. Generally, I find or create properties I believe can become great branded franchises, put a new creative topspin on them, often writing my own concept pieces and treatments. I then try to pull together the right creative package of writer, director and sometimes star to make it attractive to financiers and distributors. But the real answer about how to define my job is: Every day I get to report to a sandbox and play with my favorite toys.

H: This is one of the themes of your book, but could you please explain how you think the “Batman” films changed the way the movie industry now views comic books as a source material for films?

U: I had to fight in the trenches since the 1970s to get Hollywood’s hierarchy to understand that comic books are not a genre that may be hot at the box office one summer and cold the next, but rather are an on-going source of great stories and colorful characters the same way novels and plays are. I had to try to educate them that comic books and super-heroes are not synonymous, but that any type of literature can be found in comics and graphic novels. I had to prove to them that great stories mattered more than how well known and how long a comic book character has been published. After Batman in 1989, for years the most successful comic book movie franchises were based on comics that never sold over 5000 copies per issue (“Men In Black,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Mask”). And then, the first Batman film in 1989 was revolutionary. To this day, Burton’s vision, Furst’s designs and Elfman’s music seem to reverberate through all genre pictures. Their influence has been enormous and pervasive. Nolan taught Hollywood the art of the successful reboot and Bond, Star Trek, Superman, Spider-Man, et al, owe what they are doing to his influence.

H: Of course not all comic book films have to be dark and serious. I think Marvel Studios is doing a fantastic job of making films based on some of the more fantastical characters in their arsenal such as Iron Man and Thor, without sacrificing the integrity of their characters. They are managing to find the fine line in between dark and serious and lightheartedness, thus providing fans and general audiences alike with quality movies that people don’t have to be embarrassed to say they saw. For you, why is it important that not all comic book movies be dark and serious? Why is it important that some comic book movies remain true to the fact that their characters are heroes with unique abilities and powers that no human could ever possess?

U: Typical Studio reaction generally might be that if “The Dark Knight” was successful, that means all comic book characters in movies must be dark, gritty and contemporary. That, of course, is not the lesson. The lesson is that if filmmakers are allowed to stay true to the integrity of a character, that’s what audiences want. Dark and gritty works for The Batman, not necessarily for Archie. The world does not need a studio giving us, “Casper the Unfriendly Ghost.”

H: With principal photography of “The Dark Knight Rises” (TDKR) having just ended and Chris Nolan and Christian Bale’s recent statements about TDKR being the final Batman film that either of the two of them will do, can you comment on the future of the Batman film franchise and what the ending of Nolan’s Batman trilogy means for the Batman film franchise?

U: So, how about them Yankees? What’s going to happen next season with their starting pitching rotation?

H: Finally, for us fanboys, how awesome is The Dark Knight Rises going to be?

U: July 20, 2012. Fasten your seat belt!

 

 

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