As Michael P. Uslan spoke to Cornellians in Kennedy Hall yesterday, a sense of hope pervaded the auditorium. The producer of every Batman film since 1989, including the modern classic The Dark Knight, Uslan wanted to emphasize one thing: the power of a dream.
“This whole thing is about a dream, this whole thing is about a journey,” said Uslan before ruminating on his decades as a comic book fan and pioneer for comic books in Hollywood. Uslan focused on his struggles with the Hollywood bureaucracy before ultimately finding success, dropping nuggets of wisdom for audience members with any aspiration.
Paying homage to Hillel for planning the event, as well as his own Jewish heritage, Uslan began by highlighting the role of Jewish men and women in the entertainment industry. Uslan explained that many major superheroes have parallel stories to those of Jewish mythology, including Superman and The Incredible Hulk. The creators of these worshipped characters were originally barred from the major development studios because of their faith, and thus worked outside of the studio system, precipitating a long-standing Jewish tradition in Hollywood.
Quoting the influential cartoonist Will Eisner, Uslan said, “In the Jewish culture, we are all storytellers.”
Uslan also discussed his idea for a comic book class at Indiana University in the 1970s, planned while still an undergraduate.
“Every once in a while, you’ve got to take calculated risks,” said Uslan.
The class was to emphasize comic book heroes as modern day mythology, and Uslan implored the skeptical university president to let him teach the respective fables of Moses and Superman. This strategy ultimately led to the first accredited course on comic books at an American university.
The comic book mythology course garnered national media attention, and caught the eye of DC Comics, who invited Uslan for an internship. It was not long before Uslan was writing Batman comic scripts. Having lived out his dream before graduating college, Uslan became set on a new vision: creating a morbid, psychologically dark Batman film, breaking away from the 1960s camp era of the caped crusader. Though Uslan planted the seeds early, it would take decades before this dream would bear fruit.
“Always have a Plan B, and a Plan C if you can, because life can take some weird twists on you,” said Uslan.
Following college, Uslan took several detours on his way to Hollywood, including a law degree from Indiana University in 1976, financed by selling 20,000 of his comic books.
However, the dark specter of Batman was never far from his dreams. Shunning the prospect of a law career, Uslan once again began knocking on Hollywood doors. It was during this point that Uslan faced some of his hardest opposition. The new Batman movie was turned down by every major studio, as many executives often dished out their share of vitriolic criticisms to add insult to injury.
Once again showcasing his resiliency, Uslan imparted lessons for the audience.
“If you don’t believe them when they tell you how bad you are, and you don’t believe them when they tell you how wonderful your ideas are, and you just believe in yourself, you will do fine,” said Uslan.
True to his virtue, Uslan continued pushing to make the film for ten years, but it was not until the entry of the young, eccentric director Tim Burton that the project took off. The result, 1989’s “Batman,” broke box-office records and set the stage for the current era of superhero flicks.
“That movie was revolutionary at the time,” said Uslan. “The whole look of that thing really influenced every comic book movie since.”
Following his talk, Uslan took questions from the audience. Several audience members cited Uslan as an inspiration to their own production and cartooning aspirations; others sought his opinions on respective facets of the franchise.
When asked to compare Heath Ledger’s evocative rendition of the Joker to Jack Nicholson’s 1989 character, Uslan was somewhat ambiguous about a preference, citing Ledger’s as “in a class by itself,” and praising Nicholson as “incredible … so much the Joker of the comic books of the 40s and 50s.”
Uslan remained tight lipped when asked about the future of the franchise.
For Uslan, his lifetime in comic books has given him a wide canon of stories and lessons. The joy lies in sharing his experiences.
“I am on a mission to speak to college students, to impart to them my journey,” said Uslan. “And by talking to students, it validates what I’ve had to endure through these years to get where I wanted to go.”