The Man Behind Batman

Growing up, Bruce Wayne was Michael Uslan's comic book idol. Photo courtesy of Chaz Mottinger.

Michael Uslan, BA’73, MS’75, JD’76, a blue-collar kid from New Jersey, bought the movie rights to Batman from DC Comics on “Oct. 3, 1979.”

“Not that it was an important date or anything,” he says with a smirk, recalling his career’s jumping-off point.

Uslan’s love for the masked vigilante, otherwise known as Bruce Wayne, dates back to his childhood obsession with reading and collecting comic books. His collection, which now consists of more than 45,000 comics—minus a few thousand rare editions—is currently housed in The Lilly Library on IU Bloomington’s campus.

“My son [David Uslan, BA’02] threatened me with all kinds of things if I didn’t keep [some of] them for him,” Uslan says, chuckling.

At the mere age of 15, after years of consuming comics driven by compelling heroes and villains, Uslan set down Batman’s path to redemption. It was 1966 and Batman, the television series starring Adam West, had just premiered.

Uslan’s love for comics dates back decades. At his graduation in 1976, the future leader of the Batman franchise repped Superman. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.  

“I was traumatized as a kid when the series came on and I realized they were making fun of Batman—that they were playing him as a joke. It killed me,” he says.

“[That year] I vowed to find a way to show the world the true Batman. The dark, serious Batman who battled mentally disturbed supervillains.”

Uslan fulfilled his vow in 1989 when he executive produced the movie Batman, starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

Batman came out and broke all kinds of box-office records, and I have newspaper clippings where they referred to it as an overnight success,” he says. “Really, from start to finish it was a 14-year overnight success.”

1989’s Batman—starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson—was Uslan’s first opportunity to bring The Bat to the big screen. Photo courtesy of IU Archives.

Uslan went on to produce three additional Batman movies from 1992–1997. But as many fans know, an eight-year dry spell plagued the franchise leading up to the premiere of Batman Begins in 2005—the first installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

Batman’s hiatus from mainstream entertainment was a trying time for Uslan.

“It was pure agony. I was Batman’s Batman,” he says, when talking about defending his favorite superhero to Hollywood executives who had seemingly given up on The Bat.

“Only in retrospect can I now say that it was worth the hopeless feeling of that time in order to get to Nolan’s trilogy.”

Reflecting on a screening of The Dark Knight Rises (the third and final Nolan film) in 2012, Uslan says his vision for Batman was finally realized.

Uslan published his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, in July 2011. Photo courtesy of Michael Uslan.

“[At the end of the movie] I sat there and cried like a baby,” Uslan says. “My wife [Nancy Uslan] said, ‘Are you okay?’ I go, ‘Yeah, but thanks to Chris, he’s made all my dreams come true.’”

Following the 30th anniversary of 1989’s Batman in June, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, who is now co-producing projects with his son David, says he has no plans to retire.

“There are two words that I’m not familiar with—retirement and vacation,” he admits, as time inches toward the October premiere of his new movie, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.  

What does it take to break into Hollywood? Michael Uslan tells all here.

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Written By
Samantha Stutsman
Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.