Batman producer explains superhero's big screen success, 85 years after comic book launch

Rights holder Michael Uslan, speaking in Abu Dhabi, explains why caped crusader remains a movie icon

Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. Photo: Warner Bros
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He first appeared in a comic book 85 years ago this month and Batman has since gone on to become one of the most popular superheroes of all time.

Introduced to the world in Detective Comics No 27 on March 30, 1939, the caped crusader has since been adapted for the small screen and for a blockbuster films franchise.

Michael Uslan, who acquired the film rights in 1979 and made the character a cultural icon, has produced all subsequent film adaptations, from Batman in 1989 to Oscar-winning Joker in 2019, as well numerous animated spin-offs.

Joined by son and producer-collaborator David Uslan at Culture Summit Abu Dhabi, Ulsan broke down some of the key elements of Batman’s screen success.

1. Comic set the dark blueprint

A devoted fan of the Batman comic, Uslan was horrified by the comedic tone of the Batman series when it was launched on the small screen in 1966. He was 15 at the time.

"As a fan I couldn't wait for the show to appear and on the night it came on it hit me that this was a comedy show and the whole world was laughing at Batman. That just killed me," he said.

"So I made a little vow that night that, somehow, someday, I would show the world who the original Batman was when he was created in 1939 as a dark knight battling deeply disturbed villains."

After making national headlines for being the first instructor to teach an accredited course on comic book folklore at a US university, Uslan began writing Batman comics in 1971 and soon landed the film rights for the brand.

“I had my foot in the door with the publisher of Batman, and as they came to know me and realised my passion and knowledge base for this character, they had a sense of common security when I eventually came to them and said I want to make dark and serious Batman movies to show the world the true Batman," he said.

While the first eponymous Batman film arrived in theatres in 1989, with Michael Keaton playing the superhero and Jack Nicholson as arch enemy, the Joker, the film was renowned for its dark wit. Uslan, however, insists the film was the first true representation of the comic's universe.

"It was as dark a Batman as the world had ever seen,” he said. “At that time comic books were very black and white: it was good versus evil, with the Joker as the clown prince of crime.”

2. He has an arresting origin story

With many western comic books taking inspiration from Greek mythology, Uslan believes Batman's success is partly down to his arresting origin story.

"As a young boy he saw his parents murdered before his eyes and at that moment he made a commitment and vow that he's going to get all the bad guys," Uslan said.

"Now, that's a story so primal that it transcends not only borders but cultures."

3. He is matched by great supervillains

The appeal of Batman films also stems from the villains he faced over the decades, ranging from the Joker to The Riddler and The Penguin.

"The secret of successful superheroes is their supervillains, because they define the superheroes," Uslan said. "Batman has the greatest rogue gallery of supervillains in history, and arguably the greatest supervillain ever in the form of the Joker."

4. There is a Batman for every territory

Batman's global reach is also down to international versions of the character.

The next global spin-off arrives this year with a Spanish language animated film catered to the South and Latin American market.

The plot of Aztec Batman: Clash of Empires will reportedly provide a new take of Spain's conquest of the Aztec Empire in the 16th century.

This comes on the back of the 2018 Japanese animated film Batman Ninja, which has the superhero sent back in a time machine to feudal Japan where he battles the Joker and his samurai goons.

"The success of that film has spawned an entire new localised franchise of Batman in Japan. Batman Ninja was a very hardcore manga-anime adaptation but it worked wonderfully," David Uslan said. He predicts a the time will come for an Arabic version of Batman.

He added: “I bet you before we know it there is going be a number of great brands around the world that are going to be doing whatever they can to have an impact here in the Mena region and especially in the UAE.”

Updated: March 06, 2024, 12:12 PM