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SYFY WIRE New York Comic Con 2019

NYCC 2019: Batman producer Michael Uslan talks impact of Tim Burton's 'Big Idea,' 30 years later

By Josh Weiss
Batman - Michael Keaton Jack Nicholson

As a great man with billions of dollars and lots of free time on his hands once said, "I'm Batman!"

The 1989 film about DC's Caped Crusader rang in its 30th birthday at New York Comic Con this evening with a TED Talk-like presentation from longtime Batman producer Michael Uslan. That being said, the panel didn't begin with the topic of the '89 flick. Rather, Uslan started off by recounting a detailed history on his love of comic books; how they paved a way to a job at DC Comics (and eventually one in Hollywood); and his decades-long relationship with his mentor, the late, great Stan Lee.

Ten years after he bought the rights to Batman from DC in the fall of 1979; ten years after he had the novel idea to make a dark superhero movie; ten years after he got rejected from nearly every studio in existence, Uslan finally got to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and bring his groundbreaking vision to the big screen with Warner Bros. Pictures and an up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Tim Burton.

“It was Tim Burton who had what I call 'The Big Idea,'" said Uslan, referring to the director's initial approach to Batman. "He said, 'If we’re gonna do this seriously … this movie cannot be about Batman … This movie must be about Bruce Wayne.' That’s 'The Big Idea.'”

Uslan believes that future superhero movies like Iron Man and Spider-Man have all embraced this philosophy by placing a greater emphasis on the hero's everyday identity instead of on their super-powered one. As "a corollary" to "The Big Idea," Burton also wanted worldbuilding to play a major part in the project.

"[Tim said,] 'If they don’t believe in Gotham City, they will never accept a guy dressed as a bat.' [He wanted] Gotham ... to be the third most important character" in the story, after Bruce Wayne and Batman. That idea paid off, too, because the finished product became a timeless effort that can be enjoyed in any decade without feeling dated.

"This is the 30th anniversary year, so you might have seen it on a big screen recently. It holds up beautifully," continued Uslan. "It doesn't feel like an '80s movie. In the old days when I'd go around and talk about it, I would ask audiences, 'How many [of you] think Batman '89 took place in the past, present, or future?' And almost everywhere I went to, it was a third, a third, and a third in the audience. It was the mixture of the different time [period aesthetics] and the way everything looked that I think makes it still really work so well today."

Batman Michael Keaton

Despite an uproar over casting Michael "Mr. Mom" Keaton in the titular role, the 1989 feature defied all expectations with critics, fans, and the box office. Not only did Keaton end up becoming a cinematic icon, but his fellow cast member Jack Nicholson delivered a landmark interpretation of the Joker.

“We changed the world's culture … We changed the world’s perception of comic books," said Uslan. "It was a game changer ... We can't afford to just make cookie-cutter comic book movies. We need to have filmmakers with that passion and with the vision who are bold and daring and willing to push an envelope. Look what Marvel did with Deadpool. Look what they did with Guardians of the Galaxy. You gotta take some chances and believe that the fans will be there to appreciate it if you're coming from the heart and if you really believe in all of this. I think that's essential."

Uslan — who has been involved with every major Bat-project (be it live-action or animated) since '89 — is also a producer on Todd Phillips' Joker, which opens in theaters everywhere this weekend. It broke a Thursday night box-office preview record with $13.3 million domestically. Uslan made no comment about the discussion being had over whether the movie will inspire violent tendencies in others.

"My message to my fellow fans is to just have some faith in the filmmaker and the actors," Uslan told SYFY WIRE in March. "Don't prejudge. Go see it, then make your judgment. For me, there have been at least three great Jokers up to now, Jack Nicholson in Batman, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and Mark Hamill. I think there's room for more. Joaquin Phoenix is an absolutely amazing actor!"

"If they ever build a Mount Rushmore for the Joker, it would be Nicholson, Ledger, Phoenix, and Hamill," he added at the panel.

Three decades later, and Bruce Wayne (and his iconic rogues' gallery) shows no signs of slowing down on the big screen. As we speak, Matt Reeves is ramping up production on The Batman, a film about the hero's early days as a Gotham City vigilante. Robert Pattinson is playing Wayne, Jeffrey Wright is in negotiations for Commissioner Gordon, and Jonah Hill is in talks for an unnamed villain, perhaps Penguin or Riddler. The project swoops into theaters June 25, 2021.

"I couldn't be more excited than for Matt Reeves and what's coming next for Batman," Uslan admitted.

As for what the future holds after The Batman is released, Uslan has a few ideas but prefaced his wish-fulfillment comments with the caveat that he would be "talking as a fanboy only" and that nothing he said should be taken as hard fact.

"I think we would love to see Tim Burton finish the trilogy. That would be really kind of cool. I've always loved the idea of seeing a movie like Batman Beyond," he said to a ton of applause from the audience. "Years ago, to me, that would have been a Clint Eastwood movie, but now maybe it's a Michael Keaton movie."

And while he believes that there's "plenty of room" for characters like the Teen Titans and Batgirl, Uslan isn't the biggest fan of sidekicks — a sentiment once shared by Stan Lee. Preferring his superhero movies to be grounded and set up realistic rules, he just doesn't believe that the idea of a minor fighting crime is all that believable.

Click here for SYFY WIRE’s full coverage of New York Comic Con 2019, including up-to-the-minute news, exclusive interviews, and videos.