BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WISH) — The man behind Batman, credited with helping reinvent the entire superhero genre, will not be in Los Angeles on Sunday night when “Joker” vies for 11 Oscars.
He’ll be in Bloomington, Indiana, teaching classes at Indiana University, his alma mater.
His name is Michael Uslan. He owns the franchise to Batman and is executive producer behind every movie and series.
News 8 sat down with Uslan for an exclusive interview to talk about the franchise, his big break and why he still comes back to Indiana every year.
While everyone knows Batman now, if it wasn’t for Uslan, a self-described quirky comic-book geek, it may never have happened.
We caught up with him in class Friday afternoon as he gave his students a taste of pitching movie ideas to other studio heads.
It’s his fifth year coming back to campus and teaching a pair of accelerated courses in just three weeks.
Nearly 50 years ago as an undergrad, he made international headlines by becoming the first person to ever teach an accredited course on comic books, drawing attention from legends like Stan Lee.
“Indiana University gave me the tools I needed to make my dreams come true,” Uslan said. “It’s that simple.”
His goal now is to teach students here three lessons.
First — scare them all away from the movie biz. Second — for those who don’t scare easily, help them understand with no money and no connections, just passion and hard work, they can make it like he did. Third — make them employable.
It’s a role that he says he couldn’t benefit from back when he was in school.
“I want them to actually get them jobs that build to a career,” he said.
It’s tough to imagine now, but no one 40 years ago thought any superhero or comic-book movie involving anyone other than Superman would be a hit.
In 1979, Uslan says, he got the rights to Batman for an undisclosed amount of money because he was the only one interested.
The president of DC Comics even tried to talk him out of it, believing Uslan would lose all his money.
The character has been his favorite superhero since childhood because he could identify with Bruce Wayne who has no superpowers. His vision was for dark and serious movies unlike the television series with Adam West.
“As they say, the rest is history … tortured history, but history.”
Still, it took 10 years with every major studio rejecting his idea by 1983.
The final rejection came from Columbia where an executive told him it was “as dead as a dodo,” though said if he could get his movie made, he would be willing to do a comical take. The executive even compared it to the movie “Annie” saying that both were straight “out of the funny pages.”
In the end, it was Uslan who said no.
As a friend told him, at that point, he was Batman’s Batman, protecting the character from others.
Not until Director Tim Burton came onboard around 1986 with an idea that seems obvious now, but was revolutionary at the time, saying, “‘This movie cannot be about Batman. The movie must be about Bruce Wayne.’ And that has made all the difference,” Uslan recalled.
It’s been copied by countless others since.
He also credits Burton for making Gotham City the third most-important character of the film to help the audience believe the story.
Now, the franchise is reborn again with “Joker” nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing.
“I wish my parents were here,” Uslan said. “It’s amazing to shatter the box office time and again. It’s another thing for peers to recognize the genius, the vision of (director) Todd Phillips.”
Uslan credits Phillips and others for sparking a conversation on mental health, the most important since “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
He adds the best movies hold a mirror up to society, warts and all.
“It’s entertaining, it’s disturbing and uncomfortable. But it’s meant to be.”
Uslan won’t be with the rest of the cast and crew for Sunday night’s Academy Awards. He’ll be on campus cheering them on from the sidelines, watching with his students as he looks to inspire the next generation.
“No, I should be here, I should be here,” he said. “That was the final decision my wife and I made. This is the place that gave me the tools I needed to succeed.
Batman will celebrate his 81st birthday next month.”
Uslan believes Batman has three qualities that make it the best and most identifiable superhero. In addition to being a regular person with no superpowers, he has the most primal of origins story — vowing revenge on the people who killed his parents. He also said Bruce Wayne faces the best supervillains, which helps develop his character.
He said the Joker is one of the three best villains of all time, alongside Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West.
He said he has two favorite movies. The first is the 1989 release for mostly sentimental reasons because it was the first to be released. He also points to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” because it elevated all movies and helped reinvent Hollywood by showing what movies based on comic book heroes can be and do.