How the Dark Knight Became Dark Again

WARNER BROS. SUMMONED Tim Burton to a lunch meeting at the studio on a Friday afternoon in late July 1985. The young director was nearing a deal to direct Batman, but Warner's top executives wanted Uslan, the film's executive producer, to weigh in on their decision. Burton had been the last in a line of directors who the producers had courted over a few years, including Guy Hamilton (Goldfinger), Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), Joe Dante (Gremlins), and Ivan Reitman, whom the producers waited around a year for so he could finish Ghostbusters. Warner Bros. then fingered Burton, an up-and-comer with only a series of shorts to his credit.

Over three lunch meetings, Uslan loaned Burton a stack of comic books, including a photocopy of Batman #1, which introduced The Joker and Catwoman; Detective Comics #217, during which Robin goes to college, and Batman moves into a Gotham City penthouse to become a lone crusader; and #251, The Joker's reappearance as a much darker super-villain. "Just as important as what I gave him was what I kept away from him," Uslan says. "I didn't want him to see the campy and ridiculous stuff." Out of his personal collection, Uslan also shared with Burton his all-time favorite Batman story, from Detective Comics #439: "Night of the Stalker." It would become the basis for the opening scene of Burton's movie.

One night that week, in the screening room at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Burton showed Uslan a final print of the film he was soon releasing, Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Uslan recalls that he'd never before seen such a marriage of direction and art direction in his life. He agreed with Warner Bros.: Burton was the right director.

A decade after Uslan and Melniker had first pitched their idea to Hollywood, Batman opened released on June 23, 1989, and broke the opening weekend box-office record. College students wearing Batman t-shirts staked out theaters for days in advance. People smashed the glass frames at bus stops for the film's iconic poster of a black bat inside of a gold oval. Pirated versions of the film's first, three-minute trailer were sold for $25 on bootlegged tapes in the black market and at Comic-Con.

The film's critical reception was mixed, but its success proved that audiences would respond favorably to serious comic-book superheroes. Director Joel Schumacher's subsequent films strayed from the noirish direction Burton had set—"the worst thing to do with a serious comic book is make it a cartoon," Akiva Goldsman, Batman & Robin's screenwriter, later admitted—but Christopher Nolan installed Batman back into a gritty place, filming on the streets of London and Chicago to create what the psychologist Langley refers to as a "post-9/11 allegory for how terror breaks down reassuring moral categories." (Uslan believes the mid-90s Batman films wandered too far from the story's core integrity "into the world of merchandising and toys.")

Batman is still just fictional, but after 73 years since debuting in Detective Comics #27, and appearing in blockbuster films, live action television shows, radio dramas, animated movies, toys, video games, licensed merchandise, theme park attractions, and a touring stage show, the character exists now in a kind of reality shared by folk legends and deities, like a fanboy's Krishna. "I realized that I had been thinking of my job as producing fiction for a publishing backwater—comic books—and that I was wrong: my job was being in charge of postindustrial folklore," writes longtime Batman comics editor Dennis O'Neil in Langley's new book, Batman and Psychology. "Batman...had been around so long, in so many media, that [he was] embedded in our collective psyches."

The success of films based on comic-book heroes and graphic novels has animated Hollywood. In 2009, Disney bought Marvel, and each year, studios sends scouts to Comic-Con with hopes of discovering the next Men in Black or The Mask—that next mythic hero. Uslan fears that this optioning frenzy lacks discernment for good characters or unique stories, the underlying basis of a lasting franchise. Hollywood's missing the point. "The [Dark Knight's] stunning success does not mean that all comic book superhero films must be dark, gritty and violent, and set in contemporary times," he writes. "But that's exactly what the industry people are claiming."

Not long after Burton's Batman was released, executives at Marvel Comics invited Uslan to lunch. They wanted to thank him for a 20 percent increase in sales, which they credited to the film sparking public interest again in comic books and graphic novels.

Uslan received another congratulatory phone call, from an executive at United Artists. It was the Robin and Marian guy, the one who predicted that a dark and serious Batman would surely bomb.

"Michael," Uslan recalls him saying, "I always thought you were a visionary."

Presented by

Andy Isaacson is a Berkeley-based writer and photographer. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, and The New Yorker.

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