Dreaming In The Batcave

January 6, 2012
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Dreaming in the Batcave

By Michael Uslan

DREAMS ARE A hard thing to have these days.

We can chalk that up to the economy, the stock market and unemployment rates, but the truth is that no matter where you come from or where you grew up, times have always been a little tough. It was no different for me.

As a New Jersey kid growing up as the son of a working-class stone mason, I had big dreams. I drew my inspiration, as many kids back then did, from comic books. My favorite character was Batman. To me, Batman was accessible. To be Superman, you had to come from Krypton, but Batman was just a man who trained himself to be the best, both physically and intellectually. As an 8-year-old kid sitting in his bedroom awash in his heroic fantasies, I believed that someone could actually grow up to BE Batman. Even me.

I couldn’t have been more excited when I heard they were making a TV show about Batman and I remember devouring the first episode, finally seeing the costumes, the Batcave, the Batmobile and all these fantastic characters brought to life in living color – but something was wrong. I heard my parents laughing. It hit me that they were playing the whole thing for laughs and I was horrified. They were laughing at Batman!

That was heresy to me. The Batman that I grew up on in the comics was not a comedian. He was a tragic figure, a dark knight who fought crime and injustice by stalking evildoers from the shadows. It was then, as a kid, I found my dream – to grow up to make a movie that would make people take Batman seriously. They would see in him the same thing I saw – the inspiration to be anything you dreamed you could be.

As an adult, I discovered that dream would almost break me. When I first approached DC Comics to acquire the film rights to Batman, the management at DC thought I was crazy to even want them because the TV series was dead and no one cared about Batman anymore. Then they told me they couldn’t sell me the rights because I was not a Hollywood producer. I was a college grad with a dream, but no credentials to back it up.

Undaunted, I went out to get those credentials. I went to law school and upon graduation, took a job at United Artists as a production attorney. There, I had the most amazing training in Hollywood by working on the legal side of movies like Rocky 2 and Apocalypse Now (a crisis per day for two years!). Finally, I went back to DC in 1979 and said, “How about now?”

With the rights to Batman in my back pocket and with a legendary partner, Benjamin Melniker, I went to Hollywood, thinking people would be standing in line to help me make my vision of a dark and serious Batman movie a reality. 

Not so much. I was laughed at, just as they laughed at Batman when I was a kid, and I spent 10 years bloodying my knuckles on shut doors – all the while trying to earn a living to support my family – until finally the pieces fell into place. Batman was released in 1989, breaking box office records left and right. My dream came true.

More than 20 years later, I am involved in my eighth Batman feature film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” But the real turning point in my life and career came after the release of “The Dark Knight” a few years ago. It was a rousing success and the most complete vindication of my vision I could have ever imagined, thanks to the genius of Christopher Nolan, who deserves all the credit and accolades and has raised the bar for all comic book based films. My wife sat me down after the premiere and said, “Okay. Now that you’ve accomplished what you set out to do, what do you want to do when you grow up?”

A perfect question for a man who had made his living in comic books for most of his adult life. It made me think about what I could contribute, what I could do that could make a difference in people’s lives. Then I thought about my heroes, the guys who practically founded the comic book business. We lost two of them just before the holidays. Joe Simon, who co-created Captain America, was one of them. A lot of people don’t realize that the first issue featured Cap slugging Hitler in the jaw nine months before America entered World War II. It was a war America had initially wanted no part of, but even Joe saw the need to inspire people to act against evil, no matter where it was. 

Jerry Robinson was another of my heroes we lost recently. In addition to co-creating characters like The Joker and Batman’s sidekick Robin, he was also an editorial cartoonist for most of his career. He used his pen and ink to help free a political prisoner from Uruguay, and stood with me just a few months ago at the United Nations in front of an international gathering of editorial cartoonists to help inspire them to change the world.

So my next chapter is this – I want to share with as many people as I can the inspiration they gave me to fulfill my dreams. Today, dreams are hard won commodities. The American Dream itself too often is perceived to be dying, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I want people to ask themselves in the new year what inspires them. What do THEY want to be when they grow up? Who are their heroes, and what would they do if their backs were against the wall as many Americans find themselves today?

My wife’s question forced me to wonder if I could accomplish in these harsh modern times what I did decades ago, and I am forced to answer yes. It would be harder and I’d have bloodier knuckles than I did even back then, but I’d still find a way to do it. Dreams cannot be treated as conveniences or luxuries to be discarded when they become too tough to realize. When people ask me what I did to achieve success, the answer is simple.

I forfeited any sense of entitlement I thought the world owed me. I got up off the couch. I dared to dream big, based upon my passion in life. And I made a personal commitment not to give up. The rest was easy.

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