It wasn’t supposed to be Swamp Thing, of course; Swamp Thing isn’t a “supposed to be” type character.
After Superman was a huge hit, the next superhero character to line up for a feature film was supposed to be Batman. The character had been around for almost as long as Superman, and was easily the second most popular DC character. It was Superman and Batman headlining World’s Finest Comics, and the Super Friends cartoon, plus there was that TV show that everybody liked.
Everyone in the world knew that if DC was going to make any more superhero movies, then the next character in line was Batman — except, of course, for every movie executive at every studio in Hollywood.
The problem was that damn Batman TV show, which ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1968, and was hugely popular. Everyone in America knew Batman and Robin as goofy pratfallers, who zoomed around in a toy Batmobile and had fights punctuated with title cards saying BIFF! and POW! They knew that he had bungling pantomime villains like the Joker and Catwoman, who grinned and snarled impotently, as their mildly threatening criminal schemes fell to pieces around them.
When the series left prime-time in 1968, the show ran in endless afternoon syndication all the way through the 1970s, teaching every kid that Batman was a clown. That was how America understood Batman. They liked him that way.
But things were different in the comics. Sure, the title went through a “camp” phase while the TV show was on the air, as DC tried to surf the wave of a hit series. But by the late ’70s, Batman had once again become a grim denizen of the night. The adolescents and young adults who bought comics didn’t want a silly Batman for babies. They wanted a more adult, brooding hero — The Batman, world’s greatest detective.
That’s the Batman film that comics fans wanted to see: a dark knight, returning to his roots.
And Michael Uslan, a comic book fanatic and entertainment lawyer, was the first and only person in line for the rights to make a Batman movie. His lifelong dream was to make a movie that celebrated the character that he loved — a dark and serious The Batman that nobody believed in anymore. In 1979 — working with partner Ben Melniker, a former MGM studio exec — Uslan bought an exclusive option for the film rights to Batman, at the same price that the Salkinds paid for Superman.
As part of the contract, Warner Bros. had the right of first negotiation, which they immediately and automatically declined to consider. They really thought that nobody would ever want to see a dark Batman movie, and neither did any of the other major studios.
Now, I’m not going to write an account right now of the long and frustrating road they took to finally get Batman on movie screens in 1989. (I’ll get there eventually, but that’s six movies from now.) The important thing for our purposes is that while Uslan and Melniker pursued that dream, they also needed a side hustle — something that they could produce quickly and cheaply, to get some money coming in.
So they asked for the rights to another one of Uslan’s favorite comics — Swamp Thing.
I suppose it’s fair to say that they didn’t have a lot of competition. The comic ran out of steam back in 1976, and got cancelled after 24 issues. Nobody thought this was a hot property, not even at DC’s parent company.
Uslan told the story in a 2019 interview:
“I needed something that we could do quickly, so I went back to Sol Harris and Carmine Infantino at DC and I said, ‘I want to buy the rights to Swamp Thing.’ They said, ‘Great, y’know, keep it going, but we don’t handle the negotiations anymore. They’re handled by Warner Publishing, so you gotta go back to them to do this.’
“This was circa 1979-1980, and the people who generally were running the movie business were people who were already adults in the 1950s when comic books came under attack, and were blamed for being the primary, if not the sole, cause of the post-World War II rise in juvenile delinquency in America. Mostly all of the people that I was dealing with at that time had really no respect for the comic book industry, for the creators, for the characters.
“I was told point blank, straight from the horse’s mouth, that the only reason Warner Communications bought DC Comics was to get the rights to Superman, because they believed — as did people generally in the business at the time — that only Superman had the ability to be transformed into a big-budget blockbuster movie, and that there was nothing else of value in DC’s library, and certainly not in Marvel’s library.
“We went back, and I said to the Warner Publishing folks, I want to now buy the rights to Swamp Thing. And he looked at me and his jaw dropped, and he said, ‘Swamp… Thing? Are you telling me that DC publishes a comic book with a stupid name like Swamp Thing?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s not so stupid, it’s actually won the equivalent of comic books’ Academy Awards.’ And he goes, ‘Let me check this out.’
“He made some calls, he comes back in, and he goes, ‘Well, we used to publish this, but DC doesn’t publish it anymore. It just sounds so stupid.’ So I said, ‘Well, if we make this movie deal, then DC will bring it back. It’ll blow dust off of an asset that’s just gathering dust in the library, and we’ll create revenue again.’
“And he said, ‘There’s no way we’re ever bringing back Swamp Thing. It’s worthless!’ And at that moment, I said, ‘You know, you’re right, it is worthless. So why don’t you give it to us for free? If you give it to us for free, we will commit in writing to spend no less than $15,000 of our own money to develop the asset, to get this thing underway.’
“So he gave it to us for free! And in the contract, it said that we had the rights to all characters and stories appearing in the pages of Swamp Thing, and heretofore or hereafter appearing in the pages of Swamp Thing. So as a result of that, we automatically became the owners of Constantine, and I believe the last total was eleven different characters who had been introduced in Swamp Thing.“
And that’s all it takes, to make a little slice of motion picture history.
The contract, signed in October 1980, said that Uslan had the right to all movies, television shows, television pilots, musicals, sequels, remakes, TV specials, TV movies and miniseries, plus soundtrack albums and novelizations, and all gross receipts and net profits therefrom and thereto, in perpetuity and forever.
That included any characters or situations created in the future, so if — let’s say — one of the greatest comic book writers of all time decided to take this dumb monster comic and turn it into a groundbreaking, hugely influential tour de force, then Uslan would have the rights to that material too. But who could have predicted that? The guy at Warner Communications couldn’t even believe that DC published a book with that title in the first place.
So Uslan was able to make Swamp Thing in 1982 and Return of the Swamp Thing in 1989, plus a live-action TV show in 1990 and an animated show in 1991, and another live-action show in 2019, and that’s probably not the last time there’ll be some Swamp Thing movie or TV project. History has shown, somehow, that you should never underestimate Swamp Thing. Lord help us all.
We dig into the DVD commentary
3.3: It Wasn’t Wes’ Fault
If you’re interested in Michael Uslan’s quest to bring Batman to the big screen, he’s published two books about it: The Boy Who Loved Batman (2011) and Batman’s Batman: A Memoir from Hollywood, Land of Bilk and Money (2022).
If you want to see Uslan’s Swamp Thing contract, it’s been posted online on the blog 20th Century Danny Boy.
The comics panels used in today’s post are from:
- Swamp Thing punching Batman: Swamp Thing #7
- Swamp Thing and Arcane: Swamp Thing #2
- Swamp Thing and the alien: Swamp Thing #9
- Swamp Thing and the Patchwork Man: Swamp Thing #3
- Batman being angry at Swamp Thing: Swamp Thing #53
We dig into the DVD commentary
3.3: It Wasn’t Wes’ Fault
— Danny Horn