Dana Nachman’s Batkid Begins marches in with the mini-movie you’ve already seen. (Unless, as Bruce Wayne suffered in The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve spent months in a hole.) On a November weekday in San Francisco — a/k/a Gotham-by-the-Bay — five-year-old cancer survivor Miles Scott rode shotgun in a Lamborghini Batmobile, bested the Riddler and the Penguin, and strutted up, arms akimbo, to Mayor Ed Lee to receive the key to the city.
Organizer Make-A-Wish initially hoped 250 volunteers would attend. Instead, thousands of cheering Californians snapping phone photos and clutching placards begging “Save Us Batkid” surrounded City Hall. A few people even left their hands free to applaud. Held during prime Twitter hours, the celebration of Scott’s clean bill of health was perfect for the internet: Cute kid plus sad story plus billion-dollar superhero plus civic uplift. All it lacked was a Grumpy Cat cameo as Catwoman.
Recap accomplished, what’s left for Nachman to say that hasn’t been captured in GIF? She scores her film’s opening to an orchestral cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a flourish of extra-sugary frosting, then rewinds further still to explain just how Batkid’s $105,000 big day was pulled off. Explains coordinator Eric Johnson, who played Miles’s full-grown Batman sidekick, “It’s like we’re doing a stage production where the lead character doesn’t know he’s in it, he’s never been to rehearsal, and he’s five.”
Batkid’s origin story is simple and sweet: Miles’s parents, Natalie and Nick, were middle school sweethearts. For three generations, his family has run the same small farm just south of the Oregon border. Miles was diagnosed with leukemia when he was eighteen months old. Luckily, like 80 percent of Make-A-Wish children, he survived. On his first Make-A-Wish questionnaire, he told his local interviewer that he wanted to be Batman because he “dreamed about it.” Why Batman — specifically, the age-appropriate Adam West Batman, not the scary Christian Bale reboot? As his dad observes, outlasting years of chemotherapy demands the courage and strength of mortal Bruce Wayne, not the easy-come alien gifts of a Kryptonian.
The work of realizing Miles’s wish expands a two-minute viral video into a feature-length dry procedural of city permits, bitty bat costumes, street closures, and savvy social promotion, feats rarely cartooned with a vivid “Kablaam!” Here, we have San Francisco head cop Greg Suhr cautioning, “Normally, as chief of police, I’m not in favor of flash mobs.” That sounds as riveting as watching Bruce Wayne and his architect design the Batcave. There’s a reason comic-book writers prefer narrow rescues to logistical meetings. But as Make-A-Wish local executive director Patricia Wilson assembles her team of super-friends, the mundanity becomes inspirational. Superheroes get the headlines. But a real city’s strength is its civilians.
Heroism isn’t just a guy in a rubber suit. (Although Johnson, who coached Scott through his adventure, shows that sometimes it is.) It’s also the tech CEO who rush-delivered a computer part that would project news bulletins from a cuff on Johnson’s wrist, the unpaid San Francisco Opera costumers who sacrificed sleep to sew the Riddler’s pantsuit, the motorcycle cops who volunteered to give up their day off to escort the Batmobile through the crowd, the elderly Ohio couple who flew to California to stand on the sidewalk and clap.
At first, Batkid Begins‘s tone teeters on self-congratulatory. Uncharitably, I found myself getting peevish at the attention lavished on Miles’s wish and wondering if the parents of survivors with less pop-culture-catchy dreams felt slighted. After all, the Make-A-Wish Foundation grants an average of 40 dreams a day. (A surprising percentage involve WWE wrestler John Cena, who’s met over 450 children.) Johnson, our Batman, mentions in the film that he previously spent seven months helping a kid named Ben design a video game about chemotherapy. Ben used his wish to give other sick kids a visual way to fight cancer. The Dalai Lama honored the two as “Unsung Heroes of Compassion.”
Unsung is apt — I’d never heard of Eric and Ben’s accomplishment, and wish I had. But we’re in a cultural moment (or really, a cultural epoch) where full-grown adults like the exuberant Mike Jutan, a Lucasfilm engineer, collect Superman figures and dress as Captain America for fun. No wonder Jutan eagerly enlisted to play the Make-A-Wish Penguin. The Batkid blitz helped spur donations for other charitable acts. Still, there’s no denying that a child whose wish was, say, to play violin for the San Francisco Philharmonic would get less than 1 percent of Batkid’s attention. Would Hans Zimmer again offer to compose their theme song? Even if he did, would we care?
Batkid Begins wants audiences to celebrate the everyday heroes who donated their time and energy to Miles’s dream. Absolutely, we should. Still, take a minute to ask what the disproportionate investment and interest in Batkid’s adventure says about our own maturity — and how the internet allows us to feel like champions for rallying for one afternoon, while overlooking the years of unglamorous doctor appointments before it.
“Obviously, he had fun,” says Miles’s mom, “but I don’t think he really got it.” On some level, the Batkid crowds — virtual and real — were also cheering themselves for showing up. Nachman ends her upbeat doc wondering, with less cynicism than I felt, if the bystanders pleading for Batkid to save them subconsciously wanted to rescue their own childhood optimism. A fair question — though that sound you hear is a chagrined Twitter groaning, “Why so serious?”
Directed by Dana Nachman
New Line Cinema
Opens June 26, Angelika Film Center