I still remember my disappointment, 40 or so years ago, when I first saw my Halloween costume the year I was supposed to be my favorite superhero, Spider-Man. Kids’ Halloween costumes were not as good then as they are today, and this costume came with a molded plastic face mask, which was fine — but the rest was a poncho bearing a picture of the web-slinger, head and all, with the words “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
I would still like to know what the costume designer was thinking. I didn’t want to wear Spider-Man. I wanted to be Spider-Man.
Of course, I wasn’t a leukemia patient, and I bounced back from that disappointment relatively easily. When 5-year-old Miles Scott, who is as big a fan of the 1960s Adam West Batman TV series as I was of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon, says his wish is to be “the real Batman,” it’s a bigger deal. Miles already has very cool Batman costumes, but he wants something more — and, after much taxing therapy, the people at the Greater Bay Area chapter of Make-a-Wish want to give it to him.
Many readers will remember Miles’ big day back in 2013. The plan was to stage some exploits for Miles to undertake in a bat-suit, with San Francisco standing in for Gotham City and an adult counterpart coaching Miles through taking on the Penguin and the Riddler. At one point this was conceived to involve a team of perhaps a couple hundred volunteers — a not atypical Make-a-Wish project.
But the thing went viral, first on social media and then mainstream media, snowballing into a massive phenomenon involving thousands of people from San Francisco and beyond, and touching a global audience of millions. Twitter got involved — not just the Twitter-user community, but the actual company, conveniently located in San Francisco.
Who would have thought that the week after Inside Out opened, another movie about a kid in San Francisco would have me crying even more — and laughing almost as much?
Not that Batkid Begins holds a candle to Inside Out as a film. Documentary filmmaker Dana Nachman — using a blend of interviews with Miles’ parents, Make-a-Wish staff and volunteers and others, live footage of the Batkid event shot by Make-a-Wish and even a bit of animation — mostly relies on the appeal of the story to carry the film. And it’s such a winning story.
It’s the story, first of all, of a young mother and father (a nurse and a farmer) reeling with the diagnosis of their son’s cancer and the struggle that follows. It’s the story of a shy little boy who somehow makes a connection between his own fight against cancer and Batman’s fight against bad guys.
Above all, it’s the story of the incredible lengths to which the Make-a-Wish staff and volunteers go to in order to create special experiences for long-suffering children to make up in some way for their lost childhood. Just the effort to make suitable costumes is remarkable.
A lot of the story rests on the shoulders of Eric Johnston, a retired stuntman, who plays Big Batman to Miles’ Batkid. Crucially, Miles meets Eric the day before his big event at a gym for some superhero training, and they practice some skills that Miles will use as Batkid. The training also establishes a bond between Miles and Eric that pays off when the two suit up the next day.
This background is vital to Miles’ ability to step confidently into the caped-crusader role, which he does with an adorable panache, the cape and cowl transforming this shy youngster into his hero and rendering him impervious to the intimidation of endless throngs of cheering well-wishers. Fascinatingly, while he seems to accept Eric as Batman and his own role as “Batkid,” Miles simultaneously thinks of himself as “the real Batman.”
As a superhero geek, I appreciate the poetic aptness of the Penguin’s crime: kidnapping the mascot of the San Francisco Giants, Lou Seal. This was surely lost on Miles, though he will probably come to appreciate it when he’s older. (Miles’ cancer is in remission as the film ends. Contrary to popular misconception, Make-a-Wish does not work only with terminally ill children, but with children diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.)
Still, the question of just how much Miles understands the experience that has been orchestrated for him surfaces from time to time. A minor snafu here and there could disrupt the illusion for an older child, but these glitches are quickly glossed over, and Miles accepts it all. Obviously the point is for Miles to get out of it whatever he can, but the event is so much bigger than Miles that at times he seems almost lost in it. What if he decides halfway through that he’s ready for a nap?
Meanwhile, what about those thousands of cheering fans carrying signs with messages like “Save us Batkid”? An entire city came largely to a halt to create a special day for a long-suffering little boy. That’s heartwarming on one level, as is the whole Make-a-Wish ethos — though one can’t help thinking how the empathy and enthusiasm of those thousands of people, virally focused on one little boy, might have been distributed among a much larger number of equally deserving children without detracting from his experience at all.
At least, I can’t help thinking that a more ambitious film would have raised questions like this. Not that its relative lack of ambition makes Batkid Begins a bad film. It’s inspiring, touching and at times laugh-out-loud funny, a film you will watch with a smile on your face much of the time. One review disparagingly suggested that the documentary often plays “like a promotional video” for Make-a-Wish. If one outcome of Batkid Begins is viewers contacting their local Make-a-Wish offices to inquire about volunteering, that’s no bad thing.
Caveat Spectator: Mild thematic content around Miles’ leukemia. Fine family viewing.