Batkid Begins

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<i>Batkid Begins</i>

It’s a great story. Miles Scott, a Northern California boy diagnosed with leukemia at 18 months, had grown up loving superheroes—specifically, Batman—so his parents appealed to the Make-A-Wish Foundation about the possibility of him getting a day where he could be the Caped Crusader. On November 15, 2013, the organization pulled off a highly choreographed coup, surprising Miles (who was then five) during a trip to San Francisco in which the city was remade to become his own personal Gotham City, the city’s officials pitching in so that he could dress as Batman and fight a fictional Riddler and Penguin. Miles, whose cancer has gone into remission, didn’t just get his wish but, in the process, also became an unlikely social-media sensation, inspiring plenty of people online with his story—including President Obama, who sent the boy a personalized Vine message.

That great story has been turned into a documentary that recognizes the newsworthiness of its subject but isn’t nearly curious or sharp enough to do much with it. So-so at generating feel-good sentiment, Batkid Begins takes us into the preparations that went into that massive undertaking back in 2013. But by settling merely for tear-jerking and sweet, director Dana Nachman ends up turning a magical, once-in-a-lifetime experience into just another commodity, a drab celebration of the people who put together that day rather than a look at all the cultural and psychological factors that made it so unique—to say nothing of the little boy at the center of the phenomenon.

In Batkid Begins, Nachman compiles footage shot by Make-A-Wish and others from that day, and she interviews plenty of those involved—including the boy’s parents and Patricia Wilson, the executive director of Make-A-Wish’s Greater Bay Area chapter who spearheaded the operation. These people are unquestionably terrific, loving individuals, each just wanting to give Miles his dream of a day as Batman. We learn how Wilson reached out to friends, eventually casting (among others) inventor Eric “EJ” Johnston to play Batman and software engineer Mike Jutan to play the Penguin. In addition, Batkid Begins details the logistics needed to turn large swaths of San Francisco into a fantasyland for Miles, requiring elaborate coordination between the mayor’s office and local police. If all that wasn’t enough, there were also costumes to be made, practical effects to be dreamed up, and a script for Miles (as Batkid) to follow that had to be written.

Anyone who followed these events in 2013—both the preparations and their execution on November 15—will remember how the boy’s wish took on a life of its own, with people flooding into the city to be part of the event or to offer encouragement to Miles through Twitter and elsewhere. What made the story so remarkable is that it felt so spontaneous, creating one of those rare cultural moments in which an orchestrated event taps into something ineffable and emotional in the public consciousness. A young boy cruelly stricken with a serious disease just wanted to be Batman—and a whole lot of people, moved by his circumstance, wanted to cheer him on and see it for themselves.

Batkid Begins exists to commemorate spontaneity, an impossible task made even harder by Nachman’s straightforward approach. Though the filmmaker has plenty of excellent footage from the day, her movie mostly plays like an oral history that’s light on insights or revelations. One could argue that the film’s bland pleasantness is merely a reflection of this story’s goodhearted people coming together to do a wonderful thing. (There’s no “dark” angle to explore or ulterior motives to expose.) But it results in a film that keeps insisting how amazing, inspiring and surreal the whole experience was—just about every one of Nachman’s on-camera subjects says something along those lines—to the point of monotony.

Plus, because Miles is still very young—and presumably to respect his family’s wishes of not overexposing him at such an impressionable age—Batkid Begins by default focuses on those around him instead. We learn about Johnston and Jutan, their backgrounds, and their own deep-seated love for imagination and play-acting. Again, they’re presented as genuinely decent individuals, but Nachman seems so determined to craft an unblinkingly sunny narrative about all the participants that it grows tedious. Accepting that Johnston, Jutan, Wilson and others were simply touched by Miles and his plight—anyone would be—it’s nonetheless difficult to accept Batkid Begins’ gauzy, uncomplicated treatment of the events. Nachman’s subjects are so blandly good—so innocuously wholesome—that the film too closely resembles a promotional video or a rote behind-the-scenes highlight reel. We’re not meant to be interested in these people. We’re just supposed to feel good because they feel so good about what they’ve achieved.

This is not to diminish the incredible efforts put forth by many on that 2013 day. But if Batkid Begins is meant to chronicle those events, why does it seem so incurious about getting to the roots of how such a phenomenon occurred? There are mild attempts at explanation, with some of Nachman’s subjects suggesting that, in our cynical modern era, we were all swept up in one child’s innocence and enthusiasm. That’s undoubtedly true, for some, but there’s also a case to be made about contemporary society’s fascination with fleeting, inspiring viral moments: those little pieces of everyday life that are experienced by others, but which we share on Facebook and Twitter as if they were just another adorable YouTube clip of dogs taking a nap together. Real pain, real feeling and real emotions get turned into online “experiences” every day, creating a sense of a shared community but, also, a safe remove for the rest of us. (We get to bask in the sentiment, but without any of the emotional stakes visited upon those actually affected.)

The Batkid phenomenon captured people’s imaginations for plenty of reasons, but Batkid Begins is content to explain it all away on an inspiring story. And because Nachman won’t go deeper than that, she does a disservice to a genuine moment, slathering it with bromides. It’s impossible not to be moved by Miles, his story and the waves of goodwill he elicited one fall day in San Francisco. But that extraordinary day can’t be recaptured—that’s what made it special. Batkid Begins tries, to its detriment.

Director: Dana Nachman
Writers: Dana Nachman & Kurt Kuenne
Release Date: June 26, 2015

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.