On November 15, 2013, the Make-A-Wish Foundation turned parts of San Francisco into Gotham City so five-year-old leukemia survivor Miles Scott could live out his fantasy of being Batman. Since Miles was too young to save the city on his own, acrobat and former stuntman Eric Johnson volunteered to play Batman, leading his mini-me to each of the foundation’s three staged scenarios, then gently guiding the boy through his part of the action. Dana Nachman’s Batkid Begins anatomizes the extensive planning and social-media heat lightning that turned the day into a global phenomenon, after a Facebook plea for volunteers to play grateful Gothamites went viral.
Audiences are hard-wired to root for the title character, a round-cheeked little farm boy who had battled leukemia for years by the time he entered first grade, as conveyed in an opening sequence that—in a rare flash of visual creativity for the film—tells his story in comic-book form. The live-action Miles glimpsed in footage taken before, during, and after the event has his scene-stealing moments, especially after he dons his costume and channels his hero, walking “like he weighs 200 pounds,” as one of his parents puts it. But as the story of his big day unfolds, any hope of meaningful reflection or insight is doused by a steady drip of often redundant and banal observations, mostly about the unprecedented size or cooperative spirit of the crowd that showed up to cheer him on.
Miles’s wish inspired one of the San Francisco Make-A-Wish chapter’s most elaborate events. Commissioner Gordon-style pleas for help were taped in advance by the city’s chief of police to be played for Miles at intervals throughout the day, which ended with a ceremony in which the mayor gave Batkid a key to the city. Participating in the dastardly scenarios described in the chief’s messages were the Giants’ mascot and actors playing not just Batman, but also the Penguin, the Riddler, and a damsel in distress. The film keeps reminding us how much planning went into the event and how many people got involved, but it offers surprisingly little insight into what it meant to the people involved. Miles was too young to express what he was thinking or feeling, and even his parents could only guess whether he experienced his stint as a superhero as reality, playacting, or some combination of the two. We also don’t hear much from the throngs who showed up to witness his fake feats. When the filmmakers get around to interviewing crowd members, their comments are superficial, generally some variation on: “We read about it, loved the idea, and decided we had to be part of it.”
The footage underscores a telling difference between mediated events and real life that a better film might have explored: How different was the event for those who experienced it only on social media than for those who were there in person? Tweets with photos of Miles in classic Batman poses, from a Twitter executive who volunteered to live-tweet the event, were polished enough to pass as promos for an actual superhero movie. Meanwhile, the video shows the touchingly awkward truth, as Johnson helps extricate Miles from his car seat or coaches him on his part of the task at hand while the tram approaching the “damsel in distress” slows to a crawl to give the dynamic duo time to reach her, or the villain they’re out to apprehend runs obligingly around in circles, waiting to be caught. Spending less time on the stunts as Miles experienced them than on the work that went into setting them up, Batkid Begins makes Miles a supporting player in this fitfully moving but overlong film, which too often feels like a promotional video for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.