Looking back on the 'Batkid' story with a movie
The heartwarming story of a sick boy allowed to play a superhero for a day gets revived as a new documentary. Three of its participants reflect on the day.
Dana Nachman actually had no idea about the Batkid story while it was happening. “I was editing something and was in a cave during the entire thing,” recalls Nachman, with a laugh.
Are you in the same boat? If you missed it, on November 15, 2013, one Miles Scott bounced around San Francisco pretending to be a boy version of Batman. It was all part of a plan: It was organized by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to honor the dream of a kid who, at 18 months, was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia. He went into remission, where he remains today, and by the time he was costumed up and riding about in a makeshift Batmobile, the story had gone hyper-viral.
“Batkid Begins” exists to preserve an ephemeral event that gave everyone involved good vibes. And because this is the future it wasn’t too hard for someone who wasn’t even paying attention at the time there to make a doc about it.
“It was actually stunningly easy,” says Nachman. “I had the video that [Make-A-Wish] had commissioned for the fundraising video they were going to do, plus the local news station gave me their video, plus the family had their own video.”
“Batkid Begins” could have been a mushy, sentimental mess, but it mostly tries to capture the fun of the day itself. Even the backstory of Scott’s disease is presented in a comic book animated style. “Once I got over the gut-punch of the beginning, I wanted the rest to be a positive, extraordinary experience,” Nachman tells us. “It was really about the community that rallied around Miles than Miles himself. The goal was to have tears of joy rather than sadness.”
Among those involved with the day itself were Patricia Wilson, Make-A-Wish Foundation’s director, and Mike Jutan, a computer graphics engineer at Lucasfilm who found himself playing the day’s version of The Penguin. For them the rush to get the day going — which involved wrangling together an entire city, plus enormous crowds of well-wishers who descended upon the city — was tiring.
“Afterwards I Googled post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Wilson.
“I had what I called ‘post-traumatic Batkid disorder,” jokes Jutan. “I was so nervous about doing a good job. Once it got so big, our focus was still on Miles. But you did have one eye on five news choppers and the entire news media being there. We were so cautious and concerned about being responsible. Afterwards I must have slept for a month.”
The film isn’t just about showing something jaw-droppingly nice. “I was very interested in the idea of looking back on the day and asking, what does it mean? I only saw a few news articles that analyzed the day and said, ‘Why did this happen? How did this happen? Why don’t more people volunteer?’”
“My favorite headline of that week was, ‘The day the Internet was nice,’” remembers Wilson, laughing.
“Batkid Begins” also reflects on what we get out of superheroes, including those, like Batman, who are in fact deeply troubled vigilantes. (It’s worth noting that while he’s dressed like the darker Christian Bale Batman, the villains are all in the brightly colored style of the Adam West TV show era.)
“If you look at the history of comic books, a good chunk, if not all, were created by Jewish immigrants who were coming to the U.S. in the time of the second World War,” points out Jutan. “There are a lot of intense themes in comic books that are there very much on purpose — about your parents dying, about overcoming impossible circumstances, about escaping places you think maybe are impossible to escape.”
Children, Nachman claims, don’t hide from such themes. “I think kids are matter of fact about dark stuff more than adults,” she says. “We have all of our issues and baggage wrapped up in things, whereas kids don’t have that. Even in the film when it talks about his sickness, he’s very matter of fact about that.”
Scott, by the way, is doing fine: he’s finishing up first grade, as well as little league, and is healthy, with a better appetite, Nachman says, than most children. He’s also a kid with a new movie showing him acting like a crime fighting superhero, which could be weird for a growing child to see.
“I think he’s still in the part,” Nachman says. “I was a little worried about him watching the film. But kids have this great way of knowing what’s playtime and what’s fantasy.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge