If you were active on any form of social media towards the end of 2013, you almost certainly remember the Batkid phenomenon. On the other hand, you might not really remember it more than to say, “yeah, that was a thing that happened”. Such is the nature of the internet, where things coalesce out of and disperse back into the ether leaving little trace behind in the collective memory. Still, this one was a pretty big deal, and — in a rarity for the internet — almost a totally positive one.
So it’s not really a surprise that some filmmaker might want to make a more permanent record of just what led up to turning so many people’s eyes towards one little boy’s wish to be a superhero, just for one day in San Francisco. Dana Nachman’s Batkid Begins is a simple oral history, but its utter lack of irony makes it undeniably more than makes up for its lack of nuance.
For those few who somehow missed what Batkid even was, on November 15, 2013, a young leukemia patient named Miles Scott got by far the most elaborate Make-A-Wish project ever staged when San Francisco turned itself into “Gotham City” for the day so he could play out his fantasy of being Batman. The film starts with his parents receiving the diagnosis, and mentions a little about his treatment, but wisely keeps that to a minimum; suffice to say that by the time of the wish Miles was in remission at the end of 2013 and by all accounts remains so today.
When Miles’ wish, “to be the real Batman,” came in to the Greater Bay Area chapter of Make-A-Wish, it evidently went straight to Patricia Wilson, who also happens to be the CEO of the overall Make-A-Wish foundation. She began sketching the general outlines, including contacting her friend Eric Johnston to play Batman alongside Miles. She also contacted the chief of police, Greg Suhr, to ask for one street closure and a couple parking spaces reserved, and Mayor Ed Lee to see if he could present Miles some sort of award for saving the city. Over and over, people say how they just meant it to be a small thing.
But Johnston thought his friend Mike Jutan would make a great Penguin, and Mike shared about the plan on Facebook, and that’s when things started to get out of hand. Thousands of people began to volunteer, and news organizations around the world hounded Make-A-Wish for interviews, when it’s usually the foundation that has to go begging for coverage. By the time the plans were put in motion, it was a bigger deal than anyone could have imagined, with more people lining the streets than came out for the parade after the Giants won the World Series the year before.
If you really want to, it’s not hard to find flaws here. The city alone spent over a hundred thousand dollars making Batkid Day happen, though that was all reimbursed after the fact by a private donor. It’s true that kind of money could have saved huge numbers of lives if put to more efficient charitable use, but it feels almost monstrous to seriously suggest that Batkid Day was a bad idea on such actuarial grounds.
The movie itself hits one strong note of sweetness, but it falters when it makes motions towards depth, complexity, or insight near the end. At times it plays as much as a fundraising ad for Make-A-Wish itself, letting it slide when Wilson speaks in marketing slogans like “we don’t say no” to any wish, when we know that’s just not true.
And yet, maybe some things don’t need to be nuanced. Watching Miles transform when he puts on his Batkid armor is a thing of joy, and watching him have so much fun after going through so much pain is moving even without finding a deeper meaning to it. Sometimes it’s enough to spend an hour or so remembering that this one time we all came together just to do one good thing, and set aside all the rest of our pain and sorrow and conflict and misery for a few moments of pure happiness.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.