On November 15, 2013, a young Siskiyou County farm boy named Miles Scott enjoyed a memorable day in the big city. Miles’s dream of being Batman—or just as good, the urban superhero’s sidekick, Batkid—came to life on the sunny streets of San Francisco.
It was the feel-good story of the year, if not the decade -- not least because the event mushroomed into an international Internet sensation.
The saga is captured for posterity in Dana Nachman’s hyper-paced documentary, Batkid Begins (opening nationwide Friday, June 26, 2015 courtesy of Warner Bros., which happens to be the studio that makes the Batman movies.)
Irresistible and irritating in equal measure, the film takes us behind the scenes -- to the streets and onto the phone/tablet/computer screens where Miles’ adventure took place.
A shy lad of five at the time, Miles was (and is) in remission after years of treatment for leukemia. The Bay Area chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for America received his request to play the Caped Crusader for a day, and set about making it happen. The original concept was for a modest shindig, but the scenario kept expanding.
Batkid Begins with a plea for help from the police chief. This kicks Batman (played by local inventor and acrobat Eric Johnston) into action: The superhero shows up at the San Francisco hotel room where Miles is staying with his family a few minutes later with a Batkid suit and a mission: to rescue the terrified woman tied to the Hyde Street cable car track.
The Dynamic Duo go on to thwart the Riddler's plans to rob a downtown bank. They also prevent the Penguin from absconding with Giants mascot Lou Seal at AT&T Park.
While crowds watched and applauded the live proceedings as they unfolded in San Francisco, a vastly larger number of people around the globe followed the events on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms.
Before the day arrived, the Internet had a lot to do with the expansion of the scope of the event, galvanizing visitors from the other side of the bridges to the other side of the country to migrate to Union Square.
In fact, Batkid Begins emphasizes the online anticipation and response to the Batkid saga to such a degree that it often overshadows what’s happening on the ground.
November 15 2013, we come to realize, was more than Miles’s day. It was Woodstock for the social media generation.
The world convened (virtually) in one place, with good vibes and happy memories for all. Miles's adventure validated the myth of interconnectedness, this time in cyberspace. Everywhere was a song and a celebration.
You may pick up on my reluctance to accept Internet participation as equal to, you know, real life.
Nearly every crowd shot in Batkid Begins shows hordes of people snapping pictures from their smartphones, presumably to be uploaded to the Web.
What the film so palpably shows is that we seem to have reached the point where in-person experience is secondary to its online representation. (I say this as someone old enough to remember Mad magazine lampooning the way 1960s dads’ vacation photos and home movies supplanted in-the-moment involvement.)
Notice, though, that Miles has disappeared from the conversation.
One of the challenges of Batkid Begins, it seems to me, is not to lose sight of the little person at the center of the phenomenon.
After all, he was the impetus for all the good folks who were moved to contribute or participate.
But that’s not the filmmaker’s take.
“I actually don’t see it as a film about Miles at all, and I never did,” Dana Nachman told me in a brief interview at a downtown hotel earlier this week. “The main thing that interested me was how there was an event they were hoping for 200 people to show up, and then 25,000 people showed up and two billion people watched it online. To me, the goal was to capture that—the fact that that happened, why that happened, and the zeitgeist and the spark that that it hit in the world.”
To that end, Nachman (who appeared on the scene with her camera three weeks after the main event) hustled to interview the key participants while the events were still fresh in people's memories. Her subjects includes various social-media acolytes, the endlessly enthusiastic and engaging Johnston, and most centrally, Patricia Wilson, executive director of Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area and the force of nature behind the entire hootenanny.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 17 years,” Wilson said to me while Nachman listened and nodded. “So I have a bit of experience doing wacky stuff and turning a city block into something crazy, or a famous singer, or a child that wants to be a hockey player. This is what we do every day. But this was something different. It renewed my faith in humanity.”
You may well have the same response to Batkid Begins. But whether you do or don't, you’ll be wowed by the level of detail applied to Miles’s dream.
You may also note that the movie ignores the importance of Batman—an internationally known brand, a superhero, an easily grokked concept—in catalyzing so many participants and Web denizens. If Miles’s dream was to be Fred Flintstone, or a fireman, would as many people have dedicated their efforts and time?
Surely the visual of a kid in a cape made an impression on actress and producer Julia Roberts, who’s developing a Hollywood feature about the Batkid event with an eye to playing Wilson. The movie is a few years off -- the screenplay needs to be written first. If and when the film comes out, we can have the time-honored conversation about the intersection and divergence of fact and fiction once again.
For now, Batkid Begins encourages us to ponder the connection and the distance between reality and virtual reality. There may not be six degrees of separation, but there is at least one.