Batkid Begins starts with a simple wish: young Miles Scott, a five-year-old boy battling cancer, wants to be Batman. His desire makes its way to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which works to fulfill requests by children suffering from life-threatening or terminal illnesses, and the organization goes to work to make Miles’ dream come true. But what happens next is extraordinary, as not just the people directly involved with Miles but the entire city of San Francisco and, eventually, what seems like the whole world unites for one moment behind this little boy and cheers him on as he lives out his own crime-fighting fantasy for a day.
Dana Nachman’s documentary on Miles and his remarkable adventure can’t help but be emotional and sentimental by nature, and rather than fight that, the film just goes along for the ride. Nachman does lay it on heavy at times, using saccharine musical cues and a few overripe remarks from her interview subjects where none are necessary, but the film’s straight, chronological narrative keeps things from getting too bogged down. And there’s no doubt it’s a rich tale, as Miles’ loving parents are contacted by Make-A-Wish, as the company’s CEO Patricia Wilson begins to implement a plan to make Miles’ wish come true, and as that plan becomes bigger and more spectacular than anyone could have imagined.
Miles’ big day on November 15, 2013, ultimately involved turning San Francisco into Gotham City and sending Miles on a mission (in his tiny Batsuit) to save a damsel in distress from the Riddler, stop the latter from robbing a bank, and then rescue the San Francisco Giants’ mascot, Lou Seal, from the clutches of the Penguin. In addition to the actors, Make-A-Wish personnel and city workers that participated, an estimated 25,000 residents of the city crowded the streets to watch Miles do this thing, with a reported two billion around the world (including President Obama) keeping tabs on the pint-sized Caped Crusader as well.
The best parts of Batkid Begins are simply the sequences in which we watch Miles go about his mission: he’s so blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the whole thing (he gets tired halfway through and almost calls it off right there) yet so determined to be the Batman that you may find yourself rooting for him more than you ever did for Michael Keaton or Christian Bale (no one ever rooted for George Clooney when he wore the cowl). You’ll also find yourself worried over whether he’s just too damn hot in that Batsuit, but luckily his parents and others (including stuntman and acrobat EJ Johnston as his full-sized Batbuddy) are on hand to make sure he’s doing well.
Yet for all the inspiration that Batkid Begins aims and sometimes succeeds at evoking, Nachman never gets under the surface of the event to probe its meaning. Of all the children in the world battling frightening diseases, why did Miles’ story strike such a vast chord? What was it about him and his adventure that captured the imaginations of possibly a third of the world’s population? In the cynical, angry and downright scary times we live in, it is astonishing that something like the Batkid story could bring so many people together. Was it the symbolism of Batman himself, surely the world’s most recognizable superhero? Or did the amazing efforts of the people who worked directly to make Miles’ wish come true somehow have a ripple effect on the rest of the world?
Nachman never seeks answers to these questions, which in turn lead to a somewhat darker query that also goes unexplored. If a story like that of Miles – which, while beautiful in its own way, is also a relatively small bubble in the daily wash of life and death across the globe — could inspire so many people to turn out and participate, why doesn’t the same happen for events of far more importance to humanity as a whole? Is it just easier and less of a commitment to walk outside and watch a wonderful little boy play Batman for a day than wrap one’s heart and mind around some of the truly staggering problems that we face as a species?
If Batkid Begins used Miles’ story as a springboard for investigating these questions, it might have been a truly powerful and provocative documentary. But instead, Nachman took what was ultimately the safest route possible, making a feel-good film that will still entertain and enthrall you – but, like Batman himself, masks the deeper implications and motivations that lurk under the surface. Perhaps she’s saving those for the sequel.