While preparing for a recent review of the 90s Franky Muniz/Jack Russell terrier sapfest My Dog Skip, I ran across this Ebert pullquote: “A movie like this falls outside ordinary critical language. Is it good or bad? Is there too much melodrama? I don’t have any idea. It triggered too many thoughts of my own for me to have much attention left over for footnotes.” Ebert might as well have been talking about the recent documentary Batkid Begins in this assessment. Batkid Begins is a document of a six year old leukemia survivor’s Make-a-Wish-fulfilled fantasy in which the entire city of San Fransisco pitched in to help him realize his greatest wish in life, “to be a real Batman”. It’s essentially a feature-length version of a feel-good viral video you might stumble across & skim through on your Facebook feed, but you’d have to be a total monster to not be somewhat touched by the volume & enthusiasm of the generosity on display in the doc. Batkid Begins lays it on thick from the get-go, playing a stripped down choir version of David Bowie’s “Heroes” while the titular superhero tyke is shown realizing his dream of being Batman for a day in slow motion, but none of that emotional manipulation really matters from a critical standpoint. No matter what its tactics are, the movie moves you emotionally.
A son of a fourth generation farmer, young leukemia survivor Miles Scott obviously had no clue that his simple wish “to be a real Batman” would inspire tens of thousands of people to flood San Franciscan streets in a ludicrously large/public display of charity. The Make-a-Wish Foundation representatives who helped dream & orchestrate Miles’s day as a superhero were also overwhelmed by the flood of enthusiastic engagement with their event, which snowballed into a huge, city-wide production. In some ways Batkid Begins is a document of how information is spread from word of mouth to social media to national press, blowing up small, intimate events into worldwide phenomenons. At the center of this chaotic escalation is true life hero & Make-a-Wish coordinator Patricia Wilson, who masterminded much of the Batkid phenomenon from the ground level. She planned Batkid’s entire day, finding a suitable mentor in an adult Batman to lead Miles around (as well as treacherous villains for them to thwart) and engaging city officials like San Francisco’s mayor & chief of police to give the event an air of authenticity in Miles’s imagination. As the event spiraled out of control in terms of scale, Wilson began to think of the necessity to put on a show for the untold thousands of participants & Batkid’s dream ended up becoming something of a public production & a shared fantasy fulfillment. There’s a lot to get emotional about in Batkid Begins, but it’s also interesting on an intellectual level to watch how a small event can become a huge staging through a step by step escalation that the documentary follows in a logical A-B progression. Much of the film is reach-for-your-handkerchief sappiness, but there’s just as much attention payed to the logistics behind the achievement at hand.
Form-wise, Batkid Begins isn’t too flashy in any particular way. Miles’s backstory of heartbreaking cancer recovery through bone marrow biopsies, chemotherapy, and blood transfusions is told through a comic book illustration that sets a tone for the uplifting payoff to come. As the logistics of the event are being mapped out it’s difficult to tell exactly what is being documented as it happens & what is being pieced together after the fact, which is a testament to director Dana Nachman’s visual/editing room sense of storytelling. Miles’s first intro to Batman as a character was through the Adam West television series from the 1960s so the actual stage production of the day is colorful & cheesy enough to meld well with the Hallmark sentimentality on display here. The only thing you can fault the doc for, really, is its emotional provocation. In particular, its minor`notes piano score & talking head interviews about what superheroes mean to children & adults alike in terms of good vs. evil & bodies vs. illness can both be a little overreaching in their sentimentality. Again, though, it’s difficult to criticize the film too harshly. It exists outside of that language. No matter how many times a stray moment might make you roll your eyes in its mawkishness, there’s no way to fully resist the uplifting nature of the charity on display. Just one gesture of the in-remission Miles flexing his little superhero muscles after stopping the dastardly Riddler or Penguin in their tracks will have you blubbering like a baby. The film might be occasionally saccharine or obvious, but it remains consistently heartwarming throughout.