Summer popcorn movies, the cinematic equivalent of escapist beach reads, are often about superheroes. With broadly drawn characters (literally, in some cases), they contrast with more complex characterizations common in fall films competing during the winter awards season.
Superheroes rescue not just damsels in distress, but studios endangered by well-reviewed but poorly viewed films. For instance, at the time of last January’s Oscar nominations, the combined box office for the eight films getting best picture nods was $203 million, while “Guardians of the Galaxy” alone grossed over $333 million in 2014. (“American Sniper” eventually closed the gap.)
Superhero ensembles sell best. 2012’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” tops the all-time summer-release list ($623 million total gross, ahead of this summer’s juggernaut, “Jurassic World”). But solo acts (or in the case of Batman and Robin, dynamic duos) do well, too. “The Dark Knight,” a 2008 Batman installment, is third on the summer-release list ($533 million), while 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” is fifth ($448 million).
“Batkid Begins,” which had its local premiere at the Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis on Friday, won’t do “Dark Knight” numbers. For one thing, it’s a documentary. And while enjoyable, it’s less escapist and more thought-provoking than most superhero cinema, especially as it shows a society needing — and wanting to be — heroes.
And heroes abound in “Batkid Begins.” There’s the kid himself — Miles Scott, a 5-year-old beating leukemia. The son of Oregon farmers who watches the campy ’60s TV version of “Batman,” Miles tells Make-A-Wish of his desire to be the Caped Crusader. So adults spring into superhero mode: A big-hearted former stuntman plays Batman and takes Miles under his wing (others play the Riddler and the Penguin). But offstage heroics equally impress. Patricia Wilson, CEO of Make-A-Wish in the San Francisco Bay Area, mobilizes San Francisco’s mayor and police chief, Twitter and Apple executives, as well as other generous souls to turn San Francisco into Gotham for a grand day of wish fulfillment — for Miles, sure, but equally and tellingly, for the throngs on San Francisco streets and for scores more online as Batkid becomes a global phenomenon on the World Wide Web.
Social media, in particular, played against type. Often rightly derided as a divisive, even destructive force, it was a force multiplier for good in this case, as in last summer’s ubiquitous ALS ice bucket challenge. Proving once again that the Internet is just a tool, able to build or demolish.
Beyond how “Batkid Begins” reflects on social media, the film’s sociological observations also resonate. Americans are eager to see, and do, good. While by the end of the documentary most will have made the connection, it’s noted that there’s deeper meaning in “Save us Batkid!” signs. This caped crusader’s fellow citizens need a rescue from the cynicism caused by so many social institutions, including social media, that are far from heroic.
Maybe this explains the recoil from the depiction of Atticus Finch, “To Kill a Mockingbird’s” moral compass, as an older racist in “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee’s lost novel published this week. Atticus Finch was fictional, of course. But real-life leaders who should approximate Atticus’ “Mockingbird” rectitude are falling far short, far too often — particularly in politics, but also in government, religion, business, sports, media and certainly pop culture (remarkably, during Wednesday’s news conference on Iran, President Obama was asked about Bill Cosby).
But, of course, far more leaders and the vast majority of Americans quietly come closer to their aspirations. Summer superhero flicks may help some escape, but in their real lives many are heroic without donning a cowl and a cape. And for some, on one special day, it wasn’t a batphone but cellphones that connected countless Bruce Waynes granting a gritty kid, themselves and society a wish.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.