It’s easy to be cynical. Especially about super-heroes, in an era when they dominate the box office and opening weekends are debated for years before they happen.
And then something like this happens.
On Friday the 15th, San Francisco transformed itself into Gotham City to make the dream of a five-year-old suffering from leukemia come true.
The Make-a-Wish Foundation staged the event for young Miles Scott. Miles started his day with a recorded message from San Francisco’s chief of police, Greg Suhr, pleading for help from Batkid. Miles got his own costume, and an adult Batman came to pick him up in an actual Batmobile.
The first stop was in the city’s Union Square, where a “damsel in distress” had been tied to a bomb and left on cable car tracks. With the adult Batman directing, Batkid managed to disarm the bomb and free the woman, who hugged young Miles in thanks.
The bomb was green with Riddler question marks on it, so it’s no surprise who was responsible. Soon, Batkid was summoned to stop the villain, who was robbing a bank. Miles slammed a door to trap the villain, who was carted away in a police department truck.
After lunch, Miles stopped the Penguin and rescued the mascot of the San Francisco Giants, Lou Seal.
At the end of his day, Miles got the key to the city from San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, in a public ceremony, where Miles’s younger brother was dressed as Robin.
The entire event took off on social media, thank in part to a publicity company getting involved. All through the day, thousands lined the street wherever Miles went, cheering him on. Batkid T-shirts were sold, featuring an altered version of the 1960s TV show’s Batman logo, with the proceeds benefiting the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Traffic crashed the Make-a-Wish Foundation’s website. The San Francisco Chronicle printed a special edition, under the Gotham City Chronicle masthead, about Batkid’s adventures with the headline “Batkid Saves City.” The edition was prepared beforehand, and the next day a revised edition was printed with actual photos of Miles’s actions that day. President Obama even recorded a short video thanking Miles.
Of course, part of the excitement of the story was the sheer extent of the simulation, including both the big names and sheer quantities of people who participated. Part of the fun was also seeing a kid get to see his super-hero dream come true. But it’s important to remember that Miles, who actually lives in Tulelake in Northern California, has been fighting with leukemia since he was 18 months old. The disease only went into remission in June.
In fact, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which exists to fulfill wishes for children diagnosed with deadly diseases, has fulfilled similar wishes for other kids, including one in Anaheim who got to become Batman’s sidekick Robin, and one in Seattle who got to be a secret agent.
There are few things more painful than serious childhood illness or death. It seems so senseless, so unjust. This is something that tests people’s faith and can break marriages. I’ve known people who lost their children to disease, and I still can’t imagine the pain of it. The mind reels.
If you wanted to find something that epitomizes the senseless, terrible suffering and injustice that’s intrinsic to life, its face might be that of a suffering child, punished for no act of his or her own.
The antidote for that, and for the depression it can cause, was Batman. And not only for Miles Scott. Yes, Miles wanted to be Batman for a day. That was his wish. But Batman was also a beacon of hope for the thousands who poured into the streets of San Francisco and for the millions who watched this on TV and YouTube, who followed the appropriate hashtags on Twitter and felt such joy at seeing Miles actually get this wish.
And yes, there was a lot of talk about the “damsel in distress” tied to the bomb on train tracks. It’s an old trope of the genre, one we’re fortunately analyzing and dissecting for its sexist overtones. But the actress tied to a fake bomb, hugging young Miles, isn’t a symbol for anything except the kindness of a world caring for a young boy who’s been through so much.
And yes, a lot of the coverage of Batkid used the 1960s Batman TV theme and threw “Pow!” or the like up on the screen, as if Tim Burton had never happened, let alone Christopher Nolan. But that’s okay. If anything, it’s a demonstration of the continued vitality of the 1960s Batman. Watching Miles Scott, it’s hard to get upset at the 1960s Batman T-shirts mixed with a Burton-esque Batmobile and a Schumacher-esque Riddler and Nolan-inspired Batman costumes. Batman is a symbol, a melange of different and sometimes conflicting images and tones that transcends any one. If this is what made Miles Scott happy, or even how the wider world sees the character, who could complain on such a day?
Of course, super-heroes are big business. Of course, they can be silly. Of course, it’s important to analyze them and their stories’ messages. But even those of us who are a bit older and more cynical now can see Miles Scott and remember the joy of these characters and these stories.
Super-heroes are sometimes called modern myths, and myths are powerful things. They can distract us from harsh truths, which can sometimes be necessary but can also be potentially dangerous. There was no denial of harsh truth in this remarkable event, rooted in this child’s fear and suffering. Instead, there was celebration and hope and joy, not in denial of the truth but in spite of it. In bold and elaborate defiance of it.
Super-heroes can be a lot of things. Any specific super-hero story can be wonderful or dangerous, beautiful or ill-made, soulless or thoughtful. Super-heroes have also traditionally been a symbol for doing good, for using our abilities — super and otherwise — to try imperfectly to nudge this world a little closer to the good and the just. Both the injustice of the world and this human ability to nudge things towards the better are embodied in Miles Scott’s day.
There’s a reason Miles chose for his wish to be a super-hero for a day. And there’s a reason the world thrilled so much to that specific wish’s fulfillment. As wonderful and as elaborate as it was, it wouldn’t have been the same, had Miles been dressed as Mickey Mouse.
It’s easy to be cynical. We all know — or should — how super-heroes, like any symbols, can be manipulated to tell stories with troubling messages. But we just saw a moving demonstration that Batman can also unite a city in doing good, even if it’s only giving a boy who’s had many, many bad days one really, really good one.