“One death is a tragedy,” Josef Stalin is reputed to have said. “A million deaths is a statistic.” Psychologists call this phenomenon the “collapse of compassion,” confirming in numerous studies that a person’s capacity to feel for others diminishes as the number of victims increases. Of course the reverse is also true: people respond most strongly to the suffering of a single person, which is why the Muscular Dystrophy Association began using the “poster child” as a fund-raising tool in the 1950s. The phenomenon also explains why thousands of people came together in November 2013 to help five-year-old Miles Scott, who had spent two years battling leukemia, live out his fantasy of being Batman as part of a daylong event staged in San Francisco by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Dana Nachman’s documentary Batkid Begins presents this massive public response as a triumph of the human spirit and the premier feel-good story of all time. It didn’t make me feel that good, but you probably guessed as much when I opened by quoting Stalin.
Someone had to make a documentary about this, because the story was too good to pass up. Patricia Wilson, executive director of Make-A-Wish, had originally envisioned Miles romping around a park in his hometown of Tulelake, California, but then the event was moved to San Francisco and the story went viral. Someone contributed a Lamborghini to serve as the Batmobile, and Eric Johnston, an acrobat and a former stunt double, was engaged to play the Caped Crusader, with Miles as his “Mini-Me” companion. The San Francisco Opera donated the services of its costume department, which clad not only Batman and Batkid but volunteers playing the Riddler and the Penguin. Police Chief Greg Suhr taped a series of video messages summoning the crime fighters to various locations around town, where traffic was shut down. Some 20,000 onlookers from around the country gathered to watch the scenario, and the well-wishers on Twitter included every living actor who’s played Batman, from Adam West to Ben Affleck. The day climaxed with a sensational rescue at AT&T Park, at which point President Obama tweeted a brief video thanking Batkid, and a trip to City Hall, where Miles received a key to the city from Mayor Ed Lee.
Batman was Miles’s favorite superhero because, as his father explains, “He’s a regular guy. He’s got gadgets and money.” Gadgets and money are the defining characteristics of Silicon Valley, which made San Francisco the ideal city for Batkid Day to explode into a worldwide fad. Clever Girls Collective, a social media agency, took on the Batkid campaign, and Mike De Jesus, an event marketer at Twitter, spread the word as well, drawing interest from as far away as Norway and Australia. Katie Cotton, vice president of corporate communications for Apple, donated the services of her team in the week leading up to the event. The story took off on Facebook, Mashable, Pinterest, Instagram—you name it.
“There’s nothing negative you can say about this,” Wilson declares on camera after the city’s controversial expenditure of $105,000, taken from its convention budget, is paid off by philanthropists John and Marcia Goldman. Miles’s parents, Nick and Natalie Scott—who appear to be exceptionally levelheaded people, and thank God for that—received a tidal wave of financial assistance to help them meet their outstanding medical bills, and they used the remainder of the money to establish the Batkid Fund, which benefits Make-A-Wish, the Ronald McDonald House, and the Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Oregon. More money came pouring in through Indiegogo to fund the completion of Batkid Begins, and a portion of the movie’s proceeds has been pledged to charity. Batkid Day reminded us that, even though the U.S. is controlled by psychotic greed heads and their government minions, most people on the street are generous and want to help. “It was like one of those really cheesy Hallmark movies on TV,” marvels Wilson. “We never thought it would happen, but it did.”
Unfortunately Batkid Begins is so rigidly upbeat that it begins to seem like one of those really cheesy Hallmark movies on TV. At the end, when Nachman turns to some of the participants to find out what it all means, one commenter enthuses that people embraced the story because they needed to rediscover their inner child. What country is he living in? Half of the movies to crack the $100 million mark at the box office this year have been children’s fantasies, and whenever Comic-Con arrives in town, the streets are full of grown men and women dressed up as superheroes. You have to wonder how many of the people who turned out for Batkid Day acted out of compassion and how many acted out of simple envy. We have a lot of social problems, but a shortage of childish fantasy isn’t one of them.
Of all the sentiments expressed in the movie’s closing minutes, the most perniciously romantic may be that Miles Scott “restored our humanity.” Another commenter notes that some onlookers in San Francisco hoisted placards imploring Batkid to save them. “You mean that literally,” he argues. “In helping him to live this dream, we were saving ourselves.” That’s great for Miles Scott, but what about the next cancer-stricken kid who comes along, asking to be Spider-Man? He’ll have to settle for Disneyland, I guess. You may call it a miracle when 20,000 people respond to the misfortune of one person, but the real miracle would be one person responding to the misfortune of 20,000. Our humanity doesn’t need to be restored, just rerouted. v