You’ll recall in November 2013 the top philanthropic story of the month was about how five-year-old Miles Scott, of Tulelake, California, suffering from a serious round of leukemia, had his wish fulfilled by the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Bay Area chapter. But because Scott wanted to be Batman, the energetic Make-A-Wish staffers transformed Scott into “Batkid” and his wish into a parade, which was a 48-hour media feeding frenzy.
I wrote about this at the time because of Peter Singer’s denunciation of the whole exercise. But last week I saw Batkid Begins, a documentary about the incident. (Since I saw the film courtesy of the mid-Atlantic branch of Make-a-Wish, the least I could do is give them a link.)
The documentary, directed by Dana Nachman, is an efficient, competent look at the Batkid story. Michael Cavna, who blogs about comics on the Washington Post website, covered the creation of this documentary in January.
The story is familiar. Once Miles Scott qualified to have his wish fulfilled, the staff of the Bay Area Make-a-Wish Foundation, led by Patricia Wilson, went to work. She brought in friends of hers who had experience in Hollywood special effects, and they came up with the basic scenario, in which Scott, playing “Batkid”, would accompany “Batman,” played by Eric Johnston, as he fought The Riddler and Penguin and helped free the San Francisco Giants’s mascot, Lou Seal, from the clutches of villains. It would be the professional equivalent of a live-action role-playing game.
Make-a-Wish received early cooperation from the city of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Department. San Francisco chief of police Greg Suhr recorded several messages congratulating “Batkid.”
But at some point the project mutated out of control, thanks largely to social media. A social media public relations firm volunteered to promote the event, and we see twelve women grimly clustered around a long table dutifully tweeting. Tweets were retweeted, and the press dutifully took the bait, and a mob of frothing hacks descended on San Francisco.
As a result, Make-a-Wish got help from a surprising variety of sources. Composer Hans Zimmer prepared a special “Batkid Theme.” The San Francisco Opera costume department helped fix Eric Johnston’s ill-fitting Batman outfit and made costumes for the villains. Penguin was easy—if you need white tie, an opera prop shop is the place to go—but apparently sewing question marks on the Riddler’s lime satin suit was a major technical problem.
The day before, Johnston, Scott, and Scott’s family went to a circus training school for “Batkid training.” The single most touching moment in the documentary was when Miles Scott, suitably harnessed, successfully navigates a high wire. (What makes the moment touching is that the moment was unscripted and unrecorded by anyone except for Nachman’s documentary crew.)
As for the day of the event, Nachman dutifully records the several glitches that happened during the event. Miles Scott’s cowl never fit. An early task was to free a “damsel-in-distress” (played by Sue Graham Johnston, Eric Johnston’s wife) from a fake bomb. But because the Batmobile was late, Graham Johnston had to sit on the street, ramrod-straight, for forty-five minutes—a move, she said, which gave her quads quite a workout.
Most notably, after lunch, Miles Scott—who, remember, is a five-year-old kid with leukemia—announced that he was too tired to continue. The last half of the program was nearly aborted, until Scott changed his mind and finished his day’s adventures.
The event, we are told, cost the city of San Francisco $105,000, which was reimbursed by the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation. We are not told how much the spectacle cost the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
We haven’t heard the last of the Batkid story, because Julia Roberts has bought the rights and a feature film is in development. Lots of people enjoyed themselves. Who doesn’t like a parade? Surely there is nothing here to criticize.
When faced with situations such as these, one is reminded of the time British journalist Claud Cockburn served as guest editor of Punch. “Who out there is so noble, so admirable, that they can’t possibly be criticized?” Cockburn said.
A junior hack raised his hand. “Ummm….Albert Schweitzer?”
“Right!” Cockburn said. “Let’s have a go at Schweitzer!”
The problem with Make-a-Wish is that it is not bad philanthropy, but it’s not particularly good philanthropy. The wishes are as evanescent as soap bubbles, and do not last. Make-a-Wish does not give a poor person the skills to be productive. It does not enable an artist to create plays, books, music, or paintings. It does not help scientists make discoveries. It does nothing to find a cure for the diseases that its children are suffering from.
I have three friends who went through chemotherapy, and I understand it’s an ordeal. Helping children deal with these dread diseases is a moderately good deed. But there are many better deeds people can do than work with Make-a-Wish.
There are intimations in the film that the whole episode somehow advanced voluntarism in our country. I seriously doubt that anyone in the U.S. today donates their time today by saying ,”Miles Scott would want me to do this.”
Remember how, when Princess Diana died, we were told (again and again) that tens of millions of people would find her “saintly” life a daily source of inspiration? Eighteen years after her death, I suspect there are very few people who vow to live like Lady Di. Contrast her party-laden life with those of real saints—you know, the ones canonized by the Catholic Church—whose heroic deeds are a constant source of inspiration.
A lot of people in San Francisco had a fun day following Batkid around. But I doubt the spectacle did any more good than any less-publicized Thanksgiving parade that took place in America in 2013.
P.S. A friend reminds me that Make-A-Wish apparently has a policy denying requests from children whose wish is to hunt. This restriction led Tina Pattison to create the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation, the subject of the 2011 documentary The Harvest. Matt Culkin, writing for the fine website Cracked.com, has compiled “The Eight Most Bad Ass Make-A-Wish Wishes Ever.”