Though there are no metrics to really support it, the story of Miles Scott, a 5-year-old in remission from leukemia who got to become Batkid to San Francisco's Gotham City on Friday, Nov. 15, was The Most Important Thing That Happened in the World that day. Excessive hyperbole for an excessive event, no doubt, but at least as far as public conversation goes, here and online, it sure seemed that way.
There were the 78,000 tweets on Friday. There was the hypnotic Vine-loop of President Obama, flanked by classical busts of Jefferson and Franklin: "Way to go, Miles. Way to save Gotham." There was the fact that the San Francisco Chronicle had such high demand for its "Gotham City Chronicle" special edition, with tongue-in-cheek stories about the day's events, that it had to reprint the section. This is something that newspapers are rarely lucky enough to do with regular old real news.
There was plenty of regular old real news, too, grim stuff about war, and politics, and the economy, and the environment, and the whole thing about apples not having cores, and so on. Yet the tale of how the Make-a-Wish Foundation created this elaborate fantasy for one kid went further and wider and faster. And why not? People, it seems, still love a happy ending.
That it happened in San Francisco seemed that much more appropriate. Batman and Batkid tearing through the streets in converted Lamborghinis, chasing the Riddler, saving damsels, getting the key to the city, stopping for lunch — the stuff of modern myth. It was an absurd and excessive event for an absurd and excessive city, which has itself always treasured its patina of myth.
Yet amid this innocent adventuring, critical voices were raised. Supervisor Eric Mar found himself on Twitter "Wondering how many 1000s of kids living off SNAP/FoodStamps could have been fed from the $$." This is the Internet equivalent of interrupting a gathering of friends with an upraised index finger and a scolding, Um, guys, hang on a minute. The response to this and Mar's subsequent Facebook clarification was the Internet equivalent of pulling his underwear over his head. Mar made the mistake of Going There, of forcing real world considerations into a collective fantasy and threatening the experience with terrible, terrible perspective. He was weaponizing Context, you might say.
You heard all kinds of stories about people's reactions on Friday: the 10,000 fans who came out to cheer Batkid on, the employees and visitors at the Department of Public Health all decked out in Batman paraphernalia and not so much minding the giving or receiving of shots; the folks getting drunk and weeping unashamedly in bars; and then the ones muttering darkly about the whole goddamn spectacle of it all.
Lurking beneath the global sense of hope and goodwill is something terribly frightening: the awareness that the Batkid adventure in no way cures the other problems in the world. These are the problems we spend the other 364 days or so of the year struggling with, in mind and in actuality, and from which this shared adventure is an escape that, given the number of keyboards dampened and touchscreens smeared with tears, was evidently desperately needed. But nevertheless, the criticism remains to be picked up, and picked up it was, by Mar and others, an argument that more or less boiled down to the One vs. the Many: Why should a single person get all the attention when there are so many others suffering? It is a fair question, and one that as it happens is addressed in a certain literary genre.
The story of the superhero contains the tension of the one person doing things others can't or won't, and society asking by what right this person gets to do whatever the hell he or she wants. The answer may be that the good the superhero does is in creating a community where before there were just a bunch of individuals — the isolation of the everyday. The function of a single, exceptional person, then, is that he or she must stand in for the others.
It's rather like the quote from that great sage, Uncle Ben Parker: "With great power there must also come — great responsibility!" (Itself possibly a riff on good old Luke 12:48: "From the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.") So we elevate the hero, and in exchange, we all live vicariously through the hero.
A lot of people can fit behind that mask.
Joseph "Jeph" Loeb has written for comics, including Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman, and for TV shows like Smallville, Heroes, and Lost. He also wrote an essay called "Making the World a Better Place" (which, yes, may indeed come from an anthology of essays titled What Is a Superhero? and which, yes, may indeed have been fetched from the stack of reading material behind my toilet), in which he considers the morality of such tales.
"The stories create real-world problems around fantastical situations," Loeb writes. The Batkid story reverses the equation: fantastical problems (a damsel in distress, a kidnapped mascot) around real-world situations (a major American city, leukemia).
"We live in a very complicated world. As much as we find ourselves immersed in the Internet and in the world of Twitter, there's an immediacy to our lives that we've never known before — almost instant knowledge, instant reactions," Loeb writes. "The time needed to think about the human condition is often slipping away. What superhero stories do, when they're told well, is make us slow down and think about the situations that we're in and the people that we're affecting."
The Most Important Thing That Happened in the World on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, was not about practical solutions to a problem, whether that problem be childhood cancer or childhood hunger or anything else. It was a symbolic solution. The story of "Miles Batkid" was designed to mean something, to him, sure, but also to us; that's what it "did." It made a community, and if that community goes on to give time or money to a cause, or simply maintains an awareness that a community of wet-eyed believers can still form in these strange days, then a real- world solution will have sprung from the fantasy.