It used to be that the Make-A-Wish Fund would hook up a chronically or terminally-ill child with a trip to Disney World or a meeting with one of their favorite celebrities. Now, in a sign that times–and culture–have changed, something much more ambitious has happened. At the request of a five-year-old named Miles, who has leukemia that’s gone into remission, and with the help of many, many volunteers, including San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and the San Francisco Giants, big parts of San Francisco will be turned into a fantasy of Gotham so that Miles can pretend to be Batman for the day, while his younger brother is dressed up as Robin.
The event’s gone viral, prompting tweets from as high up as President Obama, and some questions about the allocation of resources. “#SFBatKid’s gonna be all right. A lot of poorer kids won’t be. Give here to change that: http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/amf/donate …,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, pointing readers towards a malaria eradication charity. And The Information Diet’s Clay Johnson joked that: “I hope some 5 year old with leukemia wishes for “Comprehensive IT Procurement Reform” next. #SFBatKid”
But even if you wish you could mobilize thousands of people for your pet project, the willingness of San Franciscans to turn out in large numbers to make Miles’ wish come true, and the avid viewership the event’s garnered across the country is revealing. This is a fascinating watermark in America’s obsession with superhero culture, and in our relationships to various aspects of geek culture.
First, let’s acknowledge that Bat Kid is on the run in San Francisco, a city famous for its status as a locus of tech industry, and as a generally geek-friendly place. But even granted that San Francisco seems like the sort of city that’s primed to turn Bat Kid into a phenomenon, the levels of turn-out still speak to the mass appeal of Miles’ fantasy.
Americans like participating in viral charitable efforts, whether they’re donating to a bullied school bus monitor or doing something kind waitresses who have been stiffed and insulted by bigoted customers. But while pitching in for causes like these, or ponying up for disaster relief may feel satisfying, and on a small level, make the donor feel like they’re part of something larger, Miles’ wish offered San Franciscans the opportunity to participate in an act of kindness in person. And the specific nature of Miles’ request gives participants something more than warm fuzzies: it’s an opportunity to participate in a fantasy of their own on a grand scale, or to excuse indulging in a fantasy on the grounds that it’s philanthropic.
The vast expansion of comics and gaming conventions have provided fans of genre fiction with more opportunities to and spaces in which to cosplay, or to dress up as their favorite characters. But there’s an understanding that the convention floor is special space to assume a different identity that you can’t carry with you out of the center, at least not very far. And cosplaying is often relatively stagnant, an opportunity to pose for pictures, and maybe engage in a casual lightsaber duel. As much as individuals might dream of turning into an entire city into a canvas for their dreams of living out their identification with certain characters, it’s almost impossible to imagine having the clout to step into not just the clothes from a piece of fiction you love, but scenarios that could possible happen in the world where it’s set.
Miles’ request to Make-A-Wish provides an exceptionally rare opportunity not just for him to dress up as Bat Kid and liberate Lou Seal, the San Francisco Giants’ mascot, from the clutches of The Penguin, but for people who aren’t ill to jump in on the game. You don’t have to be sick or rich to offer yourself up as a victim who gets tied to trolley car tracks for Bat Kid to rescue (a scenario that’s prompted comment on how persistent the gendered tropes of comics are). You don’t even have to dress up or have props to join in a crowd warning him that the Penguin’s on the loose. And if you’re working in Washington at, say, the Justice Department, you can find creative ways to get in on the act from thousands of mile away. Bat Kid’s wish isn’t just serving him. It’s a chance for everyone who’s ever loved superhero movies to get in on the action, whether they’re embracing a chance to do things they’ve done before on a larger scale, or grateful for the opportunity to engage in an activity they might find too geeky to admit to in real life.
It’s no secret that superheroes are popular: you only have to look at the weekend box-office, the pace at which superhero movies are released, or Netflix’s four-show deal with Marvel that will culminate in a mini-series bringing four new superheroes together. But Bat Kid’s experience, and the mobilization around his wish, is a reminder of just how powerful that fantasy is. Maybe we don’t want to live in a world where incredibly strong people rage through our cities, toppling buildings as if they were individual stalks in the Kents’ cornfield. But the desire to believe a man can fly, or that a billionaire might devote himself to saving a city–and not just by banning smoking and giant sodas–is a compelling one. And even if we can’t imagine ourselves landing punches or inventing super suits, there’s a real charm to the dream of tipping off a superhero, or even just watch one rush by.