The dark knight; the caped crusader; Batman has gone by many names over the years, but remains a fictional character that has become a human touchstone. Several documentaries have taken a look at the origin of the character, his greatest stories, or adaptations to the big screen, but few turn away from the screen and page to examine just how profoundly Batman has, and continues, to change human lives in profound ways.
The impact of DC Comics' masked hero is the subject of director Brett Culp's Legends of the Knight, a passion project that makes one thing explicitly clear: Batman is no longer 'just' a work of fiction. We had the chance to sit down with Culp back at San Diego Comic-Con 2013, and hear firsthand of the stories he uncovered, and why it is that an orphaned boy who turned pain into action still hasn't stopped changing lives.
Filming across 15 American cities, and conducting 64 interviews - including legendary comic writer Denny O'Neil, executive producer (of every Batman film since 1989) Michael Uslan, and Gotham Chopra (author of "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes") - Legends of the Knight argues that the days of Batman being a comic book fan's escape are over.
Given the amount of money being generated off of the cape and cowl, it's odd to think of Batman as anything but a marketable property. While that dimension of the character is very real (what Culp refers to as "Batman as brand") it's no exaggeration to say the world has witnessed the creation and acceptance of a new generation of myth; iconic heroes whose tale has been told, retold, and told again by any number of creative minds, and for widely different audiences:
“I think the beauty of Batman - and it's one of the reasons why he was the perfect subject for this - is because there have been so many different versions of him... We’ve gone across the ages for this film. I have people in this film that talk about being inspired by the Batman TV show of the 1960s to be a hero.
"This gentleman we interviewed ultimately became a police officer because he watched that show every day when he came home from school. He wanted to go fight crime and be like Batman, and now he’s the captain of the gang unit in Las Vegas. That’s as Batman as you get for a real-life person: out there on the streets every day fighting crime. Then you have [executive producer] Michael Uslan, who hated that '60s TV show so much that it drove the rest of his life to rid the world of that version of Batman.
"Legends of the Knight is less about the Batman that has been created by Tim Burton, or Adam West, or Scott Snyder, or Frank Miller, or anybody else. It's more about the Batman that exists in our own minds when we walk away from that character."
The lasting impact of Batman can be seen simply by asking a person on the street what the hero means to them: for some, the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton version seen in Batman (1989) remains the best incarnation, while others will claim that Christopher Nolan was the first director to get the character "right."
So how can fans navigate those waters, protecting the legacy of their favorite character while Hollywood casts whoever they choose to don the cape and cowl, whether they fit the version held in their minds? Culp's view of the matter after completing the film may not seem alien to comic book fans, but could be a new perspective for vocal movie fans:
"The way I see it, there is not one Batman. Batman is a mosaic of all the things he has ever been, all the things he is today, and all the things he will be. I think that's the genius of a writer like Grant Morrison: he gets that. He understands that, and he has figured out - sometimes I don't always like what he does - but he has synthesized Batman into that. So to me, all those Batmen are valid. But the Batman that a child draws on a piece of paper in crayon is just as valid as any other Batman too.
"There's a brand of Batman that Warner Bros. and DC own... but after 75 years, the character is beyond that now: he's now at the point of legend. He's all those things at once. Which is weird, but I'm that kind of fanboy now."
The documentary - following the stories of a dozen different adults and children - is testament to just how differently Batman can be understood, and put into action in very real terms. Whether the stories mentioned above - or a young boy suffering from leukemia who finds strength because "Batman wouldn't let cancer beat him." That's just one reason why Legends of the Knight will leave even the most hardened Bat-fans misty-eyed, but the true heart of the film, according to Culp:
"This character is a symbol in our society; a symbol of a certain heroic value that we hold dear. And I think that Americans in particular hold dear; about independence, personal strength, can-do attitude that has been an American motif... it's spread around the world, but Batman is an American superhero.
"I think what people are going to see when they watch these interviews about people who loved this character as a child, and how that affected the trajectory of their lives, is that loving this character is a wonderful, good thing."
If you still have any doubts that the documentary will have you ready to take on social injustice, take a look at the official trailer for Legends of the Knight:
Of course, it's difficult to bring up the topic of Batman these days without mentioning DC's other juggernaut in the same breath. So what is the distinction between Batman and Superman for Culp?
“Batman is flawed. He is born of brokenness; he is born of pain. And in many ways, so am I. I look at the world and say it is dark, and it’s difficult, and it’s very easy for me to look at that and say I’m helpless to do anything about it… Batman shows us that’s not true.
"Obviously Batman has the money and the power and all that stuff, but at the end of the day the core of that story is that Batman is us. Batman is a guy who makes a commitment to make a difference in the world, and he will fight, and struggle, and claw, and commit himself to that.
“Superman - for me - is a god-like symbol. He is a symbol of almost divinity. They’ve made him more flawed recently, but in general he was always right, always good, and even though I look at that and say ‘I wish I could be like that,’ there’s part of me that knows: I never will be, I’m never going to have those powers... Superman spent his life maybe figuring out who he was, but he already was it. It was just bestowed upon him.
"Batman had to work for it, and so do I.”
So how does the filmmaker think the two will coexist given the dark knight's starring role in the Man of Steel sequel, Batman vs. Superman?
“I think it’s definite that they will be adversaries. But at the end, I think they’ll strike a tentative friendship. Jim Lee mentioned it [during the Superman 75th Anniversary panel] - and then David [S. Goyer] mentioned it – “The Dark Knight Returns,” and how these two characters were pitted against eachother; they represent different ideals. I think they’ll start the movie with the world being afraid that Superman is too powerful. And Batman will be the guy that will say ‘he is too powerful, and we’ve got to do something about it.'"
Culp is still arranging a distribution for the documentary, with interest ranging from traditional channels to school classrooms, somewhat hampered by his commitment (in typical Bruce Wayne fashion) to keeping the project a non-profit, charitable one.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.