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Film Review: Legends of the Knight
November 18, 2014 By Trevor Richardson
Legends of the Knight is a documentary film from Brett Culp Productions that takes a different approach to the topic of Batman and superhero comics. It is a movie about people, the followers and fans of Batman, and less about the history or backstory of the character himself as you might expect going in. Like many films of its kind, it begins with a quote. The quote itself is significant because it says something to the state of mind of the filmmakers when editing Legends of the Knight together.
“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
This is a documentary that exists to tell you that your fiction, your favorite heroes, do not exist as mere entertainment. They exist as symbols of who we are and who we want to be. Beginning with an interview from Michael Uslan, Executive Producer of the Dark Knight Trilogy, we get this touching anecdote from a speech he gave to the graduates of the Naval Academy at West Point. He asked himself what someone like him, a mere moviemaker, teacher, and comic fan, could say to a bunch of cadets staged to ship out to Afghanistan or Iraq.
The answer: Uslan said, “Cadets of West Point, when Bruce Wayne was a boy, he saw his parents murdered before his eyes on a concrete altar of blood. In that instant, in that belief that one person can make a difference, he sacrificed his childhood and made a commitment that he would get the guy who did this and he would get all the bad guys, even if he had to walk through Hell for the rest of his life to honor that commitment. In doing this, Bruce Wayne became the Batman. He became a legend. He became an urban warrior. Cadets of West Point, you are Batman.”
To which, naturally, the cadets roared and cheered. These are the sorts of stories you are in for when you sit down to watch Legends of the Knight. From there, they move to a more classical approach to the topic of Batman, and comic heroes at large. Will Brooker, author of “Hunting the Dark Knight,” puts these figures in the same peer group as Robin Hood and King Arthur, who explains how legends of this sort have always been around, have always existed. You’re two minutes into this documentary and you already have two new thoughts to digest:
Bruce Wayne learns that one man can make a difference as a force for good because he watched a single man make a difference in his life as a force for evil. And Batman is the new American folk hero, the modern mythology that is both defined by a people and defines them in kind.
Brooker says, “Batman is a myth, Batman is a folk legend.”
Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps as an unspoken message, we return to Ulsan who talks about Batman and the world of comic books being his refuge as a child. Stories about folk heroes, going back to the Middle Ages and beyond, were always an escape for the listeners. Yes, they were entertainment, but they were also a diversion from the hardships and the pain of life in those times. Our folk heroes exist to fight what we fear most, those things that we are unable or even too afraid to take on ourselves. If the issue of the time is greedy nobility and the plight of the peasantry, you create a bow-wielding folk hero to rob from the rich and feed the poor. In a time where the issues of the second World War were crushing down on the American people, we created Captain America. When Vietnam and cynicism were plaguing the American spirit, our heroes turned darker with characters like The Punisher. If the issue is a young kid on the playground who feels helpless or weak, then of course you latch onto a hero who makes himself strong, who started making himself strong when he himself was a child, and who fights injustice with his wits and his skill. Comics, like all folk tales and heroic ballads, are a form of escapism for the troubled, and inspiration for those who wish to be something more. Yet, just like the people who aspire to more, these stories wind up achieving more than mere escapism for those of us who really invest.
Their power comes from an essential question, and it is one that is articulated best by a police captain with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Gang Unit named David O’Leary who was interviewed for Legend of the Knight. When considering the role of a hero as someone who strives to be better, he asks, “Am I that person? Am I able to be that person for somebody else?”
There is a theme in this documentary that feels uncommon to most of its kind. We not only are challenged to ask how comics inspire us to greatness, we are given faces to look at of those who actually lived it. Beginning with the cadets of West Point, leading to a police officer raised on Batman comics and the Adam West show, and moving on to people who have suffered real hardship from birth defects, accidents, sickness and loss, we begin to see a real life picture of how a fictional man can literally change the world.
“The question for a child in hearing a story is not ‘Who’s good and who’s bad,’ but ‘Who should I be like?’” says Daniel Taylor, the author of “Tell Me A Story.” He continues, “Stories offer us possible lives, just to see a man who had moral courage gives me a real life possibility that I could have moral courage. That I could do the right thing.”
I grew up on comics and the Saturday morning animated shows based on X-Men, Spider-Man, and, my favorite, Batman. I had the toys, the books, the trading cards, I made my own capes and grappling hooks, and swung from trees as the Dark Knight. The question of why I responded to these things instead of wanting to play sports or collect baseball cards has never really entered into my mind because, for me, these things are just awesome. It was a great childhood and it’s developed into a great life as an adult and a writer. However, what I really enjoy about the presentation in this documentary is that I find myself analyzing who I am and who I became because of growing up with Batman. Kids don’t really analyze the message of a superhero, they just want to feel strong and cool when they run around in the backyard. Yet upon reflection, I see traits in myself that I have to believe are there, in no small part, because I grew up imagining myself with what Taylor calls that “moral courage.” I have had times in my life where I could not stomach something that was going on because of an over-inflated sense of justice and a desire to fight back. More than that, I have aspired to a bigger life, a more adventurous life that stands for something and never once considered that I might have a comic book to thank for that until sitting down to watch this movie.
They move on to Daniel, a young man that was born with one leg and only three fingers on each hand. He tells us that Batman was a symbol of being fearless and it inspired him to aspire to greatness, to try to do the impossible. Daniel plays basketball, Daniel marched in the marching band and danced. If I could have been in the room with Daniel, I would have asked how he felt when Bane broke Batman’s back and Bruce had to go through all that work to get back to being the man in the cowl. I think that might be the main thing that separates Batman from all the others. He worked at this, he strained and climbed and developed his abilities through will and effort and sweat.
Batman fans are a different breed because their hero is a self-made man. There are some that feel drawn to guys like Spider-Man or The Flash, who go from being average, or even below average, to being something extraordinary, something amazing, in a single instant. A bite, a bolt of lightning, a chemical spill, or the donning of a power ring, and BOOM! you’re better, stronger, and faster than you ever thought possible. There is an escapism in this idea too, the wishful thinking that you could have everything you could ask for in a flash, but it is also a little bit lazy if you stack that up against a man like Bruce Wayne. Bruce is there to say that you can be a superhero if you choose to be one. If you want to be strong, go get strong. If you want to get smart, go study. If you want to be a force for good, then you had better go learn how to have some force. It’s a powerful lesson, it’s something a lot of us overlook in an age of instant gratification, shortcuts, and promises of luxury. Batman, for guys like Daniel, has a different kind of super power and it’s one we can all choose to have: determination.
They interview Lenny too. You might remember Lenny, in 2012 he got pulled over for driving a Lamborghini without tags while, you guessed it, dressed up as Batman. Lenny is actually one of the more important interviews, in my opinion, because he serves as a link between the two messages of this film. One is that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, the other is that Batman can be a source of hope for people who are struggling. Lenny is actually pretty inspiring because, at first, you think this is going to be about a kooky guy trying to get attention, but you quickly find out that he spends endless hours visiting children’s hospitals as Batman to cheer up the patients and give them some hope or, at the very least, some fun. Batman has existed for three-quarters of a century as a symbol of possibility for people struggling with poverty, physical afflictions, cancer, family problems, or the death of loved ones. To prove that point, Lenny dons the cowl and visits sick kids, literally inspiring them to get better.
Of course, my big take away from this is the fact that he is pouring sweat and has to go into a break room to cool down, get some water, and remove the thirty-five pounds of rubber and leather. You start to look at the “real” Batman a little differently and I was reminded of something my brother and I used to debate when we were kids. In the movies, Batman wears all this body armor and heavy rubber or Kevlar, but most Batman illustrations just have him in a fabric suit. We always thought that was the craziest thing, jumping off of buildings was fine, going up against knives and bullets with no protection was the real daredevil stunt. Now, watching Lenny do his thing, you realize that you couldn’t maintain in all that gear. To be Batman for real, you would have to be light, and that means going in without the leather or the Kevlar, to just be you, trimmed down, simply relying on your own ability to dodge a bullet.
A realistic Batman is not a guy in high-tech gear who can get hit by a knife and not get cut, it’s a guy with so much training and focus that the knife doesn’t touch him at all. But what is Lenny’s take on Bats? He says, “At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, “Self, did I make a difference?” And that answer had better be ‘yes.’”
Sensing a theme here? Despite the gritty undertones, the dark color pallet or the message of striking fear into the hearts of his enemies, fans of Batman take away only a few basic lessons: you can do anything if you put your mind to it, one man can make a difference, and it’s your responsibility to strive for the impossible.
The great Denny O’Neil, one of the original Batman alums, weighs in on the topic of why Batman has lasted and how much passion people invest in this character. He says, in typically eloquent if not slightly grizzled, terms, “I have been thinking of myself as a writer who is working in this odd little literary backwater, and I’m not that, I am the custodian of modern folklore. Even if it does not rise to the level of mythology, it is unquestionably a post-industrial folklore.”
The lesson of Legend of the Knight is that what separates entertainment from mythology is the way it connects people, inspiring them to greatness. Entertainment is fun, but folk heroes challenge you to strive for something more. On that definition, Batman tops the new American mythology.
The worst thing that ever happened to Bruce Wayne is the source of his power as Batman. The best thing to ever happen to almost any other character is where they got their abilities, they win a genetic or chemical lottery and get to run faster or fly higher. Batman is a broken child, an orphan, who decides to turn his pain into strength, to transmute his struggles into something elemental that can save his city and everyone in it. There is no other hero quite like that and it’s why fans and writers and artists alike become, just like Barbara Gordon or Dick Grayson, a member of the Bat Family.
As the documentary begins to unearth some of the layers to the Batman universe, expanding on its literary and psychological themes, you begin to see some common threads in its followers and in all of the stories we tell as people. The question of why we tell stories at all comes to light, and the realization that it is our way of telling each other who and what we want to be, as if in search of a general consensus, seems to be a logical conclusion. Batfans all relate to each other through the loneliness of childhood, the struggle of being different, and the desire to want to be bigger or stronger than they were. The analysis of the characters, particularly the villains, becomes a reflection on all human psychosis — narcissism, split personalities, greed, lack of moral inhibition, the whim of the mad man coming to blows with the will of authority — and it becomes suddenly very clear: Batman is an education, not just for children, but for everyone. It has evolved, as all mythology eventually will, into an analysis of humanity, civilization, heroism, courage, insanity, good versus evil, and the responsibility of the individual versus the apathy of the group. People are teaching college courses on Batman now, but we have been learning life lessons from him for seventy-five years. What we thought was escapism turns out to be education, what was viewed as mere entertainment, much like Batman himself, became a challenge to do better.
Fans of Batman will not walk away from Legends of the Knight with any new Batman knowledge, but you will learn a lot of cool stories about other followers, other members of the Bat Family, their struggles and their successes. This is not a documentary about Bat Facts, it is a movie about people who have been brought together by a beloved character, kids who lacked a father figure and found it in Batman, people with physical struggles who overcame them because of Bruce Wayne, or people who grew up to find some way to follow in Batman’s footsteps.
The “legends” in Legends of the Knight are the people who learned to become more than they were before. It is a rare experience amongst the multitude of superhero documentary films that will make you take a good long look at your own life and that is what being a hero is really all about.
LEGNEDS OF THE KNIGHT is now available to purchase at WeAreBatman.com