‘Legends of the Knight’: Batman inspires ordinary heroes in documentary

Nov. 19, 2014 | 2:03 p.m.
filmmaker brett culp with kye sapp Legends of the Knight: Batman inspires ordinary heroes in documentary

Kye Sapp is one of several Batman fans featured in "Legends of the Knight," directed by Brett Culp, at right. (Brett Culp Films)

Filmmakers and comic book creators have taken Batman to some dark and scary places in recent years, but a new documentary steps away from the grim and gritty to examine the Dark Knight’s bright side as the character inspires people to do good.

Legends of the Knight,” out this week on DVD and video on demand, weaves together the true stories of ordinary heroes, including a man who dons the cape and cowl to visit children’s hospitals; a journalist whose love of superheroes offers her courage as she lives with muscular dystrophy; a town that comes together to grant the wish of a little boy with leukemia to be a superhero for a day; and a student who, while dressed as Batman, does anonymous good deeds for his community.

Kye Sapp, left, is one of several Batman fans featured in "Legends of the Knight," directed by Brett Culp, right. (Brett Culp Films)

Kye Sapp is one of several Batman fans featured in “Legends of the Knight,” directed by Brett Culp, at right. (Brett Culp Films)

The feel-good film, from director Brett Culp, also features extensive interviews with several Batman experts, including Michael Uslan, who has served as executive producer on every Batman film since 1989; comic writer and editor Dennis O’Neil, who oversaw DC Comics’ notorious “A Death in the Family” story; and Travis Langley, who penned “Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.”

Hero Complex chatted with Culp about the origins of “Legends of the Knight,” Batman’s universal appeal and the Caped Crusader’s inspirational impact.

Hero Complex: What inspired you to make “Legends of the Knight”?

Brett Culp: Several years ago, my youngest son, we were told by an expert that he had some emotional and mental challenges that were going to affect his life in a negative way. And my wife and I had a response to that that was very much the opposite of that diagnosis. We felt that he had a hero within him that that expert wasn’t seeing. That really drove me, and I wanted to make a film about the power that all of us have to be heroes, and that our identity is a heroic one, not to be victims. Batman is my lifelong favorite fictional character, and it seemed the perfect way to communicate that truth — to take Batman, who is the victim of a horrible tragedy, maybe the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone, and for him to use that as a way to make a positive difference in the world. I  think that’s what every parent wants for their child, and that’s what every person wants for their own life.

HC: What was your first experience with Batman?

BC: It’s so hard for me to remember. Like Travis Langley says in the movie, it’s like the sky. It was just always there. But I have photos of me at my first birthday party, and it was a Batman birthday party, and I was wearing a Batman birthday hat with a Batman birthday cake, sitting on a little Batman tricycle. So this thing has just been with me my entire life. There’s a picture of me at the hospital seeing my little sister for the first time, and I’m wearing a Batman T-shirt. I just can’t remember a time when it wasn’t a part of my life, and it’s such an indelible part of my childhood. That was one of the reasons I was inspired to take the film in the direction I did, which was connecting to this childhood love of superheroes and the way we see superheroes in childhood and what they mean to us, and how those images and motifs can really penetrate and inspire the people we become as adults.

HC: Why Batman as opposed to, say, Superman?

BC: Well, the cliche about Batman is he’s a superhero with no superpowers, and that is a cliche, but there’s a truth in that. You can look at Batman and say, yeah, he’s got a lot of money, and that’s in some ways a superpower. But I think the fact that he is an ordinary human being and he didn’t need to be bestowed with superpowers from some outside force is what makes him very connectable and relatable to us. I think also the darkness that’s in the story — you know, a character who went through trauma and difficulty. I can’t relate to being born on the planet Krypton, but I can relate to experiencing pain and suffering. And on whatever level, we all can relate to that. The idea that we can in our own lives go through difficulty, and instead of those things destroying us, we can actually use them as a motivation to make not only our own lives and the world a better place, I think that’s something deep in our hearts we all want to believe. For a child, that is the core message of Batman, even if they can’t articulate it. It’s really what’s at the heart of the story and why we love it.

A scene from "Legends of the Knight." (Brett Culp Films)

A scene from “Legends of the Knight.” (Brett Culp Films)

HC: How did you go about finding the people you highlighted?

BC: I started with Google, just searching the phrase “inspired by Batman,” and that came up with a few stories and blog posts and Twitter posts and news articles and things like that. But once we started sharing what we were doing (we were at San Diego Comic-Con two years ago and New York Comic Con last year), the world of Batman and superhero and comic book fans, they sent it to us. We were overwhelmed with stories, frankly. By the time it was done, I’d probably looked at 200 or 300 stories that we considered. It was very hard. One of the most difficult processes wasn’t finding the stories; it was choosing the stories. And there were some stories we didn’t use, not because they weren’t great, but because they were too similar to a story we were already using, or something like that. But it’s amazing the avalanche of people we found who have been inspired by this character and who love Batman in a very personal way.

HC: Were there any that didn’t make the cut that you wish you could have featured?

BC: You know, I think that the main two categories of stories that I wish we could have spent some more time on were these stories of young people who have gotten these wish experiences. … What I love about it is not only the stories of these young people, but of the goodwill that has come from the communities, that they have poured out to really be an inspiration to those young people and to give them the opportunity to not only have a beautiful experience, but also to inspire the hero and affirm the hero that is within each one of these children.

Also, there are probably hundreds of people around the country who are using their love of cosplay for good to make a positive difference, whether it’s visiting hospitals or going to charity events. It’s more than just going to Comic-Con and showing off their costume. They’re then throughout the year using those to make their communities a better place.

A scene from "Legends of the Knight." (Brett Culp Films)

A scene from “Legends of the Knight.” (Brett Culp Films)

HC: What would you say to people who view Batman through a darker lens, as a sort of psychopath, a deranged vigilante?

BC: Yeah, I think one of the amazing things about Batman, and I think it’s because of his humanity, is the malleability of the character. You can go all the way from Adam West campy to Christopher Nolan dark to even beyond, to Frank Miller dark and even current Frank Miller Batman crazy. But I think what’s amazing about the character is that even in the midst of all that, and there are some really bizarre versions, that heroic spirit does remain. Even though he has some psychological issues and he deals with them in different ways depending on the writer, at his core, Batman is a very positive character. It’s up to the writers and artists and filmmakers how dark they take him and whether he’s an antihero or not, but at the core of it, we always come back to Batman being the good guy, and you know, Batman goes real dark for a while, and now everyone’s so excited about the new 1966 “Batman” collector’s set coming out. Why? Because he got so dark that now they’re welcoming the Bright Knight and not just the Dark Knight. … The beauty of Batman is that there’s a Batman for everyone, and whether yours is Adam West or “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” on Cartoon Network, or whether it’s a more sophisticated Christopher Nolan 9/11 parable, there’s something for everyone, which is rare for any fictional character.

HC: In the film, Will Brooker mentions that kids aren’t thinking of post-9/11 politics when they’re reading Batman comics.

BC: I thought that was very profound. That is the beauty. That’s the way Batman has existed forever. When you talk to people about 1966 Adam West Batman, the adults were laughing and chuckling, and the little kids were taking it very seriously. The kids saw it was true action, swashbuckling heroism, and the adults were having a laugh. That’s the amazing thing about Batman that’s frankly different than any character. No character has been used and transformed that many ways. As Denny O’Neil talks about in the film, he is our post-industrial folklore. As a culture, we connect with him. He’s in our guts, and the writers and the creators shift him to match current sensibilities. It’s also been amazing to watch Batman even from my history (I’m 37 years old), to the vision of Batman transform over my lifetime. In the world of comic books and superheroes, he is the character who’s always out in front in terms of pressing the envelope. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman,” Christopher Nolan’s trilogy — these were all stories that were really pressing the envelope of what a superhero story could be.

A scene from "Legends of the Knight." (Brett Culp Films)

A scene from “Legends of the Knight.” (Brett Culp Films)

HC: You’ve held quite a few public screenings of the film.

BC: We screened the film in 90 cities, and each screening benefited a local charity in the city of the screening. The response has been overwhelming in terms of what has impacted people. I knew the comic book fans and the Batman fans would love this movie because it’s validating. It’s a movie that I’ve had people say to me, “I’m going to be showing this movie to my mom next time she’s like, ‘Why are you reading those comic books all the time? ‘It’s for kids.'” I knew that crowd was going to respond well, but what has also been amazing is seeing grandparents bring their grandkids and have them come up to me afterwards and say, “Now I get why my grandson loves this character. I didn’t understand, but now I get it. Now I can appreciate it.”

I think a lot of people, when they first hear about this movie, they think it’s going to be a collection of obsessive Batman characters and who has the largest collection of Batman figures in Sheboygan, or whatever. And when they find that there’s a deeper, more profound and even almost spiritual sensibility to the film, it really is a great connection for them.

HC: You feature a lot of Batman art throughout the film.

BC: One of the cool things that we loved is that all the art in the film is fan art [except for a few shots featuring specific comic books]. I love the idea of showing artwork that was made by people who didn’t get paid to make it. We reached out to people through websites like DeviantArt and other places online. It gave us the opportunity to show Batman fans some artwork they’ve never seen before.

A poster for "Legends of the Knight." (Brett Culp Films)

A poster for “Legends of the Knight.” (Brett Culp Films)

HC: What do you hope people take from this film?

BC: I hope every person who watches it walks away and makes a decision in their own life of, “I want to find that superhero spirit in my life, and I want to find a way to make a positive difference in my world.” There is a way for all of us to be Batman, and it doesn’t require costumes and capes. It can just be going out and finding a way to make a positive difference in our own lives, in our families and in our communities. There’s a lot of need, and I think Batman would want us to dive in and make a difference.

HC: What’s next for you?

We are currently at the pre-production stage of another documentary film that deals with the power of superhero stories on us, but it’s a very different take than this. After being in so many cities and seeing how so many people responded to the superhero spirit in their life, I want to make something else that’s in that vein.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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