Documentary film shows the draw of Batman, from Petaluma and beyond

From Gotham City in 1939 to Petaluma today, the figure of Batman has captured the imagination of generations who believe in a "super hero without super-powers," as filmmaker Brett Culp puts it.

Culp will come to town next week to show his new film, "Legends of the Knight," exploring the lives of a handful of people who have done more than just admire Batman. In some way, whether by costume or action or both, they emulate the comic book character, adopting his virtues as well as his signature cape and mask.

Culp's first feature-length documentary is currently beings screened around the country in many of those places where a modern-day Batman has spontaneously risen from the population. Here in our town, Petaluma Batman appeared in late 2012 to demonstrate, in his own words, "That a hero could be anyone, and that anyone can do good in the community, no matter who you are."

"This could be a great community event," said Petaluma Batman in a call to the Argus-Courier from his secret lair. The young citizen hero is helping organize the screening, currently scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. at Herzog Hall on the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds. Tickets are $10. All proceeds will benefit the Polly Klaas Foundation.

"Most importantly, I'm glad the good message is getting out there," Petaluma Batman added.

There are many "Batmen" around the country, and life-long Batman fan Culp profiles about a dozen in his 76-minute film, including, of course, Petaluma Batman. Culp followed the local legend around town last March, documenting the faux fights between Petaluma Batman and his nemeses, Petaluma Joker and Petaluma Penguin; and an autograph signing appearance at Brian's Comics on Fourth Street.

The other "Batmen" in the film range from 5-year old Kye Sapp of Arlington, Texas, who gained strength through his treatment for leukemia by identifying with Batman; to Hollywood's Michael Uslan, who spent 10 years trying to overcome the skepticism of the film industry to act as executive producer on every live-action Batman film since 1989s "Batman" with Michael Keaton.

"This is a perfect way of show how a heroic story has worked over time through our culture, and really inspired people along the way," said Culp, "It works as a modern myth to affect people and effect change."

He goes on, "There are three primary things that we love about Batman. The first thing is the obvious one, that he's human — he's the super-hero without super-powers."

Another factor is that he was, in Culp's words, "born out of darkness" — witnessing his parent's murder at an impressionable age, yet turning it into the motivation to do something good in the world.

These two factors alone contribute to many of the stories told in "Legends of the Knight," people inspired by Batman to overcome their physical challenges like Sapp and Jill Pantozzi, who has muscular dystrophy.

Culp added, "he's cool. He's got a cool car, he's got a cool costume, all this cool equipment and gadgets, and he's got this &‘Phantom of the Opera' and &‘Dracula' romanticism about him."

Although the cool factor is undoubtedly a reason why some emulate the Batman — Petaluma Batman himself boasts a new costume, made entirely from recycled materials by local designer Jesse Valdez — it's more than just a fashion statement to be a Batman.

"One of the reasons we're drawn to these stories now is because the real life heroes in our world are evaporating," said Culp. "The sports athletes are turning out to be frauds and cheats, our politicians are turning out to be liars and sex addicts, the celebrities are just egomaniacs who are just looking for the next twerk so they can be tweeted about… I think we're looking for heroes, and if our real life heroes are going to let us down, we're going to be drawn to these fictional heroes."

If you need Batman to help save you or just show up for a benefit or as inspiration, you don't have to project his logo on a cloud with a high-powered spotlight: Petaluma Batman suggests you just leave a message on his Facebook page.

(Contact Christian Kallen at argus@arguscourier.com)