Superheroes have secret identities, and sometimes those who create them do too. Credit for the creative achievement of some has been usurped by someone else and those who deserve recognition sink into obscurity — unheralded and forgotten.
Such is the case of Bill Finger, who co-created the character of Batman with illustrator Bob Kane in 1939 only to be expunged from the record when the Caped Crusader became probably the best known fictional character in the world. At least, that’s how the story is told by one of the people interviewed in “Batman & Bill,” the documentary by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce.
Argott and Joyce’s film is not so much about this miscarriage of justice as it is about Brandeis alumnus Marc Tyler Nobleman’s mission to rectify it. For nearly 10 years he was obsessed by the story, doggedly investigating every lead — research that resulted in his children’s picture book “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.” In the film, Nobleman guides viewers through the detective work’s twists and turns that are said to expose the depth of Kane’s misrepresentations of authorship and uncovered details of the life of a talent lost to obscurity. It is “Citizen Kane” with a twist.
To achieve his goal of vindicating Finger, Nobleman extends his search to include Finger’s family, tracking down descendants and encouraging them to take on Warner Bros., the studio that now has the rights to Batman, and convince that corporation to give Finger the creative credit he deserves. Remarkably, their perseverance is rewarded: For the first time, Finger’s name appears as co-creator of Batman in the opening credits of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016).
Speaking on the phone from his home in Maryland, Nobleman acknowledges that the film in which Finger finally got his overdue credit may not have been the most distinguished in the franchise. “That credit was the best part of the movie,” he says.
“Batman & Bill,” on the other hand, he believes does justice to its subject.
“The story is moving for people who don’t even care about superheroes,” Nobleman says. “The response to the film across the board — from the family, the press, Twitter, and absolute strangers — has been overwhelming.”
He’s not entirely surprised that the film has had such an effect. For years Nobleman has been telling the story of Bill Finger in different countries at various venues ranging from grade school classrooms to TED talks (excerpts from some of these presentations are included in the film) and has invariably gotten an enthusiastic, sometimes emotional reaction.
”The appeal transcends age, gender, even nationality” he says. “I’ve spoken to all kinds of audiences with varying degrees of interest in the subject and there is always a point where I feel they come on board. They find themselves caught up in a story that is both tragic and inspiring. They come up to me afterwards and say: I didn’t think this was going to be remotely interesting but in the end I was crying. That’s the mark of any good story.”
“Batman & Bill” is available from Hulu. For more information go to www.hulu.com/watch/1074856.
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.