Documentary filmmaking has traditionally fostered a lot of big philosophical clashes over method and intent, but one of the most common points of former contention now feels like it may have gone the way of the buggy whip and the suitcase-sized mobile phone. Back in 1975, when the Maysles brothers released their sad, stunning mother-and-daughter portrait Grey Gardens, they were widely accused of exploiting their oblivious subjects by befriending them, then holding them up to public ridicule. Similar criticisms were levied at Chris Smith for his inadvertently hilarious 1999 doc American Movie, which outs indie filmmaker Mark Borchardt as a clumsy amateur, simply by watching him work. But these days, that particular complaint seems to come up far less often, whether it’s because filmmakers are more sensitive about how their subjects might be perceived, or because it’s so common for people to expose their own lives online that we’re collectively beyond the idea that public visibility is invasive or embarrassing.
Michael Wayne’s doc Batman and Me might restart the debate. His low-key look at an obsessive collector of Batman paraphernalia is only gently squirmy compared to Grey Gardens. It unfolds with a fascinating specificity that goes well beyond the Batman details, and unlocks a lot of conversation-starting thoughts about the various ways and reasons people associate with different fandoms.
But Wayne’s mildly adversarial, even dismissive attitude toward his subject is notably off-putting, and seems designed to lead viewers into a similar mindset. It occasionally feels as though he’s elbowing the audience in the ribs, with a “Get a load of this guy!” message — and in the process, possibly misunderstanding that audience, and why they might be watching.
Wayne first made contact with Australian collector Darren “Dags” Maxwell online, after perusing Maxwell’s self-deprecating webpage devoted to individual items in his startlingly overstuffed collection of Batman toys, promo items, and other merch. Maxwell invited Wayne into his home and his life, and sits down with him for frank, in-depth conversations about how and why he ended up with an entire room in his house dedicated solely to Batman gear, much of which he claims he didn’t even want or like. It’s an extremely small-scale movie: Wayne interviews two of the most significant people in Maxwell’s life, and he uses action figures to play out some adorably cheeky flashback scenes of Maxwell interacting with friends, family, and the public. But mostly, it’s an intimate portrait that feels a lot like spending a few hours in Maxwell’s company.
Along the way, Maxwell tells some funny stories: He describes how he literally bought a shirt off a man’s back at a convention, and how he avenged himself on an ex-girlfriend, first by eating the Batman cookies she gave him for his collection, then by buying his own box to replace it. He also drops some startling revelations about the depth of his mania for Batman merch: Among other things, he’s still storing Batman ice-cream bars from the 1980s in his freezer, and he has a taped-shut dairy bin in his refrigerator, devoted to an old chocolate Batmobile that he’s protecting from bloom.
Other reveals cover what goes into the collector’s mindset. Maxwell describes the insurmountable need to accumulate things, regardless of their quality or usefulness. He walks through what started him collecting in the first place, what took collection from a minor hobby to a life-consuming focus, and what ended that phase of his life. He stopped buying new merch in 1997 because he found Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin so off-putting: His entire collection focuses on the four Batman movies from Tim Burton’s 1989 feature up to Batman & Robin. Now, it’s just a static museum. But when he was building that collection, it was his primary financial focus, ahead of everything but the basics of shelter and survival.
Maxwell describes his collecting phase as an attempt to buy his way into a community to compensate for the holes in his life. He speaks with perfect frankness about his troubled childhood, a lack of meaningful family connections, and a powerful urge to impress other collectors and be seen as an authority, not on Batman, but on Batman memorabilia. He openly discusses how fandom and his circle of collection-obsessed friends function as a kind of surrogate family where he could count on being seen as important and significant.
“Fandom and the science-fiction genre as a whole, it’s the only thing I’m good at,” he tells Wayne. “Outside of that community, I’m a nobody. I’ve got nothing to contribute. I can listen to conversations that people have, and I say, ‘You know what? I’ve got nothing to offer to be a part of the conversation.’ I’m living a very limited life, I guess.”
That extreme level of self-dismissal could make Batman and Me a fairly depressing film, if Maxwell didn’t deliver it with such cheery aplomb, and if he wasn’t in a stable, supportive, happy relationship, with friends who share his interests and can speak with equal calm self-awareness about embracing and exploring their geeky sides. Even Maxwell’s candor about his hobby and its downsides feels like a boon for the film: He understands why people might see him as “a loser,” but he also recognizes where his comfort zone lies, and what it brings him. For a man who at one point wishes out loud that he could punch the little kid who previously owned and wrote his name on one of the used collectables in Maxwell’s collection, he seems remarkably well-adjusted.
All of which makes Wayne’s palpable distancing from his subject feel odder. It isn’t aggressive, but his offscreen narration betrays open judgment and dismay about Maxwell’s life. And he specifically suggests that Maxwell’s self-analysis is too pat and prepared, and that he’s deluding himself about the depths of his mania, given that he’s kept his collection rather than selling it off. When Maxwell laments that he’s never seen what one of his toys looks like, because if he peeked at the contents, it’d no longer be considered “mint in box,” Wayne buys one himself and haphazardly unboxes it and slaps it together for the camera, in a move that feels like the equivalent of a gloating sneer. A striking shot over the closing titles, with action figures slowly dropping into a garbage can one by one, feels like a pointed editorial commentary on Maxwell’s life and the whole movie.
All of which makes Batman and Me feel more condescending and censorious than it needs to be. Wayne captures some particularly telling schisms in fandom, with Maxwell speaking judgmentally about cosplayers, and some cosplayers speaking just as judgmentally about collectors. (Lore Sjöberg’s classic Geek Hierarchy comes to mind, with its rundown of which subsets of fandom consider themselves superior to others.) The film also touches on a wealth of worthwhile topics, including the way merchandising has vastly changed to exploit nostalgic nerds with money, instead of targeting children, and the ways some people use purchased objects as physical bulwarks against the accusation that they aren’t “real” fans. And it does truly capture the tension in Maxwell, between the version of himself that intellectualizes, rationalizes, and downplays his need for his room full of untouched toys, and the version that’s still hungrily clinging to it, 25 years after he stopped adding to it.
But the audience that’s most likely to be drawn to those topics is an audience that’s already invested in some form of fandom, whether it’s related to Batman, collectibles, or something else entirely. This cozy little doc is likely to be too small and too specific in focus for gawkers and rubberneckers, but it’s exactly the kind of blend of familiar interests and unfamiliar execution of those interests that might draw other fans. The Comic-Con crowd will find a recognizable mirror in Batman and Me, complete with a guided tour from one of their own, who’s come to terms with his own extraordinary geekery and what it’s meant in his life. It just feels strange that Wayne is talking down to that audience more than he’s talking to it.