The hardest part of dressing up like Batman is figuring out how to breathe.
The cowl is a solid piece of silicone and latex. The only real opening is the mouth, because there's a neck guard wrapped around your throat and the eye holes are pressed up against your eye sockets. You want to breathe out of your mouth, but everyone's asking for photos and you don't want to look slack-jawed, so you purse your lips shut the way every Batman actor does in the movies. The cowl has a tiny hole at the nose, but sweat collects there, so if you try and breathe through your nostrils, it feels like you're constantly inhaling water. On top of this, the entire suit is heavy and skin-tight, which means it's impossible to take a deep breath even if you wanted to. You're restricted to rapid, shallow breaths for however long you're wearing the costume.
But it's worth it because, well, you're Batman. At least, you're wearing a relatively screen-accurate replica of the Batman costume from The Dark Knight and taking pictures with strangers.
It's a long story how it all got started, but it involved a former side hustle selling T-shirts, a possible deal to make shirts for the Costumer's Guild of Hawaii, and my business partners and I trying to impress the group by getting a costume of our own to demonstrate how enthusiastic we were to be collaborating with them. Enter Universal Designs Replicas, a Toronto company selling protective motorcycle suits designed to look like action movie costumes. In addition to a Dark Knight-inspired Batsuit made of molded leather and actual kevlar, they also sold Wolverine's leather outfit from X2, Captain America's First Avenger uniform, and Ben Affleck's red Daredevil jumpsuit. I put in the order for Batman and couldn't wait for it to arrive.
But in my haste, I neglected to fully read the description of what, exactly, I was ordering. When the Batsuit arrived a few weeks later, the only things in the box were a jacket and pants. Everything else—the gloves, boots, belt, cape, and, critically, the cowl—I had to get on my own. (UD Replicas actually sold most of this stuff, but they only ship four times a year, inexplicably, so I had to look elsewhere anyway.)
In a way, though, it was still exciting, because this was the same method Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) used to assemble his suit in the Dark Knight trilogy. "We order the main part of this cowl from Singapore," Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) says in Batman Begins. "And then, quite separately, we place an order to a Chinese company..."
I found a Chicago artist who produced custom Dark Knight-inspired cowls and another artist who produced belts. Some local theater pros I knew, John Wat and Monica and Squire Coldwell, designed and assembled the cape plus various fabric pieces. The gloves that looked the most screen-accurate ended up actually being fireproof tactical gloves intended for use by law enforcement or firefighters. The burliest boots I could locate were steel-toe Timberlands with heat resistance to 346 degrees Fahrenheit and protection against live electrical circuits. All assembled, the entire suit weighed close to 50 pounds. But having it on felt absolutely badass—like I really could go out and fight crime, if there weren't such a thing as heat stroke or exhaustion.
One guy wanted a photo of Batman putting an arm around his girlfriend and pretending to punch him in the face. Another guy wanted a photo of him pretending to offer Batman a marriage proposal on bent knee. Another guy wanted Batman to pick him up.
"Just be careful with your arms," Costumer's Guild of Hawaii co-founder Christian Colotario warned me when I asked him for advice. He regularly dressed up as Master Chief from Halo and was familiar with the logistics of bulky suits. The Guild's other co-founder, Daniel Ben, elaborated: "Your spatial awareness is limited and you're bigger than you think, so it's easy to accidentally elbow some kid in the face, even if you're just turning around."
I didn't realize how right they were until the first time I put everything on and went out in public—which happened to be for the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at the Ward multiplex in Honolulu. I coordinated the appearance with Consolidated Theatres in advance, and spent around an hour hanging around the packed lobby, taking pictures and trying not to accidentally knock into people, before the movie started.
Being Batman is a strange experience. People want to interact with you but they don't know how. Of course, they want a photo. But sometimes they also ask questions about the suit or talk about something that happened recently in the comics, which you can't really hear because the cowl completely covers your ears. So you nod and maybe wink if they start sharing a joke. At the premiere, one guy wanted a photo of Batman putting an arm around his girlfriend and pretending to punch him in the face. Another guy wanted a photo of him pretending to offer Batman a marriage proposal on bent knee. Another guy wanted Batman to pick him up.
The absolute worst is when people ask you to lift them up, which I quickly learned that first night at the theater and then, later, while attending comic conventions in the costume. Your average 10-year-old weighs at least 70 pounds, and people only get heavier from there. But it's not just the weight; it's also the fact that you can't navigate well in the suit. If you do pick someone up, there's a serious chance of accidentally dropping them, or breaking your own back (no Bane necessary) from the strain. You might look like Batman because of the suit, but in reality, you feel like the Penguin: awkward and waddling.
Otherwise, it was generally a great time. Dressing up that night for the premiere went off without a hitch. The costume didn't fall apart and the industrial-strength black eyeshadow and liner that a friend lent me worked perfectly.
Meanwhile, at another movie theater 3,300 miles away in Colorado, a different James attended a midnight premiere for The Dark Knight Rises. He also dressed in black, and wore a mask, neck guard, and tactical gloves. Eighteen minutes into the movie, he opened fire on the audience with a pump-action shotgun, semi-automatic rifle, and a handgun. By the time the credits were rolling for TDKR here in Hawaii, my friends and I were already seeing the news alerts on our phones.
It was kind of depressing. As Heath Ledger's Joker would say: It's not about money; it's about sending a message. Somehow I didn't think that message was, "Eat at Joe's."
I was scheduled to return to the theater the following night for the movie's actual opening night, but nobody was dressing up after that. My Batman suit went onto a discount mannequin I picked up at Goodwill and lived there for a few months. I eventually brought the costume out again for a handful of cameos at comic conventions, birthday parties, and weddings. But I started getting requests that were gimmicky and weird: "Can you deliver a singing telegram?" "Can you go to my ex-boyfriend's house and scare him when he gets home?" "Can you put on a fake beard and a red suit on top of the batsuit and play Santa Claus at Christmastime?" A few companies even offered me money to appear at events, such as restaurant openings, which seemed like a gray area, legally speaking.
It was also kind of depressing. As Heath Ledger's Joker would say: It's not about money; it's about sending a message. Somehow I didn't think that message was, "Eat at Joe's."
About a year later, I received one last request to throw on the cape and cowl. It was for the Hawaii chapter of Make-A-Wish Foundation; a little kid named Olgiven wanted to meet Batman. Inspired by the adventures of "Batkid" in San Francisco the previous year, the idea was that Olgiven could hang out with Batman, get a ride in the Batmobile, and rescue other kidnapped superheroes in a trampoline park while being cheered on by his friends and family. I was absolutely for it.
The day itself ended up being one of the hottest days that year. But when Olgiven climbed out of the limo and he saw me for the first time, his face lit up, and it was awesome. He had his suit on; I had my suit on. We drove around in a sports car for a while, then we went inside, where I helped him untie assorted comic characters and play-fight a few bad guys. He bounced around on the trampolines and jumped into a big foam pit and ate cake. (Meanwhile, I drank lots of water and was careful to make sure I was breathing properly.) Just two Bat dudes, doing our thing. It was the most rewarding experience I ever had while wearing the suit.
This weekend, another movie came out that stars a different citizen of Gotham City: Joker. It's receiving mixed reviews from critics, as well as warnings to moviegoers from the LAPD, the FBI, and even the US military, that the film might resonate with loners and incels and inspire violence. The NYPD is deploying additional officers to guard movie theaters, which sounds like something literally out of a Batman movie.
It was director Todd Phillips' intent to create an homage to '70s crime flicks, like Taxi Driver (Robert De Niro also stars in Joker), where wealth inequality, angry outcasts, and a growing, desperate underclass pervaded America back then seemingly as much as it does today. After seeing Joker at the Venice Film Festival (where the movie got a standing ovation and won the festival's highest prize), Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson wondered if Joker is "irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes." After all, John Hinckley Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan in 1981, was partially inspired by Taxi Driver. James Holmes, responsible for the shooting at the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, was reportedly a fan of superheroes, including Batman, and a Batman mask was found in his apartment after the shooting. Maybe it's not so crazy to imagine that a movie about a comic book clown could inspire grown adults to commit acts of violence.
But at its core, the Batman universe doesn't revolve around the (many) bad guys trying to wreak havoc in one of America's most depressing fictional cities. Instead, it's about the one person who chooses to stand up against fear. In 2013, close to 20,000 people showed up to watch a 5-year-old kid dress up in a costume and run around San Francisco for a day. Compare that to 2016, when only two sightings of people dressed like creepy clowns in North Carolina were enough to galvanize an area resident into chasing a third clown into the woods. Subsequent clown sightings around America, Canada, and other countries were met with warnings from vigilante groups comprised of hundreds of local people willing to protect their neighborhoods from the perceived threat; in England, this even included a guy who dressed up like Batman and vowed to chase out clowns in an effort to assuage children's fears.
Maybe there will always be clowns among us. But know there are also tens of thousands of Batkids and Batmen and Batwomen willing to get in their way. And that puts a smile on my face—even if it’s not obvious under my sweaty, oppressive mask.