Movie Review: Batman & Bill (2017)
It’s a helluva story.
The doc opens with Marc Tyler Nobleman, a writer of young adult nonfiction, talking to a class of elementary school kids. He shows them a slide of the bat signal, asks them if they’ve heard of Batman, and says of course they have. He’s been giving talks all over the world, from Chile to the UAE, and he hasn’t been in a classroom where someone doesn’t know Batman. Then he says this:
On every Batman story since the first, in 1939, there was only one name in the credit line: “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Here he is. And here’s the thing about that credit line: It. Is. Not. True.
We soon learn how Nobleman discovered that Bob Kane had a partner, Bill Finger, who created the bat suit, Batman’s origin, the bat cave, Robin, Gotham City, and who wrote several decades of Batman stories, but never got a line of credit. So Nobleman becomes determined to not only tell Finger’s story but to get his name properly credited in Batman comics, movies and TV shows. And after 10 years, and thousands of hours of research and detective work, he does just that. And justice is finally served.
Throughout, Nobleman is considered Bill Finger’s Batman. Several talking heads, including director Kevin Smith, say so, while the doc shows an animated Nobleman casting a long Batman shadow.
“I think there has to be one person who steps up and leads the charge,” Nobleman says. He’s that one person.
Here’s the thing about that line of credit: Is. It. True?
Mark of Kane
The doc lauds Nobleman in two ways:
- He makes people aware of Bill Finger
- He tracks down Finger’s granddaughter, who has the legal standing to challenge the Kane credit line
There’s no doubt about the second achievement. We see all that happening. But the first? Just how well-known was Bill Finger when Nobleman began his project?
I was pretty deep into comic books in the 1970s but I admit I never heard of him. There’s also that montage of Nobleman asking comic-con visitors, some dressed as Batman, a series of Batman-related trivia, and all of them nailing the questions until the final one: Who’s Bill Finger? “Him, I don’t know.”
So Finger wasn’t generally known. But within the comic book industry? Oh yeah.
The doc tells us that when Batman producer Michael Uslan was a kid, he was introduced to Finger as “the creator of Batman” at the 1965 New York Comic-Con. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Bails wrote a fanzine article, “If the Truth Be Known or A Finger in Every Plot!,” lauding Finger’s contributions, but Kane denied it in an article for Batmania magazine, and that ended that. Finger remained mostly unknown and died in poverty in January 1974. He began as a ghost writer and became a ghost.
Here’s what’s left out. Finger was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1994 (the same year as Bob Kane), and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999 (three years after Kane). In 2005, about the time Nobleman began researching his book, Comic-Con International established the “Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.”
Nobleman makes much of the fact that Finger died without an obit while upon Bob Kane’s death in 1998, The New York Times did a huge write-up on him. What he fails to mention? Kane’s Times obit credits Bill Finger in the second graph:
Batman and Robin, the characters that Mr. Kane created with his partner, Bill Finger, nearly 60 years ago, are some of the longest-lived comic-book heroes in the world.
What’s left out tends to elevate Nobleman; it makes it seem like only he knew.
But alarm bells really went off for me when the doc focused on the difficulty of getting a credit change for a longstanding comic-book character.
As example, we hear about the decades-long battle between DC Comics and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—including the 1947 case, in which Superman’s creators were awarded $94K but lost credit, and the 1960s case, in which the court sided with DC. Then Nobleman says this:
Long story short, Superman has been the subject of litigation almost from the beginning, and it’s been going on for decades at this point. ... And you know the Superman situation would not instill a lot of confidence that you can win.
Long story short? The doc fails to mention the 1970s case, in which Warner Bros., worried over negative publicity preceding “Superman: The Movie,” awarded Siegel and Shuster and their heirs $20,000 a year (later upgraded) as well as credit in all forthcoming Superman movies and comic books. Why was this left out? That’s huge. That’s precedent.
Is that the idea? They wanted Nobleman’s work with Finger to seem ... unprecedented?
Even Nobleman tracking down Finger’s granddaughter leaves me with more questions than it should.
It’s thrilling detective work. When Nobleman started, all that was known about Bill Finger’s family was he had a son named Fred. It’s Nobleman who discovers Fred died of AIDS in 1991. He’s also the one who discovers that Fred had a child through a previous marriage, and he tracks down the girl, Athena, via an online Florida wedding announcement and MySpace page. He visits her. We see footage of that visit—apparently for a doc Nobleman planned at that time. We hear her complain about how hard it’s been for her—knowing what her grandfather did but not getting family cred. “I still don’t have closure,” she says, near tears. “I was excluded from everything.”
But ... what year was this visit? 2006? 2007? Later we see Athena going to the premiere of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 and having a great time. Then before the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, DC/Warners wanted her to sign a document terminating rights to any kind of claim to the character.
“They wanted to keep me quiet,” she says.
It took her four years to realize this? What was she doing in the interim? The whole thing feels fuzzy. It feels like Nobleman wanted her to sue but she went to premieres instead. And it gets even fuzzier. Suddenly she’s with a guy named Dr. Travis Langley? Who’s that? Suddenly she’s getting pressure from comic book fans? I thought comic-conners didn’t know Bill Finger. Or is that before Marc’s book was published in 2012 and created a surge of interest?
But, yes, eventually she sues, and in Sept. 2015 they reach a settlement, and it’s announced that Finger will receive credit on the TV show “Gotham” and the movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Wait, just those? No, it appears those are just examples. It appears he’s getting credit the way Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman. Even though the doc never tells us Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman.
(I’ll only briefly mention the irony that when Bill Finger finally, finally got credit for co-creating one of the world’s most famous characters, it was on “Batman v. Superman,” one of the worst superhero movies ever made.)
Listen, it’s a helluva story, and I’m grateful that Nobleman did all he did to get Bill Finger the credit he deserved. I even recommend you watch it. But “Batman & Bill,” directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (“The Art of the Steal”), focuses too much on him, and makes murky too much of the history. A better Bill Finger doc awaits.