When I was six, I dashed through the house with a beach towel draped across my shoulders, a scarf wrapped around my kinky braids like a bandit. I wanted to be Batman, a part of some imagined dimension, as my brothers and I skidded across the linoleum floor, humming theme songs and fake punching the air, yelling, “POW! WHACK! ZOWIE!” Then, last August, I was an extra for The Dark Knight Rises.
Explosions rattled the football stadium and turf flew into the stands. In the midst of heavy flurries, thousands of people dove behind their seats as their beloved football team vanished in a cloud of smoke. The explosions continued and screams reverberated around the field. Fans rushed to the exits, past fleece-clad, bearded men with rifles and ammo strapped across their chests. The explosions stopped, the screaming subsided and everyone froze. They turned towards the field, aghast, as a masked man strutted past the fallen, uniformed bodies.
“Alright, cut!” The silence warped into cheers and we ripped off winter coats, hats, scarves, and wiped the sweat of the August afternoon from our faces. The fallen players jumped out of artificial turf-lined pits and got ready to repeat the shot. My friend Abby and I had shown up at six that morning to get in line for the bat shuttles — repurposed school buses — to take us to Heinz Field. We were decked out in black and yellow, not for a Steelers game, but for the Gotham City Rogues. They played the Rapid City Monuments for two minutes of gametime.
The Heinz bottle of ketchup got to stay on the scoreboard, augmenting my view of Pittsburgh from the stadium. I’d only been in the city a year, but everything about the place, a jumble of small-town personas making up the family that is Pittsburgh, coupled with the view of all those bridges, made me realize I could stay here forever.
I dusted dirt and pretzel salt from my jeans and my friend Abby rubbed at her knee. A splotch of blood, nearly as bright as her hair, leaked through her denim from when she’d hit the cement.
“Ooh,” I said. “A Batman injury.”
She laughed. “Yeah. I kinda like the idea of a battle wound.”
The assistant director was distracted by a scratch of his own, just below the tattered cuff of his Bermuda shorts. He rushed to a megaphone and pulled off his Aviators for dramatic effect.
“Great job, guys. Like, really, really awesome.” He scratched some more. “Five minutes and we’ll do it again.”
We all groaned at the thought of shrugging on our black winter coats. After a mild, drizzly morning, the sun had reappeared to make it a true August afternoon.
“Here’s the thing: you have to remember, when you run into a mercenary with a gun, you don’t run them down. You’re scared.”
We high-fived our friendly mercenaries as they called, “Excuse us, sorry!” to get back into position. They were bravely clad in fleece jackets with ammo strapped across their chests for the winter scene. They pretended not to sweat, as if method acting could make August turn into January, so in a mix of pity and jealousy, we tossed them half-frozen water bottles out of coolers. I tightened my yellow bandana. I might be in a movie, I thought (along with 10,000 other geeked-out fans). As we rested in the stands with our coats off, we shaded ourselves with umbrellas. No one cared if those guys won or lost. I was really aiming for a t-shirt. I opened the 5-Hour Energy a bubbly leader had handed out as we filed into the stadium. I eyed the tiny bottle carefully. The next morning, as I watched dawn slide through the blinds on my windows, I would remember the moment before I cracked open the seal and curse myself.
My brothers and I used to race home from school and curl up on the couch to watch Batman: The Animated Series, as Batman beat the Joker one more time. When B:TAS wasn’t on, we could always count on “old-school Batman,” the 60s version with Adam West as Batman and Eartha Kitt’s luxurious voice birthing nine lives into Catwoman. I never finagled a way to convince my mom to approve a Catwoman costume for Halloween, but I made an appearance as “The Kat” for all of elementary school. She bought a pair of cat ears and stuffed a black stocking with rough brown kindergarten paper. She pinned my tail to black stirrup pants, and I shimmied around the house, letting my new appendage swish behind me. Mom stopped me to draw whiskers on my face with eyeliner.
“Alright, let’s see it,” she said. She had final approval of my snarl and press-on nails.
“Purrrfect,” I said.
Now, I try to keep the whole Batman thing to myself. I have a master’s degree; I want people to take me seriously. When speculation started about the new Batman villains, I interrupted strangers’ conversations in the library, at coffee shops, as they thumped lumpy melons at the grocery store.
“Who’s that bad guy? Brine?” they asked their bored counterpart.
“No, it’s Bane,” I jumped in. “He was in a small, silly part of Batman and Robin, but he was kinda badass in Animated Series.” They eyed me carefully, as if I were strange. I explained I grew up in a small town where strangers freely interrupt personal conversations.
Warner Bros. masked the movie with the fake title, Magnus Rex, to distract from too much unwanted attention. They circulated press releases throughout the city to alert businesses and patrons when they would shut down streets to make way for one of their six Tumblers (for the uninitiated, the revamped Batmobiles), snow machines, cranes, and batpods.
A tiny T-Rex attacked from the top of the press releases, tail extended, with a disarming smirk to match his pair of glasses. He had a devil-may-care attitude, as if to say, “What? I’m a dinosaur. A dinosaur can’t be an intellectual?”
Abby signed up as an extra and asked if I wanted to join. I told myself I was too cool for Batman, but I said “Hell, yeah,” all the same. I drove through the city during filming, pretending I was just out running errands. I acted as flustered as my fellow drivers when we were unexpectedly detained in traffic. I ogled the potatoes piled behind a food service truck near St. Paul’s Cathedral, near-impossible to get to with a batpod settled right across the street. As I started to wonder if my afternoon excursion might be a bad idea, I noticed a destitute-looking extra in a “GOTHAM D.O.C.” orange jumpsuit. He crouched on the grass, sucking on a cigarette as if he’d been denied one every day for his entire life. I had to stop. I rolled down my window and waved in his direction. He looked up.
“Are you a bad guy?” I yelled.
He tilted his head and made a face as if to say, “You can’t be serious.”
Back at the stadium, after moving from one section to another to make Heinz Field seem packed, we cheered as Hines Ward rolled in atop a Tumbler. We grew restless once our complimentary energy drinks wore off, and the sun beat down on our winter clothing. Regardless, we all had the same question: Where was our director, Christopher Nolan?
The acclaimed director of Inception, Memento and the other revamped Batman films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, specializes in enthralling and confusing his audiences. He’d made a few appearances in a blazer in the morning. In the afternoon, he’d walked off the field during the shoot, only to reappear with a tan fishing hat to shield his fair skin. He may not have anticipated this group of fans, though. There’s no more organized group of people than at a football game. As the assistant director set up another shot, directing us with the microphone they’d used for the adorable boy who sang the national anthem, we whispered amongst ourselves. When Nolan walked by, we coordinated our movements and bowed to him in unison. People called, “Hey Chris, explain the end of Inception!” And he, all English politeness, beamed at us and gave a tiny shake of his head.
Abby and I sweat it out for the rest of the day, pretending we were just kids again, playing dress up, jumping through the house with superhero dreams. I went home without a t-shirt, but one of my friends had several, so I guilted him into handing it over. The shirt is a bit baggy, but Batman’s in style again. I wear it with pride, pose for pictures and send them off to my brothers. When I double-checked with them to make sure that Batman really was their favorite superhero too, I got series of texts in a row: “BOOM! WHACK! KA-POW!” and I know that we’re all still connected.