Batman stands majestic in the drizzle. A tattered Spider-Man glides past a rumpled Captain America. Superman tucks away a dollar and combs his sheen. A camera flashes. A tour guide hollers to the squeak of a kid strangling an animal balloon as a stroller hurries over spilled change and slippery stars on Hollywood Boulevard.
"Goofballs, foreigners and deadbeats," says Batman with the disdain of a superhero who knows well the ways of Gotham. He takes a breath. Two girls slip under Superman's padded arms. A couple of cops eye a gold-plated Transformer. Sensing danger — or at least inquiries — Spider-Man points his sneakers left and disappears through the crowd in a suspicious, red flash.
"It's tough out here," says Batman, who for years has watched pretty faces try to crack into the movies one way or another only to slink back home to places like Duluth, Poughkeepsie and Big Sky. "People have their hearts set on one dream," he adds, swirling his cape in the morning rain and posing for a picture with a woman smitten with his pointy ears and mysterious gaze. "They set themselves up for failure. But I'm constantly getting re-inspired, in different ways."
He scans the boulevard. Tourists rush past the TCL Chinese Theater, a tattoo kiosk and the dinosaur peeking over the roof at Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium. The scent of Ghirardelli chocolate mixes with car fumes, popcorn and perfume. A street prophet rants into a breeze blowing over the starred names of Groucho Marx, Frances Drake and other celebrities, some long dead, others still with us.
Before Batman was Batman he was Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter.
"I'm not going to get anywhere doing just Johnny Depp characters," explains Austin Franklin, 27, a former Ralph's checker who struck out almost a decade ago from Thousand Oaks and, with a knack for costumes and a showman's flair, headed 33 miles east. He is an aspiring actor, the chipped-tooth middle child of an electrician and a stay-at-home mom.
Schooled in video games and comic book universes, Franklin is an earnest superhero on a street of panhandlers, shakedown artists and the tempting glow of neon. It is a world of pretend-pretend, a realm where costume characters dress up as on-screen costume characters in a blurry loop between the real and the imagined.
Would-be actors and hustlers are as ingrained in this city as those they imitate. Not much has changed over the years — desires are much older than movies — except the quality of outfits and tough-to-please kids attuned to hi-def, pixelated entertainment. Some, like Batman, are sleek, but many are shabby. They work in whispers and winks. A buck here. Five dollars there. Dodging drunks and steering clear of the homeless.
Franklin brushes rain from his cape. His sentences are bruised with the career casualties of friends: Matt, a cinematographer and editor who quit the film scene and switched to the safer bet of computer science, and Max, whose passion for becoming a serious actor was ground down until "he got really discouraged and tired of chasing" things that wouldn't come. He moved back to North Carolina.
"We dreamed of playing big parts like Ben Affleck as Batman or Jared Leto as the Joker, which comes out this year in 'Suicide Squad,'" Franklin says. "Johnny Depp was an inspiration. I loved his Jack Sparrow. I pieced together my own Jack Sparrow costume. It cost about $600. My friends said, 'Why are you spending $600 on a costume you'll wear just once for Halloween?' But one suggested I come to the boulevard and be Jack Sparrow. I drove in and made 60 bucks in one day."
Batman works a stretch of sidewalk near a Transformer, the towering, gold-gleaming creation of Daniel Kaslov, who has written six unsold screenplays about ordinary souls forced by circumstance into heroes, not the superhero variety, more the guy-next-door breed. Kaslov's costume — much of it looks raided from a suburban garage — is a seamless montage of football shoulder pads, upside-down flower pots, Nerf gun, air ventilation hose, vegetable strainer and two blue eyes "made from jewels I found downtown."
"This is what I do, man. When someone buys one of my screenplays for a million bucks, I'll quit. Or maybe I'll be buried in this," he says through a black scrim hiding his face. A kid runs up and grabs at his gun. A Chinese family strolls by; two lovers with Polish accents stop and stare. They move on, passing a guy with a skillet and an apron who's talking about cooking into a camera.
"I've always dreamed of traveling the world, but I've never dreamed of people coming to me from Europe, Africa, Mongolia. Who meets people from Mongolia? I don't have a boss. I can come out and make $20 or $200. It's up to me." His jeweled eyes glimpse a poster for the new Captain America movie. "What's that writer feel like when he sees that, sees his words come to life?"
Misdemeanors and infractions flow over the boulevard. A man dressed as Mr. Incredible was convicted last year of punching and body slamming Batgirl. Two Captain Americas and a Spider-Man brawled in 2013, and two years before that police questioned SpongeBob SquarePants after a fracas involving two women. Police say they have since increased their presence to deter aggressive panhandling — characters are allowed to receive only tips — and stem turf disputes.
"It's gotten a lot better," says one officer, watching as a man in a Zorro get-up dashes toward the Metro. "We're assigned here every day."
'My Batman face'
Face drawn, hair tousled, Franklin played linebacker in high school even though he has the lean lines of a receiver. His words meander with the rhythm of an erratic train. He seems expectant, as if waiting for a villain. He talks about staying in character and often sees "my Batman face" when glimpsing in a mirror or at photograph. His biggest tips came from a Japanese and a German, who each gave him $100.
"The comic book world is booming," says Franklin, who has taken his guises to Las Vegas and Comic-Con conventions. "You can be a professional costume player. People will hire you for events. Once I get more professional with my costumes, I can move forward and make $500 in a couple of hours. I'm tired of seeing all these cheesy Batmans."
He pauses and looks around at nothing particular. "I need to build a fan base on social media. I've got to get on Vine and Instagram and YouTube. I want to be an actor. But now I'm perfecting my costumes."
He doesn't like urethane. His breast plate was made from it, and it became scuffed and faded. He prefers latex, pointing to his mask, which fits tight and was made by a friend who is teaching him to make his own. His new suit is spandex and his $150 cape is polyester. His snug, black motorcycle gloves cost $20 online and match his leather boots, a $2,000 value bought for $350 online. Black eyeliner shades his cheekbones, and when the wind is right and his cape flutters, it seems he might fly away.
A Russian from Siberia, a caricaturist new to the boulevard, "was curious about what I looked like under the mask," he says. "But I thought, when the mask is off she'll see me for the first time. All that pressure. It's an odd thing with masks. They create imagination. When it was off, she told me, 'You need help with your style and your haircut.' She was painfully honest. But she totally got me. We got hitched in Vegas in May 2015.
"She really wants to pursue fine arts," he says of his wife, "but sometimes she thinks she's not talented enough. And I tell her, 'Honey, you are.'"
The real Batman may not have been so quickly smitten. The boulevard, though, has its own rules, a tangle of shtick, gaudiness, yearning and the rare moment of escape, in the night more so than in the day, when a man in a costume can see himself beyond the bounds of expectation. Some characters know this, others don't care and some, like the ragged Captain America, hurry with their crumpled tips to buy lottery tickets.
The tourists have expectations too. They roam in packs, selfie sticks at the fore.
"Guys want to play like they're beating up Batman and have their picture taken," Franklin says. "Drinking crowds can get a little too touchy. Women in short skirts sometimes lean up against Batman and pull their legs up. That's where I draw the line. Batman wouldn't do that."
He is quite sure of this.