From cosplay to ‘cause-play’

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The weekend bustle was down to a late Sunday afternoon snooze in Lansing’s Old Town. Suddenly, three colorful figures came out of nowhere.

A teen on a scooter skidded off the River Trail and watched from a respectful distance.

Iron Man, Thor and Captain America were having a conference at the Brenke Fish Ladder, in full super-regalia. Bystanders spotted a host of heroes assembling in the nearby pines: Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Captain Marvel, even that lovable creep with the horns, Loki. 

The costumes were opulent and finely detailed. A couple walking from Arctic Circle gaped at the triumvirate as their ice cream melted.

“Colin, you’ve got to get over here,” the man whispered into his phone. “Just come.”

Something big must have been up for the Avengers to assemble in north Lansing. And there was.

The League of Enchantment, an all-volunteer, Michigan-based non-profit, arranges for superheroes, princesses and other “enhanced individuals” (in Captain America’s lingo) to visit hospitals and trauma centers, bringing outsized delight to kids, their parents, and even doctors and nurses. 

With pandemic restrictions winding down (for now), the League will return to Sparrow Hospital in early August. Before the fall rush, they invaded Old Town on a July Sunday for a round of promotional photos.

“Ancient One, I need you over by that wind chime,” photographer Marquan Jones barked out. The Sorcerer Supreme dutifully obeyed.

In a parking lot behind the fish ladder, League vice president Kate Whittaker peeled plates of gold and red armor from the group’s president, Tony Stark, er, Shamus Smith. She carefully stored the battle-torn costume in a minivan until Smith was down to a bright red body stocking.

Whittaker, who lives in DeWitt, plays a show-stopping Wonder Woman at many League events, but she was in civilian garb that day, soaking in the celebration. 

“I got the email that we’re going back to Sparrow and I just started crying,” she said.

Some Leaguers have origin stories nearly as dramatic as their comic-book counterparts.  A little over five years ago, Smith was involved in a tragic accident.

“I hit a little boy, 3 and a half years old — massive amount of trauma,” he said.

A week later, he got to meet the boy. They watched “Batman v. Superman” together. The boy told Smith he loved Batman. 

“I wanted him to be able to meet Batman,” Smith said.

Donning the cape and cowl at a fundraiser for the boy changed his life.

“It helped me sleep, it helped my mental clarity,” he said. “It just — became something I needed to do.”

There’s an iron-clad connection between Smith’s lifelong love of superheroes and his own destiny.

“They all come from trauma, loss, pain or grief,” he explained. “Batman came from the loss of his parents. Superman is an orphan. Wonder Woman was molded from clay and sent out into the world to just try to figure herself out. Their therapy was doing good. It always seemed so real to me.” 

He met Whittaker on her first day in full Wonder Woman costume, at a 2017 Grand Rapids Comic Con. She hailed the Caped Crusader from across the hall with the deathless words, “Hey, Batman!”

Fans mobbed the pair within seconds. As the bulging coffers of Marvel and DC can attest, the only thing more popular than one superhero is more than one of them, banding together.

An alliance was born.

Smith went into recruitment mode, like Ben Affleck in “Justice League.”

“He’s very good in that role,” Whittaker said.

Unlike Smith, Whittaker didn’t care about comics as a kid, but the 2017 “Wonder Woman” film with Gal Gadot captivated her. Whittaker was bullied as a kid for a variety of reasons, particularly her height. At age 11, she was taller than most of her teachers — nearly 6 feet.

“I’ve been called an Amazon most of my life, sometimes derogatory and sometimes not,” she said. 

The final scene in “Wonder Women,” in which Gadot was mobbed by a knot of joyous children, hit home for Whittaker. “I really relate to kids,” she said. “I nannied for a family of 10 at age 19 and loved it.”

At a “How-To Halloween” event at the Lansing Center in 2018, Whittaker’s charisma was “off the charts,” according to Smith. Kids clamored for hugs and photographs with Wonder Woman.

While on stage, she spotted a young girl in the crowd, bouncing with delight. The girl’s mother told Whittaker she was bullied at school because of her short hair and dark skin.

“I talked to her about how she was beautiful and unique and didn’t need to be a cookie-cutter kid,” Whittaker said. “That was my moment. I felt that I went through my troubles and my heartache for this.”

Smith and Whittaker agreed that their great power to thrill and inspire kids carried great responsibility.

“We needed to do better,” Smith said.

His motivational skills and her facility with numbers (she’s an accountant by day) made them a good match out of costume as well.

Smith already belonged to the League of Enchantment, an informal group with about half a dozen members. He and Whittaker helped to turn it into a nonprofit with a plan.

Two years later, the League swelled to 30 members and its schedule was crammed with 250 events, including weekly hospital visits.

Now the League has over 80 members, with applications coming in nearly every day. New blood is always welcome. On some weekends, nine requests for appearances come from across the state and the League has to turn a few down.

Smith has five kids; Whittaker has four. All the Leaguers have full-time jobs, but they make time for what Smith calls “cause-play.”

“For a lot of us in the group, this is therapy, it’s mental health,” Smith said.

On a typical hospital visit, the madness starts when Smith suits up in a men’s room, takes one step out the door and is instantly accosted by a nurse, a doctor or a random staffer. 

“The janitors thank us for the way it makes the whole floor feel,” he said.

Sponsorships from Meijer, the MSU Federal Credit Union, Chase Bank and Dart Bank have enabled the League to bear gifts such as comic books and action figures on hospital visits. During the pandemic, the League crafted heroically themed packages for 1,200 kids, working with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Last month, Smith and Whittaker saw 4,000 kids in two hours on Sparrow Health System Kids’ Day at Ionia Free Fair.

“Kids bounce in, yelling ‘This is the best day ever,’” Smith said.

Smith never cracks a smile as Batman. He pitches his voice to a stentorian baritone modeled from the Arkham Batman video game.

“I’m sullen but approachable,” he deadpanned.

Smith and Whittaker both studied theater. The experience comes in handy when kids ask questions like, “Where’s the Batmobile?”

“It’s in the parking lot,” Smith tells them. 

“I don’t see it.”

“Today I drove a vehicle that no one suspects.”

“It’s like doing improv,” Whittaker said. If someone asks her “Are you the real Wonder Woman?” she comes back with, “Are you the real Sally?”
“That usually quiets them down,” she said.

Kids always ask her where she parked her robot plane. (Fortunately, Wonder Woman’s plane is invisible.) Before each event, she scans about for an inaccessible spot she can wave at. At Lugnuts Stadium, she pointed to a platform on the nearby Lansing Center. 

“If you look carefully, very special little kids will see a glimmer,” she told them. (It was really the HVAC vent.)

Inevitably, someone says, “I see it!”

“So now you have kids taking pictures of an invisible plane,” Smith said, shaking his head. “It’s hard to wrap your head around all of this sometimes.”

The League’s two Spider-Men (Ryan Bolton and Keith Higbee) are limber, loose and jokey.

“It just doesn’t work to have Spider-Man stand up straight,” Smith said.

Thor (Grant Paplauskas) is impossible to pry out of character, even after an event is over. “See you next time, my brother,” he tells Loki (Eli Daley) when they part.

At a recent Balloon Festival in Jackson, a brand new Leaguer, Cody Thorne, soaked up Captain America’s speech patterns as well as his stamina.

Three grueling hours into the event, after submitting to hundreds of photos with candy-crazed kids, flirty women, patriotic veterans and vibranium-shield-coveting cops, Thorne was dripping with sweat.

When a fresh swarm of kids formed, a worried Smith herded Thorne into a tent for water and food.

“Are you OK?” Smith asked.

Every fan of Cap’s film exploits knows the reply:

“I can do this all day.”

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