Batman is the most down to earth of the superheroes. He has no special powers from bitten by a radioactive spider or being born on a world. All that protects him against the Joker and other Gotham City villains are his wits and a body shaped by years of coaching–coupled with the huge fortune to attain his highest potential and fortify himself with Batmobiles, Bat-cables and other Bat-goodies, naturally. From the 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins, vengeful Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) hones his killer instincts in the streets for seven years prior to landing himself in a Bhutanese prison, where he falls in with the mysterious League of Shadows, who teach him the way of the vampire. To investigate whether a person like Bruce Wayne could physically transform himself into a one-man wrecking crew,ScientificAmerican.com turned to E. Paul Zehr, associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and a 26-year professional of Chito-Ryu karate-do. Zehr’s book, Getting Batman: The Prospect of a Superhero (The Johns Hopkins University Press), due out in October, tackles our very question. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
What have comic books and films told us about Batman’s physical skills?
There is a quote from Neal Adams, the great Batman illustrator, who stated Batman would win, place or show in each event in the Olympics. Probably if I were Batman’s handler, I’d place him in the decathlon. Although Batman is revealed in the comics as being the fastest and the most powerful and all these other things, in fact, you can’t really be all that at once. To be Batman correctly, what you really have to do is be exceptionally good at many different things. It is when you take all of the bits and put them together that you get the Batman.
What is most plausible about portrayals of Batman’s abilities?
You could train someone to be a tremendous athlete and also have a substantial martial arts history, and also to use some of the equipment he has, which demands a whole lot of physical prowess. Most of what you see there’s feasible to the extent that someone could be trained to this extreme. We’re seeing that sort of thing in under a month at the Olympics.
What is less realistic?
A great example is in the films where Batman is fighting multiple opponents and all of a sudden he is taking on 10 people. If you simply estimate how quickly somebody could punch and kick, and how frequently you could hit 1 individual in another, you end up with numbers like five or six. This doesn’t mean that you could fight four or five individuals. But it’s also difficult for four or five people to simultaneously attack someone because they get in each other’s way. More realistic is two or three attackers.
How long could Bruce Wayne need to train to become Batman?
In a few of the timelines you see in the comics, the backstory is that he goes off for five years–a few it has three to five decades, or eight decades, or 12 years. Concerning the physical changes (strength and conditioning), that is happening fairly quickly. We are talking three to five decades. Concerning the physical skills in order to defend himself against each of these competitions all of the time, I’d benchmark that in 10 to 12 years. Possibly the most reality-based representation of Batman and his training was in Batman Begins.
Why such a long training period?
Batman can not afford to lose. Losing means death–or at least not being able to become Batman anymore. But another standard is having sufficient skill and experience to defend himself without killing anybody. Because that is part of the credo. It would be far easier to fight somebody if you could incapacitate them with intense force. Punching someone in the throat might be a deadly blow. That’s pretty simple to do.
But if you are considering something that doesn’t lead to lethal force, that is more tricky. It’s really tough for people to get their heads around, I believe. To be that good, not to actually lethally injure anybody, requires an extremely high degree of ability that would take perhaps 15 to 18 years to collect.
Where does that amount of 15 to 18 years come from?
That comes from my training in martial arts and seeing how long it takes people to respond to simple scenarios–let alone the complexities of smoke bombs going off and people having large Batsuits on. No matter how much training you have, when we are subjected to a great deal of psychological stress, we create a lot more mistakes. The authorities discuss this when they use things called reality-based training. It takes years and years and years and years to get the poise to have the ability to perform when someone is attacking you for real.
What is a realistic training program?
I did not offer a training guide in my novel, but he would want to perform specialized weight training to develop an ability to operate at a really large speed for perhaps 30 seconds to a minute (the maximum time interval associated with his struggles). Among those early comics shows him holding an enormous weight over his head. That’s not the ideal sort of adaptation toward kicking and hitting. He has got to make sure he is doing all of the skill training at exactly the exact same time so that he is actually using the (bodily) adaptations he is slowly gaining. In traditional martial arts, when folks take weapons training, you are doing a sort of power-strength training.
What impacts would that training have on Bruce Wayne’s body?
I looked up what DC Comics and various other publications said (about Batman’s body). I settled on the quote that Bruce Wayne started off about six-foot-two and 185 lbs. I gave him a body fat of 20 percent (slightly below average) and a body mass index of 26. Let’s say after 10 or 15 years after he has become the Batman, he is weighing about 210 lbs and has a body fat of 10 percent. He has probably gained 40 lbs of muscle. His bones will truly be more dense, kind of the reverse of osteoporosis.
Are we speaking freakishly dense bones?
The percent change is truly rather small–possibly 10 percent. In judo, where folks do a great deal of grappling and throwing, you are likely to have more density in the long bones of the trunk. In karate and other martial arts in which they are doing plenty of kicking, there is going to be a lot greater density in the legs. Muay Thai (kickboxing) is an excellent example. They are always doing these low shin kicks. They try to state the body by kicking increasingly more difficult objects and for more.
What about his response speed?
There’s evidence that specialists in something like soccer or hockey have a better capacity to perceive motion in time. From the book, I use the example of Steve Nash throwing the ball, although he can not see where the recipient of the pass will be. Experts have the ability to extract more information quicker than others. It is almost like their nervous systems become more effective.
How would Batman get enough rest?
The difficulty for Batman is he is going to be trying to sleep through the day. He is going to be very tired, really unless he can change himself to just being up at night. If he had been just a nocturnal man, he would really be a great deal fitter and have a lot better sleep than if he had been doing what he does today, which is getting some light here and there. That is going to mess up his sleep patterns and length of sleep.
Wouldn’t battling Gotham’s thugs nightly take its toll?
The largest unreal part of the way Batman’s portrayed is the character of his injuries. The majority of the time, in the comics and in the films, even when he wins, he usually winds up taking a pretty good beating. There is a real failure to demonstrate the cumulative effect of that. The following day he is revealed out there doing the exact same thing again. He’d probably be quite tired and hurt.
Is there any sign from the comics of how long Batman’s career continues?
The comics are really vague on this, naturally. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he intentionally reveals an ageing Batman coming back after he’s retired, and he highlights him being tired and poorer. Somewhere around age 50 to 55, he should probably retire. His performance is moving down. He is constantly facing younger adversaries. That’s well in the end of when he is going to have the ability to defend himself and be able to not have to deal that deadly force. This was actually shown in an animated series called Batman Beyond.
Oh right. It is the future; Batman is older and he trains a child to replace him.
You are familiar with this one? What we understand is that Batman, when he was older but until he retired, really picked up a gun from a thug because he needed to. His skills had let him down so that he was not able to defend himself without hurting another individual. So that is when he decided to retire.
How would those beat-downs have influenced his longevity?
Keeping in mind that being Batman means not losing: If you look at consecutive events where professional boxers need to defend their names–Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Ultimate Fighters–the longest period you are likely to find is about two to three decades. That dovetails well with the normal career for NFL running backs. It’s about three decades. (That is the statistic I got in the NFL Players Association Web site.) The point is, it is not so long. It’s really tough to become Batman in the first place, and it is tough to keep it when you arrive.
There is research indicating that concussions might lead to depression in NFL players. Could this be one reason why the Dark Knight is indeed brooding?
I went through a lot of comics and graphic novels and I just found a few examples where some of these blows to Batman’s head had the impact of something such as a concussion. Whereas in fact, that would be a very likely outcome. He is able to offset some of the physical harm to his mind due to the cowl–it works somewhat like a helmet. However, these things would definitely accumulate. As they don’t admit he has concussions, you can not actually ascribe repeated concussions because the reason he’s brooding.
Do you think Batman would take steroids to cure faster?
No. There’s one comic where he did go on steroids. He went a little mad and he went.
How many people do you believe could become a Batman?
In the event that you found the proportion of billionaires and multiply that by the proportion of individuals who become Olympic decathletes, you could probably get a close quote. The issue that is important is how much a person is can do. There’s such a massive assortment of functionality and skill you can tap into.