Neuroscientist and kinesiologist E. Paul Zehr has studied how a person might actually become Batman, looking at the physiology, training, and will that a person would need. And he told us how, even if you’ll never be ready for the Justice League, you can still become more like the Dark Knight.
“I’m not trying to debunk superheroes… I’m just trying to give them a reality check,” Zehr told us in a phone interview. Zehr is a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria. He’s also the author of two books about the science of superheroes: Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine. He’s also written a fiction book aimed at tweens, Project Superhero.
Zehr actually became interested in science through martial arts. As a teenager studying martial arts, he was fascinated by what his instructors were able to do in terms of moving their bodies, and how much he himself was able to accomplish through training. He wanted to better understand how physical movement worked, so he studied kinesiology. Eventually, he became interested not just in the mechanics of movement, but also how the brain and spinal cord control movement, and delved into neuroscience. He also developed an intense interest in rehabilitation, because, he told us, “that’s superhuman stuff.” Training to recover physical skills following a stroke or other injury has a lot in common with training to excel in a particular area. “The principals are exactly the same, they’re just applied to a slightly different place.”
Zehr has combined his scientific knowledge of the human body, rehabilitation, and martial arts to explore the possibility of real people accomplishing the physical feats that Batman does in the comics, TV shows, and movies. He shared with us what a person would need to do to become Batman, and what lessons we can all learn from the Batman stories.
The Genetics of Batman
Becoming Batman requires a great deal of training, of course, but Zehr acknowledges that there are some people who, just by virtue of their biology, will respond better to that training than others. Training is about putting certain stresses on the body, and some people simply don’t respond to those stresses as readily as others. “So they try strength training, but they get very minimal effects, for example,” Zehr says. “Whereas you have people at the total other end of the spectrum where they do the training and get huge responses.”
Zehr points out that there is a genetic component to how readily people build muscle mass. “If somebody has a myostatin gene deletion [myostatin is a protein that regulates the growth of muscle fibers], for example, or a set point on the myostatin expression that’s different from the normal population, they’ll get really big muscles really quickly.” Nature and nurture interact as we work to develop a wide range of physical skills.
But it’s not enough for Batman to be strong and fast and agile; he also needs to avoid getting injured. There is a movement, Zehr says, to better understand so-called sports injury genes, how the expression of certain genes contribute to our ability to avoid or recover from injury. One such gene is collagen 1A1, or COL1A1, which is, as the name suggests, linked to the production of the protein collagen. “Collagen,” Zehr explains, “when you get right down to what’s a tendon and what’s an interconenctive tissue or ligament tissue, it’s collagen fibers that make up all this stuff, and if you’ve got a bad COL1A1 expression, you’re going to have not the greatest connective tissue and that’s where injuries come from.”
The ability to keep yourself from becoming injured and heal from wounds relatively quickly is invaluable not just while becoming Batman, but also remaining Batman. Zehr says, “Because if you look at the Batman movies... you see just how beaten up a person is from all the training that would be needed just to get to Batman status, and even if you were successful, defending Gotham every night would take a toll on the body. If you don’t have good connective tissue or ability to repair that tissue, you’re going to have lots of injuries.”
The Will to Act
The biggest barrier to becoming Batman, according to Zehr, isn’t in your body; it’s in your mind. When Zehr gives talks on the possibility of becoming a superhero, he asks the audience, by a show of hands, whether they would like to be Batman or Batgirl or Batwoman. Roughly three-quarters of the attendees will raise their hands. Then he asks, “What if I said to you, how many of you would like to become Batman, where there’s a process involved and the process is a lot of work?” He outlines the time and training that it would take. Far fewer people raise their hands.
Zehr cites the scene in Batman Begins where Liam Neeson’s character (who calls himself Henri Ducard) is training Bruce Wayne out on the ice. The scene is called “The Will to Act,” because Ducard blames the death of Bruce’s parents on Thomas Wayne because he failed to act to defend himself and Martha. Bruce, Ducard points out, wouldn’t be stopped by a man with a gun. “I’ve had training,” Bruce protests. “The training is nothing!” Ducard roars. “The will is everything!”
Certainly Zehr wouldn’t argue that the training is nothing — but you need to will to commit to that training. He estimates that it would take about 15-18 years of physical work to reach Batman’s level. “And you can make parallels to Olympic athletes who spend a decade training to finally get their gold medal or get whatever level of achievement they can make. It’s a lot of time and commitment and, to be honest, most people just don’t have that within them to stick to something like that, and that’s the big limitation.”
Be Great at Everything, But the Best at Nothing
So what are you spending those 15-18 years doing? Well, you’re going to want to be “an all-around athlete, the pinnacle of human performance.” So you’re going to want to develop a wide array of physical skills and abilities.
But in order to maintain that range of skills, you’re not going to be the very best at any one thing. “I’m a professor,” Zehr says, “so I’ll give Batman an A+ at being Batman, but when it comes to his other skills? He doesn’t really get an A+ at anything in particular. He gets a lot of A minuses. So he’s good at a lot of stuff, but what he’s best at is being Batman.”
There’s a very good reason for this. Zehr notes, “One issue is that some skills are actually counterproductive in the sense that they push our physiological systems in one direction and the kind of adaptation, the stress response you need from our bodies to do something else are actually in the opposite direction.” For example, Batman is going to need both the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a distance runner. When you train for endurance, your body changes in certain ways—in your muscles, for example, or your cardiovascular system. The body needs to adapt in different ways when you train to achieve the strength of a sprinter. So if you want to become Batman, you’ll need to make sure you aren’t developing certain skills to the exclusion of others.
Zehr also lists off a number of special types of training Batman would need: agility training, gymnastics or acrobatics, free running or parkour, and, of course, exposure to a variety of martial arts. Batman would need martial training in everything from projectile weapons (need to learn how to throw that batarang) to in-close ground fighting.
You’d probably also want to get started fairly early in life. Zehr says that the question of whether there is a “right age” to start a sport is actually poorly understood by physiology. You’ll sometimes hear that you can’t excel at a certain sport unless you start before a certain age, but Zehr warns that these supposed development models aren’t always valid. “They’re just general ideas.”
“You can’t really say there’s some best-before date for trying to become Batman,” he says, but there is an ideal situation. “You’d have somebody training for something like this where they could dovetail that training on top of all the processes of maturation and development that are going on. We’ve got the best cocktail of things going on in your body for reaching maximum potential. That would be teenage years, basically.” Plus, if it’s going to take you more than a decade to become Batman, you want to make sure you’ve reached the necessary skill level by the time you’re in you mid-20s to early-30s.
If, at this point, you’re thinking, “Screw it, I’m just going to become Iron Man instead,” Zehr has some bad news for you. Even if you’ve already got the suit, becoming Iron Man is going to require some major training. “It’s going to amplify your ability for sure,” he says, “but if your ability is terrible and you don’t have any skill, you’re going to make unskilled, very powerful movements. You actually have to have skill, training. You actually need to train for agility, martial arts… fidelity to move around in the suit.” He does believe that it would take far less time than training to become Batman, though—roughly five to eight years.
And That Whole “No Killing” Rule? It’s Going to Make Things Harder
“As someone who, myself, has been doing martial arts for more than 30 years, it’s much easier to teach people how to use lethal force than how to not use lethal force,” says Zehr. “How to defend yourself as best you can without killing people is significantly more difficult...because the skill level required is much higher.”
He points out that if Batman punches someone in the throat, for example, he has a good chance of killing that person. In order to stick to his values and not kill anyone, Batman has to be able to fight without aiming for the killing blow. “You’re still inflicting significant damage on people,” Zehr says. “Certainly this issue of hurt vs. harm comes up, where usually Batman would try to hurt people rather than harm them where harm means lasting damage and the ultimate harm would be death. But he definitely has to increment up to the point where things are going to leave lasting damage but not kill people.” He adds, “You’d still need to be trained in how to do all those things, but you’d be applying them with less impact.”
As an interesting side note, Zehr wrote a piece for Scientific American a few years back that asked if Joker and Bane might be so hard to defeat because they don’t process pain the same way the average person does. Zehr elaborate for us: “If you stomp on somebody’s foot, it causes them a lot of pain, so they’ll pull their foot away and then they’ll fall down. But what if you don’t sense pain... there’s a syndrome where people are chronically injured because they’re insensitive to pain signaling? How is batman going to be able to fight them?”
Don’t Focus on How You Can’t Be Like Batman, Focus on How You Can
Let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that any of us will become Batman. We’re not likely to develop the level of skill and athleticism necessary to swing and climb through a city and fight crime with our gloved hands. (For the record, Zehr doesn’t endorse vigilantism.)
But, Zehr argues, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use Batman as an inspiration. There is always room for us as individuals to improve something, if we can commit to improving it.
That, Zehr tells us, is why he explores the science of human physiology and superheroes:
“It’s not about being that superhero. That’s not the point. The point is there are some aspects of any of those superheroes, for example Iron Man and Batman, there are some aspects that are true and real. And the key is, as soon as you realize that, it means that you can do more. So whatever you think is the maximum, whatever your job is and whatever the activity that you’re trying to do, here are some examples of people who do more and you can do more too. So the key thing is to draw down the real life lesson is that you can always do more. We’ve all got this bit of Batman inside of us that we can use to help us do better at what we’re doing.
“Instead of saying, ‘No, you can’t literally be all the things that Batman is, but you can be parts of that: the will to act, how we’re going to push ourselves, taking that first step toward changing your life to whatever we need.’ Those are the real life lessons in using these superheroes as foils.”