Although the man behind Batman's mask it just a regular person, it's unlikely that an average person would have the genes, money and training to reach his superhero status, according to E. Paul Zehr.
He’s not from another planet. He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider. He’s not a government experiment. And he really can’t fly.
Bruce Wayne is just your average human being. That’s what makes his alter ego, Batman, so compelling to E. Paul Zehr, a professor at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Sure, Batman is a make-believe superhero in a make-believe city fighting against fantasy villains.
But Zehr said he suggests considering the real-life aspects of what Batman can do. “Imagine that even a little bit of that has some reality, it really raises the bar of what you can think of your own abilities,” he said.
In lectures and classes, Zehr breaks down scientifically what it might have taken for Bruce Wayne to build up to Batman’s strength and agility.
The Caped Crusader’s abilities and feats highlight skills needed by firefighters, police officers, acrobats and NFL stars, he said.
Many people think that an average athlete can excel at a lot of different sports, Zehr said.
But you cannot, typically, be a highly successful sprinter and a highly successful marathon runner, he said.
“One requires endurance and the other requires a lot of power,” he said.
Batman exemplifies this, Zehr said.
“He gets an A in everything, but he never gets an A+ in anything,” he said. Adding, “Except being Batman.”
Zehr tries to break down these concepts and differences in body adaptation for students of all ages, both as a university professor and through visiting schools.
He explains this experience connecting physiological concepts to Batman in an article published this month in the American Physiological Association’s journal Advances in Physiology Education.
He also published a book on the topic, “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero.”
His next book will take this a step further by looking at Iron Man and “how can we amplify the human body with technology,” Zehr said.
The book, expected to be released later this year, will look beyond the usual structure of a human being and investigate the possibility of something like Iron Man’s suit as a “neuroprosthetic” addition to the body, he said.
The movie shows the suit as a motorized suit of armor. That, Zehr said, wouldn’t work.
“It would have to actually be directly integrated into your nervous system to control it,” he said.
Zehr said it’s important to him to bring science to people in a way that is interesting to them.
Even if people don’t read comic books, they know superhero characters like Batman and Iron Man, he said. “People right away have an image. You’re already at a common place mentally.”
If he walked into a classroom to talk about Claude Bernard, a 19th century French physiologist, Zehr said he knows people might not be interested.
He’s able, however, to discuss Bernard and other famous physiologists with students of all ages when he connects their work to Batman. He said he knows that the Dark Knight is not only a familiar figure, but making that connection also helps build context for learners. This improves their memory of the topic they are learning.
“Becoming Batman” has been successfully used as an introductory freshman seminar text by Daniel Ferris, an associate professor of movement science at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Framing his class, offered for the first time last fall, around the book made it more engaging for his students, Ferris said. They gave the course high reviews.
“The difference is rather than just dealing with the basic facts and trying to organize them, he gives you the example and then explains it,” Ferris said.
The course covers topics introduced in the book, including how people might train the nervous system, muscles and bones for superhero-like agility and strength. Student who were athletes in high school were able to connect Batman’s training with their own, he said.
Zehr said he values making real connections with students, in and out of his university courses. When visiting schools, for example, he might connect Batman’s abilities to explain how a person’s bones get stronger.
A body responds to stresses. A simple example is when a guitar player’s fingertips become calloused over time. The strings probably hurt the musician’s fingers at first, but after a while, callouses make playing less painful, Zehr said.
Batman had to train to make sure his bones were strong enough to withstand the stresses he would put on his body when fighting crime in Gotham City, Zehr said.
Through training with activities that would put enough stress on his bones to make them stronger later – much like continued guitar-playing built up a protective callous – Bruce Wayne achieved the bone strength he would need as Batman, Zehr said.
So, with the right training program, could you become Batman?
It’s possible, but not probable, Zehr said. You’d need the exact right mix of genetic propensity, diet, skill training and strength training. And, of course, you would need a lot of money. After all, the Batmobile doesn’t look like an economy car.
Either way, Zehr said his work is not about “trying to encourage people to be vigilante crime fighters.”
Batman’s story is grounded in the idea that if you really worked at something, you can get better at it, he said.
“The real point is to understand your own body and your own limitations a little better,” Zehr said.