Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

The Enduring Inspiration of Bruce Lee and Batman

Pop-culture icons—both fictional and real—who inspire across the decades.

There’s been a coincidental convergence of popular culture related to Bruce Lee and Batman. July 20, 2014 was the 41st anniversary of the untimely death of Bruce Lee. A hugely influential real-life popular culture icon, Bruce was born on November 27, 1940 and would have been 74 this year. In Batman’s 75th anniversary year, DC Entertainment declared July 23, 2014 as “Batman Day”. Batman and Bruce Wayne both debuted in May of 1939 in the pages of Detective Comics #27.

It’s fair to say that Bruce Lee and Batman are two of the best known icons in popular culture. This isn’t a scientific assessment, but a recent Google search for “Batman” yielded 104,000,000 hits. “Bruce Lee” yielded 38,000,000 and putting both together gave just under 9,000,000 hits. There’s a lot that’s been said about both—and rightfully so.

Both have had monumental impacts on culture around the globe and there are some parallels between the influences of the real-life Bruce Lee and the fictional Batman. Bruce Lee was, of course, a big screen action movie icon who was at his core an accomplished martial artist, teacher, and philosopher. Batman is highly identifiable by his martial arts prowess but also in a mentoring and teaching role for members of the Bat-family including Robin, Nightwing and Batgirl. Batman is pure fiction and Bruce Lee has had lots of fiction spun around him and his life.

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Many decades after they each had their initial impact they continue to influence and inspire new generations. In my first book Becoming Batman I analyzed the physical training Bruce Wayne would have actually needed to arrive at his goal of highly trained martial arts avenger in the guise of Batman. I made reference to the many real life icons in martial arts and other domains, notably including Bruce Lee, who could affect Batman’s training.

In my most recent book, Project Superhero, the main character explores the beneficial physical and philosophical grounding of martial arts training. I wrote her as being highly influenced by Batgirl (one of numerous Batman protégés) and by the philosophy of Bruce Lee’s original martial art—Wing Chun. In truth, the inspirational nature of the realities (Bruce Lee) and fiction (Batman) captured in their lives continues to resonate across the years.

The pure physical spectacle of their portrayals surely contributes to the abiding interest people have in Batman and Bruce Lee. Batman continues to be portrayed as a physical force in movies and Bruce Lee was recently inducted into the “action hero hall of fame”.

But I think there’s more to it than simply this surface resonance. In martial arts applications we often talk about “surface” or obvious meanings and applications and more “deeper” or subtle applications for self-defense. The deeper meaning of Bruce Lee and Batman (and more on the relevance of the Dark Knight here) is that they both represent ideals of achievement through effort and against adversity.

Clearly the physical abilities ascribed to Bruce Lee and Batman would take significant time, effort and training. But that’s at the “surface” again. Going deeper we can appreciate that the fictional Bruce Wayne had to fight to achieve his Batman status while struggling daily with the searing memory of the murder of his parents. Bruce Lee worked tirelessly to achieve his skills and abilities and then when he arrived in the United States he had to work even harder to break into the Hollywood establishment. Later in life, Bruce Lee also had to work against the toll injuries took on his body, a factor of such an active life that was actually well-captured in the portrayal of Bruce Wayne and his cumulative injuries in a career as Batman in “The Dark Knight Rises”.

Bruce Lee and Batman are both such timeless and enduring icons because they both serve as examples of achievement against the odds. These two icons also work well when considered together because the real life Bruce Lee stands as testament to those small parts of the Batman mythology that are grounded in reality.

 In closing here are two of my favorite quotes from Batman and Bruce Lee:

“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy, and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood; I can be ignored, I can be destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

 “...if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.”


There’s ageless “inspiration for perspiration” in there!

© E. Paul Zehr, 2014

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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