Batman & Brain Injury

Is the caped crusader at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy?

Posted Nov 20, 2016

Batman is widely considered the martial arts master of the DC Comics Universe. Owning that mantel means he’s often in harm’s way, taking many bashes, bonks, and blows even in victory. Despite the many knocks we see him take, Batman rarely seems to suffer from symptoms of concussion. The closest I’ve read in the comics to an admission that Batman could be concussed is in the story from 1975’s “This one’ll kill you Batman” in Batman #260. A somewhat dazed Batman (as Bruce Wayne) tells Alfred that despite needing “a computer to count the skull knocks I’ve taken…I’ve never experienced symptoms like these!” Certainly we’ve never seen Alfred try to use the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool to assess Batman.

How much concussion exposure does Batman actually have? To get an estimate, my colleague at the University of Victoria, Bruce Wright, and I examined the 10 “big screen” live action representations of Batman beginning with the 1943 “Batman” serial up to 2016’s “Batman V Superman”. Our analysis “Can Concussion Constrain the Caped Crusader?” was just published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Overall we found that Batman has had 176 concussive incidents in his “big screen” iteration--about 6.5 incidents per hour of screen time. I wrote more about this over at ComiConverse and you can take the jump and read about it there if you want. What I want to focus on here is if Batman has to worry about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) due to repeated concussion exposure.

This brings us into secondary impact and post-concussion syndrome. We know that already having a concussion history makes getting another concussion easier and will produce worse symptoms. Time for recovery will also be increased. A history of concussion can also increase the likelihood of future cognitive impairment and dementia, as part of CTE.

CTE has been much discussed in professional contact sports like football and ice hockey recently. But it was actually Harisson S. Martland, an American pathologist, who used the term “punch drunk syndrome” back in 1928. This described the case of a boxer who had a lifetime of head impacts that gave rise to impaired motor coordination, slurred speech, and balance problems. These are the hallmarks of what CTE looks like functionally, although confirmed diagnosis for the disorder requires post-mortem examination.

The facts that Batman is clearly exposed to an excessive number of concussive incidents, does not follow any “return to play” guidelines (one of which says no return to play the same day), and never waits to be symptom free before heading out on patrol again leave him with the perfect storm for CTE. Big screen Batman is clearly at risk and would likely eventually show symptoms such as those above for “punch drunk” syndrome.

Part of the analysis Bruce Wright (wouldn’t it have been awesome if Bruce would have taken my suggestion and changed his last name to Wayne?) and I conducted was to look at the actors who played Batman on the big screen and think about their exposures. So far, two actors have been Batman multiple times: Michael Keaton in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) and Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and the Dark Knight Rises (2012).

The concussive incident exposure events per hour of screen time were almost 8 for Bale and around 4 for Keaton. So, Christian Bale as Batman has almost twice the exposure as Michael Keaton and a much greater likelihood of eventual CTE symptoms.

I’d suggest that the older version of Batman we see with Ben Affleck’s portrayal in “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” was already clearly demonstrating such symptoms. As I wrote in another post here, I’m not a huge fan of that movie. Or more accurately—of the way Batman is portrayed as a gun-toting, raging, killer. A lot of that behaviour could perhaps be best explained by issues related to CTE pathology.

© E. Paul Zehr (2016)