Why Does Batman Matter?

Batman's significance has to do with the superhero in you.

Posted Mar 03, 2012

It's now official. Batman is the greatest comic book superhero. Readers of Comic Heroes magazine voted Batman in gold medal position ahead of Spider-Man followed by Superman. This is great for Batman and the legions of fans around the globe. But why does Batman matter anyway?

As readers of this blog will likely know, I wrote a book exploring the scientific possibility of Batman. In writing "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero" I sought an answer to a deceptively simple question: Is it possible for any human to attain the skills and abilities of Batman?

Batman is one of a fairly small group of comic book superheroes that have a feel of "reality" about them. Iron Man has a similar feel too, so does Captain America and a few of the other more human-seeming ones. This includes the rest of the Bat-family, like Batwoman, Batgirl, Robin and many of their friends.

Batman represents the pinnacle of human performance and is perfect superhero to think about for possibilities. Frankly, there is nothing supernatural about his abilities and he is pitched as a human with powers that seem within reach.

But are they?  And the bigger question, why should we care? The reasons, I suggest, are grounded in boundaries we set on our own performance abilities.

Those who have worked closely with the Batman character over the years have had many interesting comments about the meaning of the Dark Knight. The idea of transformative effort and achievement is appealing. Former President and Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics Jenette Kahn wrote that "Batman is an ordinary mortal who made himself a superhero...Through discipline and determination and commitment, he made himself into the best. I always thought that meant that I could be anything I wanted to be."

The idea of human drive and commitment is also on full view with Batman. Neal Adams, the great silver age artist, wrote "You must remember, Batman is the only superhero who is not a superhero. He has no powers....He's a human being bent on a mission." The very nature of the mission may not really be the key issue. Life is a journey, not a destination and Batman may help inform how to keep working our way along our own personal paths.

Amazingly friendly, supportive and kind writer and editor Dennis O'Neil has said that Batman is "...the most "realistic" of the great superheroes. To be blunt: the guy isn't very super. He didn't gain his powers by being lightning-struck, nor bathing in chemicals, nor by dint of being born on another planet, nor by the intervention of extraterrestrials or gods. To paraphrase an old commercial, he got them the old-fashioned way-he earned them...He wasn't bequeathed those abilities; he sweated for them." So the concept of work and process is very much embodied in the Batman mythology.

Which brings us back to why we should care, why Batman matters. Since writing Becoming Batman I have also done many presentations and talks about the science and possibility of Batman. And many people are attached to the idea of Batman as something you would like to be, even when it's expressed as "become" and all the work involved.

The underlying point of my book and I think the key point for connecting with Batman, is to appreciate how much of Batman each one of us has inside. Understanding how Batman's body works helps inform us about our own bodies. Understanding Batman's work ethic helps us work harder. And, hopefully, work smarter.

One of the most interesting things about Batman is his incredibly large (let's be honest, it's ridiculously enormous) skillset. He has to be good at so many things. More things than could really be achievable. But inside of that there is a kernel of something fundamentally important. Turn it around and it says you shouldn't be good at just one thing.

The idea of doing multiple things and having different interests and abilities, even within a class of activities is huge. Batman has to be good at many things and so do you. I think this points out the fundamental flaws of our approach to living in the modern world. Because we can do so we allow ourselves to indulge in something and take it to an exclusive extreme.

Since Batman's main mystique is a lot about his physical prowess, let's use activity as an example. All around physical fitness is an ideal to strive for. A bit of strength, a bit of endurance, a bit of flexibility, a bit of mental toughness. We need a bit of everything. And back when we had to be hunter-gathers we were forced to do a bit of everything.

Nowadays we have the luxury of focusing on just one thing. I'm a marathoner, someone says. I'm a powerlifter, says another. I only do spinning, I only do kettle bells, I only sit on the couch...I could keep on going but you get the point. Singular focus on one thing isn't our healthiest option.

In Becoming Batman I used the example of martial arts training. Batman's shown as the best martial artist but we don't always think through what that means. It means being good at all aspects of martial arts. Not just punching and kicking, but kneeing and elbowing, and joint locking, throwing, grappling, weapons fighting, projectiles and more. A lot is involved. And doing even a bit of it means been well-rounded.

Being well-rounded brings us back to Batman and why he matters. It really comes down to following your passions and using motivation and inspiration to push yourself. Don't accept your limitations and try to gain ability in many domains. "Be all you can be" isn't just an old army recruiting slogan.

I suggest each one of us has a little bit of Batman inside—it's up to us to find that bit and put it to use. Putting it to use is often easier said than done, of course. In Batman Begins, the amazing 2005 reboot of the movie franchise, Liam Neeson (Bruce Wayne's teacher Henri Ducard) is shown training with Bruce on a glacial lake. At one point they are arguing about the courage and ability that Bruce's father may or may not have had.

Ducard tells Bruce that what happened that night (the death of his mom and dad at the hands of criminals) wasn't his fault. Dramatic pause. "It was your father's," says Ducard. Bruce gets angry and says that his father didn't have training like he does now. To this the teacher responds that training is nothing without the "will to act". It's a great comment on our modern age. And it also speaks of the will to train, to put in the effort and to do the practice. The will to sweat. All parts of Batman's backstory since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.

Batman matters by showing us our own potential. As a touchstone for achievement and how our bodies work, parts of Batman's mythology ring true. This means we can raise the bar on our own limitations. We just need to find that bit of Batman within and have the will to put it to good use.

© E. Paul Zehr (2012)