Warning: There is a slight The Dark Knight Rises plot spoiler within this article.
Christian Bale is back for one final turn as Batman, almost singlehandedly rescuing Gotham from corrupt politicians, cronies, and maniacal villains, with his mix of gadgets, physical strength, and cunning smarts. The movie can easily lead people to wonder if the real world could use a caped crusader who could rescue us from face-eating psychopaths, potential terrorist threats, and whatever else goes bump in the night.
The answer, according to E. Paul Zehr, a neuroscience professor at Canada's University of Victoria and author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, is an interesting "maybe."
"We have most of what Batman is in the world today—there are people who can do chunks of what Batman can do—that have driving ability, the acrobatic ability, the fighting ability. We just don't have all those abilities and skills in one person," he says. "If someone had the right genetic inheritable characteristics, all the training, time, and ability to do it, you could get pretty close to the level Batman is at."
Christopher Nolan's interpretation of the Batman saga has always won points with longtime fans for keeping the story dark and gritty, rescuing the Dark Knight from the disastrous lighthearted turn director Joel Schumacher took the series with 1997's Batman & Robin.
But, according to Zehr, Nolan is the also the first director to focus on Batman's limitations—he is human, after all.
"The thing people don't think about—it's harder to remain as Batman than it is to get there in the first place. The effect of the 15-18 years of training you'd need to become Batman would have taken such a toll on the way your body functions," he says. "Being in the field and fighting all the time, which is made more complicated by the fact he doesn't use guns or much force, I estimate a three-year career, maybe five or six if all your enemies gave up without a fight."
Bruce Wayne has always been portrayed as a very human character—but his vulnerability is something that the comics don't often delve into, except in one very famous instance involving Bane, Batman's nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan isn't afraid to delve into that vulnerability. At the start of the movie, Bruce Wayne is out of shape, aging, and itching for something to do. After eight long years of relative peace in Gotham, Bane, one of Batman's smartest (and strongest) enemies swoops in to disturb that peace.
"What's interesting is instead of fighting Batman, his idea is to break into Arkham Asylum, let the criminals out, and let Batman deal with them," he says. "By the time Batman defeats them, he's so tired and exhausted. Bane easily beats him at that point, he severely injures his spine. I think that speaks to the impression of how a lot of that fighting would actually happen in real life."
So why not just sit back and let Batman do his thing without worrying about things such as muscle atrophy, fatigue, and aging? Zehr says characters such as Batman and Iron Man (who he explores in another book) are the perfect way to get the public interested in the stuff that makes these guys tick.
"I'm into the popularization of science, and I'm disappointed by the low science literacy rate. Everyone has a human body, most people have just a vague understanding of how it works," he says. "It works as a great foil to say: What is it that's real about Batman, and what about that character isn't?"
He says he regularly gets E-mails from readers who say that, although they haven't become Batman, they've gotten into shape after reading how attainable some of Batman's skills are.
And Batman's success, without being Hulk-strong, Flash-fast, or being able to fly like Superman, appeals to people.
"Being well-rounded is a good thing for everybody, Batman is useful for showing us you should have lots of skills," he says. "You need some strength, some power, some weapons, a little of this and that, skills from many domains. Take the sum of all of those pieces and you get his incredible performance."