[In 2008, JR Minkel interviewed me about my first book “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero” and produced the scientificamerican.com article “The Dark Knight Shift—Why Batman Could Exist, But Not For Long”. This blog post, an update on some of my thinking about Batman since JR’s article and the publication of my book, is dedicated to his memory. JR was a real-life superhero of science journalism.]

In 1989, editor and writer Dennis O’Neil wrote “Batman is the most realistic of the great superheroes”. The veneer of reality around the Dark Knight continues to captivate. Batman is one of a fairly small group of comic book superheroes with a feel of "possibility" about them. Iron Man has a similar feel too, so does Captain America.

Examining those possibilities formed the central themes in my Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man books. They make great foils for exploring the limits of human biology and technology. Batman represents the pinnacle of human performance and is a perfect superhero to think about when exploring possibilities.

In comic books, graphic novels, and movies, Batman has risen and fallen many times since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939. The just completed trilogy of Christopher Nolan—spanning Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—is as authentic a portrayal of the grim realities of Batman’s fictional universe we’re likely to see. And a big part of that reality is the physical toll on the human playing the part of superhero.

Since 2008 I’ve continued to ponder the physical demands that would accumulate while being Batman after becoming Batman. And how Batman in action would have to modify and adapt his modus operandi depending on who he was fighting. Particularly when fighting villains that are the lowest of the low, the nastiest of the nasty, the…you get what I mean. Foes like Joker and Bane. Those who have been so clearly represented as evil incarnate in the comic books and movies in which they featured.

Let’s begin with why, when viewed through the lens of science, Joker and Bane are such difficult adversaries. And how Batman’s own moral code of honor make things so much easier for them. This will lead into some special modifications and adaptations Batman might use to get an edge on those guys or to protect himself from (even worse) injuries?

So, why are Joker and Bane so difficult to beat anyway?

Some of the villains Batman fights seem to be incredibly durable and difficult to defeat. Why is that? In “The Dark Knight” we see Joker holding his own against Batman in many of their fights. He doesn’t yield to Batman’s superiority. The Joker doesn’t have the training and prowess of Batman, so how is that possible? It all has to do with sensation. The Joker isn’t sensible but is he insensate?

Batman’s approach to crime fighting reflects a “force response options” continuum in policing. A police officer will increase the level of force needed depending upon the level of threat. In policing, the officer always uses a one-over approach. Batman, meanwhile, typically responds in kind. A version of Batman’s approach taken from “Becoming Batman” is shown in the illustration. The “x” at the top means Batman never uses lethal force. In real policing lethal force is a legitimate and necessary option moving up the continuum.

Use of force diagram, by the author

Use of force diagram, by the author

For safety, police must always be one level higher on the continuum than the bad guys. Officers do not fight hand to hand unless they have to. Instead, a baton is against empty hand, a gun versus a knife, and so on. We expect our police to be able to finish their shifts and return home safely.

To avoid killing, Batman uses his opponents’ bodies against them to evoke protective reactions. Nociceptors are receptors detecting actual or impending tissue damage. They relay this information to the spinal cord where they evoke very powerful defensive responses. If you have ever stepped on a very sharp rock while walking barefoot or accidentally touched a hot stove top you will remember the rapid pullback you had of your foot or hand. These signals also arrive in the brain where they may be interpreted as “pain.”

Batman, in the tradition of martial artists the world over, uses those defensive responses to manipulate his opponents. He hurts rather than harms and tries to intimidate rather than inflict permanent damage. Making a use of force continuum work requires extreme skill, poise, and confidence. It also requires an intact and normally functioning nervous system in your opponent.

Emotional state and drugs like cocaine can significantly alter nociception and pain processing. This makes implementing force response options the way they were intended very difficult. Bodies that can’t feel pain can’t be made compliant by hurt. This raises the question, maybe guys like Joker and Bane can’t feel pain anyway. Is that possible?

In 1932 George van Ness Dearborn wrote a medical paper called “A case of congenital general pure analgesia” in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders. The subject of this obscure paper was a 54-year-old man who could not “recall any pain except headache” for his entire life.

This condition is now known as a very rare (less than a hundred such cases reported in the medical literature) inherited medical syndrome called “congenital insensitivity to pain”. People with this condition are unable to sense nociceptive signals warning of tissue damage.

In these cases, generally the neurons that should bring nociceptive signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain are working, but the processing of these signals into pain isn’t happening in the normal way. A lot remains to be discovered about congenital insensitivity to pain but recent advances are helping to narrow down the genetic underpinnings.

It might seem this would be a huge benefit for Joker or Bane to have. And for sure it is now that they have lived to be adults and are taking on Batman all the time. But people without the ability to sense pain are in very real danger most of the time. Pain is protective and lots of danger can arise if we don’t have pain to help regulate what we do.

We are shaped by our genetics and the sum of our life experiences. In addition to the many life events they both experienced en route to becoming career criminals and terrorists, I suggest Bane and Joker share the inherited disorder of insensitivity to pain. This gives them both the ability to face extreme punishment in fighting and carry on. Sounds like Joker and Bane for sure.

In Bane’s case you can also add in the pharmacological mix of steroids and stimulants that are part of his “venom” mix to produce a foe where the normal rules of engagement are difficult to implement. And even in trying to implement them, a serious level of physical violence will be directed to and at Batman. Repeatedly. What can he do to prepare for this even higher-than-normal-for-Batman level of violence?

What revisions to the Batsuit are needed to protect against Bane and avoid concussion and spinal cord injury?

Every iteration of Batman in every medium illustrates massive injuries Batman sustains. Or I mean should sustain if a real human were subjected to anything near his level of punishment. Repeated exposure to injury events is called “cumulative trauma disorder”. Concussion is probably the most worrisome form of repeated exposure Batman experiences

But hold on. Batman wears a fancy ultra tech Batsuit, remember? Won’t the suit protect him from injury? Certainly the suit is great against fire and works like a fantastic bullet-proof vest against projectile and puncture injuries. But there’s a human body inside the Batsuit and that body is undergoing some serious accelerations as a result of being hit (e.g. by Bane) or hitting things (e.g. wall, cars, the ground when falling or being thrown…also by Bane). Those impacts produce angular accelerations that produce concussions.

I explored the issue of concussion in superhero-heads in detail in Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man. What I want to address here is this: based on our current and near-future science, what kind of helmet should Bruce build into the Batsuit now?

For the answer to this question I turned to Peter Cripton, inventor, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia and a member of the International Collaboration on Repair Discoveries, an international spinal cord injury research center based in Vancouver, BC.

Peter’s research is in neurotrauma, helmet design and performance. He figures that in choosing a helmet design for the Batsuit, Batman would draw on his extensive previous experience crime fighting where he had frequent head impacts. Both in the context of hand to hand combat and in vehicle crashes and collisions.

When he just starting up, Bruce Wayne spent a lot of time coming up with the overall look and design of the Batsuit and he would want to make sure any new tech fit with the overall terrifying aesthetic. That is, the look that is those who “…are a cowardly and superstitious lot”.

So what is new? Contemporary helmets consist of a hard outer shell (distributes the load) combined with a softer impact padding that is next to the head. This layer deforms to absorbs energy in a head impact. Your bike helmet is a simple example of this approach. New materials and structures are being developed to provide an improved extent of concussion protection in head impacts.

Batman might choose a new padding material like PoronXRD . This advanced open cell foam has viscoelastic characteristics that allow it to absorb more energy at any given thickness than contemporary padding.

The outer shell under his cowl should have state-of-the art properties as well. Some new helmets use a “second skin” close fitting shell on the outside of the helmet’s original hard outer shell. These skins absorb some of the energy from an oblique impact. This reduces the angular rotation of the head that causes rotation of the brain and leads to concussion.

The Swedish-designed multiple impact protection system (MIPS) uses this approach. Instead of the energy of impact leading to rotation of the head, the second skin rotates on the outer shell. I think it’s a given that Bruce Wayne would use this in the next Batsuit upgrade. This approach would keep Batman’s headgear thin and small while offering the advanced and improved brain injury protection.

But what about mechanical damage to the neck from all those impacts? Bane had an extended storyline in Batman comics from the early 1990s (the Knightfall and Knight Saga story arc). In Batman #497 in 1993 Bane actually “breaks” Batman’s back in the story “The Broken Bat”. Bane inflicts the most severe injury Batman has ever had in his entire almost 75 year existence.

Given what he knows and this experience, I think Batman would be very concerned about neck damage and the possibility of spinal cord injury (SCI). Peter suggested that the final feature that Batman would choose to incorporate is the Pro-Neck-Tor (PNT).

The PNT helmet protects against neck fractures (i.e. broken necks and paralysis) from axial forces in head-first impacts. In the real world these can occur when a hockey player is checked from behind into the boards or when a football player is driven headfirst into another player or the ground. A schematic of the Pro-Neck-Tor in simulated action is shown in the image.

Peter Cripton

Image by Peter Cripton

Similar to the MIPS helmet, the PNT uses a second skin outer shell. But here the outer shell offset from the inner shell and there are guides on either side of the head. Upon impact the guides deploy and the head is allowed a small amount of yes/no nodding forward or backward. This keeps the head moving relative to the impact surface and decreases the neck loads while also decreasing head accelerations and the potential for concussion. It’s a win/win for Batman.

Overall, becoming Batman is an arduous process taking almost 2 decades of training. Once he’s there, he has to fight guys like Joker, Bane, and his entire Rogues Gallery on a nightly basis. It’s an uphill battle, but Batman the scientist is well prepared to always give himself the best edge possible. And when he does fall, after the injuries inflicted by Bane, he draws on the “will to act” and all his resources to rise again.