Could A Mere Mortal Really Be Batman? When a superhero is just a human being with fantastic gear, can anyone dream of becoming Batman? That's the question professor E. Paul Zehr considers in a new book.

Could A Mere Mortal Really Be Batman?

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BILL WOLFF: From NPR News in New York, this is the Bryant Park Project.

(Soundbite of music)


Overlooking historic Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, live from NPR studios, this is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. News, information, Batman! I'm Mike Pesca. It's Thursday, July 17th, 2008.

And we'll be speaking about the real, live possibilities of a batman. The other night, meaning last night - so it was another night, but I want to be more specific, it was the last night that I experienced - I went to a live comedy concert. You don't get to do that too much when you're hosting a morning show. But Ricky Gervais was in town. Love that guy from "The Office," just a hysterical bloke. And I was wondering - OK, that doesn't mean he's good at standup, and in fact, I knew his background wasn't standup. So, beforehand, I went online and saw that he had done some standup before, and it was good.

So, the opening act was this guy, Todd Barry, who's hysterical, and what he did was kind of interesting. Setups and punch-lines, that works well in comedy. What Gervais did, maybe didn't work so well. He tried. But what he would try to do - it was - it just didn't work for us, and - me and my friend Dave, and I think most of the audience were just hysterical in seeing Ricky Gervais. They were going along with it. And that got extra annoying, looking around at everyone, and you're accusing them, what are you laughing at? It's not that funny. It was just content-free. He didn't really have that much to say.

So, he spent a lot of time telling stories about - funny animal stories, and sort of embodying the animals. I know Eddie Izzard does that. And he spent a long time riffing on nursery rhymes, about how they don't make sense. Just not that much comedy gold to mine there. Yeah, he made a couple of good points about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. Why would you send the King's horses to pick up an egg? What is less well-suited to repair a broken egg than a horse? But mostly, it was just him adopting that kind of quizzical Englishness, you know?

And afterwards my friends and I were just riffing, too bad, only, you know, 4,000 people saw it, because what a hysterical inside joke this would be. Just come up with any nursery rhyme.

(As Ricky Gervais) Hickory, dickory, dock, what kind of doctor? You're a doctor?

Any nursery rhyme.

(As Ricky Gervais) Pocket full of posy, well, why'd you come with posy?

Mm-hm, yeah. You see how you didn't think that was funny? That was my night.

All right, on the show today, we will explore whether superheroes could really exist off the screen. The physics behind superheroes in just one second, specifically the Batman. Ted Leo is here to play some rock, and some roll, in the studios. That guy is great. And what's in a baby name? More and more people are giving their kids androgynous names, Parker, Dakota, Sydney. What the shift in names says about us. We will get today's headlines in just a minute, but first...

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PESCA: Here's the problem with superheroes. In real life, a radioactive spider bite? It probably just itches and that's all. How about bombarded by gamma rays, like "The Hulk"? That will definitely kill you. And an alien who draws power from our yellow sun, like "Superman"? Well, what if it's cloudy? These shortcomings are all factored into Bob Kane's decision to make his creation, Batman, mortal.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, March 23, 1990)

Mr. BOB KANE (Co-Creator, Batman): Every person that doesn't have superpowers could relate to Batman a lot easier than they could to Superman. In other words, you didn't have to come from another planet to be a superhero. All you had to do was be born rich, and build your body into perfection, and have the urge to go out and fight crime.

PESCA: That was Bob Kane speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. But could that really work? Could a man even without superpowers possess the athletic ability, to say nothing of the utility belt, of Batman? Well, luckily academics are hard on this matter. Paul Zehr, an associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, tackled the question in his new book, "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero." Hello, Paul.

Dr. PAUL ZEHR (Rehabilitation Neuroscience Laboratory, University of Victoria; Author, "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero"): Hi there.

PESCA: So, did you do research into this book? Or just kind of let your brain run wild?

Dr. ZEHR: Well, basically I let my brain run wild to do the research. What I did was I tried to apply sort of whatever's out there around exercise training and science related to this kind of thing and try and apply it to Batman, because obviously, there isn't really a big research program on superhero training that you could really tap directly into.

PESCA: And to find out what abilities Batman has, did you rely on the movies? Or did you go back to all the comic books?

Dr. ZEHR: I did both, actually. I mean, there's some excellent resources out there, but you know, "Batman Begins" was the fantastic example of probably the most realistic Batman, so I draw on looking at that. And I also went right back to, you know, Bob Kane's drawings and the comics from the - 1939, and looked at them all the way through to see sort of how Batman's been portrayed.

PESCA: The problem is as different artists take on the character - you know, Frank Miller maybe wants to emphasize how he could take a punch. Some of the original artists want to emphasize how agile he is. So, once you add them all up, he could probably be faster than the fastest man, stronger than the strongest man, more agile than the more agile man. He becomes truly the superman, who still remains a man.

Dr. ZEHR: Yeah, it - you raise a really neat point there, that if you try and look for the definitive story on a superhero in a comic book, you'll never find it, because there's so many different takes on things. And I think the neatest thing about Batman, when we try and think about reality, you know, and the possibility of real training for real activities is that he really doesn't wind up being the fastest, and the strongest, and this, and that, because you can't actually be all those - the best at all those things, all at one time.

PESCA: Right.

Dr. ZEHR: Like, your body just doesn't work like that.

PESCA: Right. Like, if you're going for speed, you can't have the mass to be a weightlifter, for instance.

Dr. ZEHR: Exactly. You don't see too many, you know, marathon runners also winning the 100-meter race in the Olympics.

PESCA: Right.

Dr. ZEHR: Different sort of training and - but Batman is sort of the best all-around guy. I mean, you take all the all-around, add it all up, you wind up with this sublime, you know, performance.

PESCA: So, what would he look like? What kind of athlete today is the Batman body? Is he, like, an ultimate, martial-arts-type, fighter guy?

Dr. ZEHR: Partly, but I would say- partly that, and partly kind of blended with a decathlete.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZEHR: I think, you know, that's a good example of somebody who's all around really, really good at many different kind of physical abilities, and skills, and so on, but has to put them altogether.

PESCA: Mm-hm. And how possible is that? Well, decathletes do it, but that's not - even the guy who wins the decathlon, he's not ready to be Batman yet.

Dr. ZEHR: No, well, the thing is then you've got to think that's just a metaphor of kind of different activities. They - he's got to have all the agility. He's got to have all the martial-arts training. He's got to have all the different levels of training that the job description for, you know, do you want to be Batman, really would demand.

And there aren't any real good examples you could directly tie to. You could think of different examples of, you know, Navy Seals or something like that, where you've got these guys with this extreme sort of deadly intent and training and so on. But again, they're not operating under the same thing that Batman is. Batman's got some really bizarre set of rules he's got to work with that make the whole thing much more difficult than it might be.

PESCA: Well, what else does he have to work with?

Dr. ZEHR: Well, I mean, the biggest thing, if you think about it, you've got a guy who's super trained, he's out there trying to fight crime, and fighting against people who are trying to kill him. Yet his credo is he will not use lethal force. He won't use a gun. He won't use the same weapons they use. So, he's kind of fighting an uphill battle all the time. So, he has to be even that much better, and he's kind of a handicapped in terms of what he's able to do.

PESCA: I want to play you - I want to ask you one aspect about the psychology of Batman. Let me - let's play a clip from the movie, and this is Michael Caine as Alfred the butler, talking to Batman and getting a little philosophical.

(Soundbite of movie "Batman Begins")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne/Batman) People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred) Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no-one else can make, the right choice.

PESCA: Here's what I wanted to ask about that clip. We heard in the beginning Bob Kane saying that he felt Batman would be more relatable because he was mortal. But there, Alfred the butler talks about kind of what Batman has become, a guy who lives on the fringes of society and an outcast. Do you think because Batman - because Superman was immortal, people could just idolize him, and not really relate to him? Because Batman is mortal, is that one of the reasons why he is often depicted as an outcast?

Dr. ZEHR: I think maybe that's relate - that could be true. I mean, we tend to have our heroes, right? Whether its sport, or science, or whatever we do, and one of the things that's quite bizarre about human beings is we like to also knock down our idols.

PESCA: Yeah.

Dr. ZEHR: You know, the human ones in particular. We like to see them perform really well, but we also seem to leap up, and want to watch the feeding frenzy when something happens that's maybe not so good. And I think you've got somebody there with the kind of idea behind Batman, because he's got to operate a certain way, and he's had to push himself so much. And he's - it really does put him in a special category, where he is becoming ostracized and a loner, and all the psychology of that. That is for sure different from somebody like Superman, who's front and center and can do this and that, and as you say...

PESCA: Effortlessly, in "Superman."

Dr. ZEHR: Effortlessly, there's no training required to do it. He is that.

PESCA: Paul Zehr is an associate professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, author of the upcoming book "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero." Thank you.

Dr. ZEHR: You're welcome.

PESCA: And now, let's get some more of today's news headlines, implying that becoming Batman was a news headline, but in any case, I'm willing to now throw to the BPP's Mark Garrison.

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