With Batman, there are no shortcuts. No radioactive spiders to offer a sixth sense. No rage-induced Hulk bulk. No magical powers from Krypton or meteorite from Wakanda.
“He must rely on real-world, plausible tech and inventions to get out of tricky situations and outwit enemies,” says Abhijeet Kini, comics creator, publisher of indie comics and lifelong Batman fan.
It helps that Bruce Wayne is super-rich. It means he can run a secret R&D division at Wayne Enterprises and afford inventions that even the US Army finds too expensive. “My favourite has been the Shark Repellent spray can from the 1960s TV series,” Kini says. “There’s a sequence in which he sprays it on a shark, which falls off a ladder. What were they thinking? But by land large, the gadgets are what readers and viewers have come to love.”
Take a closer look at some futuristic gizmos and inventions, drawn from the real world.
Jet boots: Sure, Iron Man used them, but Val Kilmer used them first in Batman Forever (1995). For years, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) held the patent for boots that let out a burst of propulsion, jet-style. In 2017, they released the patent to the public, so you can now build your own. The catch: The tech only works in low-gravity areas like space-stations, not on Earth.
The Batsuit: It’s more than a skintight costume. The Nolan films show the flexible fabric to be blade- and rip-resistant, with an armour made of, as Lucius Fox puts it, Nomex and Kevlar bi-weave. It isn’t far from reality. Nomex is an actual flame-retardant material used in suits for race-car drivers, astronauts, fire-fighters and soldiers. They’re also deployed to make oven mitts. Meanwhile, American defence and weapons company Lockheed Martin, the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, are all experimenting with nanomaterials. Efforts are on to create fabric from carbon nanotube and ceramic fibres. They hope the material will resist melting, and heat. Add tungsten, and Batman could well resist Superman’s laser vision too.
That helmet: On screen, the mask’s distinctive bat-ears have served as antennae for his sonar and radar tech, and his goggles let him see through walls. In the real world, the Daqri smart helmet offers close to X-ray vision, link that up to APX Labs’ Skylight for 360-degree augmented reality or a virtual map of your own Gotham.
The smart cape: Batman Forever featured a cape that could become a heat shield, something Nomex can do today. The Dark Knight Rises has a cape that can turn into a stiff batwing-shaped glider when a microcurrent is run through it. This is not real yet, but scientists have developed electroactive Shape Memory Polymers and Shape Memory Alloys that rely on heat and other stimuli to take a set shape. No gliders yet.
The Arkham games give the cowl yet another job – it has a detective-mode option that lets him detect enemies in locations he hasn’t explored. It’s much like the real-world PRISM 200C Backpack Radar. Bring it close to a wall to get a clear picture of who’s on the other side. But at 5.7 kg, it’s too bulky to run around with.
The sonar cellphone: The modified Nokia Tube 5800 in The Dark Knight can emit a high-frequency pulse and record the response time to develop a blueprint of its surroundings, much like… a submarine, Mr Wayne. Echolocation is tried and tested tech. Can it fit into your palm, or be applied to every cellphone in the city without the users’ knowledge to triangulate everyone’s location? Not yet, Mr Wayne. Even if all phones had sonar tech, the pulse would be too weak to be useful.
The grappling gun: The pistol-looking thing that shoots cables and lets you swing away to safety has a bulkier real-life cousin. The US Navy has developed a shoulder-mounted cannon that can fire a long cable, with a hook at the end.
Napalm gel capsule: Our Knight uses it in Batman Returns, to overpower Catwoman when he’s dangling from a building at her mercy. Napalm is real all right. But its use on civilians was banned by the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, in 1980.
Antidote pills: The TV show Batman had a pill in his belt which, when activated with water, blew up into a spare Batsuit — with its own utility belt. Less bizarre are his recovery pills. In the real world, Xstat, developed in the US for military use, features a syringe-like applicator that injects small, rapidly expanding sponges into a gunshot or shrapnel wound cavity to treat injuries instantly.
The wheels: The Batmobile has had machine guns and oil dispensers, driven up walls and driven sideways. In films it’s gone from a sleek ride to a battle tank to one with a built-in Batpod, a motorcycle for a quicker ride. Our cars are still geared for comfort, not combat. But British defence contractor Hisham Awad has taken notes from the Knight’s ride. His company BAE Systems is in the concept stage of developing The Raider, a small highly agile vehicle designed to carry ammunition and launch attacks. A car as a weapon is bad news. The worse news: It’s an unmanned vehicle.
Did Batman invent drones? In a story titled The 1001 Inventions of Batman, in the 1957 issue of the comic, a villain replicates one of our hero’s most prized gadgets: a small flying object that transmits live video back to the user. That Flying Eye seems much like the drone cameras of today, but offered no direct inspiration. The Caped Crusader has been an early telecom adopter. He’s had a Batphone in his car and used a supercomputer long before they became commonplace.