Batman debuted in 1939. However, historians don’t know the exact date someone first joked about how easily someone would figure out his true identity. Those jokes will never stop either. The question is not whether Bruce Wayne would be unmasked in a real-world Gotham. It’s a question of how quickly it would happen. A week? A day? An hour? There are only so many people who can afford those gadgets and have his exact height and build. But what if a billionaire did want to be a vigilante? Could they pull it off while maintaining secrecy? There would be no harder time than right now, but it’s not impossible. We can build a believable Batman for the 21st century.
He’ll just have to make some big changes to the many aspect that go into being the Caped Crusader. All without changing what Batman represents.
Batman’s iconic mask is the first casualty in our modern upgrade. Facial recognition software has been around since the ’60s. Present day versions would easily unravel his true identity even with only half his face showing. And the abundance of cameras, smartphones, and powerful satellites would make acquiring high resolution images of Batman a breeze even for a nocturnal superhero. One good photo alone would probably be enough for a machine to perfectly match his chin with Bruce Wayne’s. (Amateur sleuths would almost certainly unlock it with their eyes too. Can you imagine a real person meeting Adam West’s Batman and being fooled by that getup? Neither can we.)
The rest of his physique would also give Batman away. Body recognition software would limit the pool of potential vigilante candidates, if not outright identify him entirely. Everything about Bruce Wayne’s physicality—his height, arm and leg length, and shoulder width—would betray him.
The first time Kevin Conroy’s Batman showed up at the Joker’s Wild Casino the “eye-in-the-sky” would immediately know Bruce Wayne had arrived.
Our 21st century Batman has to go with a full face mask. Fake facial hair won’t be enough to hide his identity from either man or machine. It’s far from a guarantee a partial prosthetic would work either. He’d even want to cover up his eyes. All of his face must be hidden. We’re thinking something resembling the “Tar Batman” the Scarecrow hallucinated in Batman Begins would be especially menacing.
Mr. Wayne would also need to modify his Batsuit so that it creates a false image of his body. He’ll want to borrow George Costanza’s Timberlands to add some height. And he’ll need to modify the rest so his chest, shoulders, and possibly even his appendages appear larger than they actually are.
THE PRICE TAG OF BEING BATMAN
Every modern iteration of the Batmobile dating back to the ’60s would cost a pretty penny(worth). Jet engines, head-to-toe armor, cutting edge computers, machine guns, rockets, military-grade grappling hooks, and custom car bodies aren’t cheap. Few people can even build those let alone afford them.
Batman’s suit and personal gadgets aren’t free either. Expensive technology and vehicles like the Batplane would immediately limit the number of people who could afford to be the vigilante. And once you cut that number down to a handful of billionaires you’re not far from unmasking the Dark Knight’s identity.
Bruce Wayne has two options. The first is to stop using high-tech gadgetry altogether. That means no fancy machines or crime-fighting tools that only a handful of people have access to. However, since Batman has no actual superpowers, this is a terrible idea. Forget being a legendary superhero. Bruce Wayne would be the guy in the hockey pads from The Dark Knight pretending to be Batman. He’d also be dead or in jail shortly after his vigilante career began.
The only real option is the second choice – Bruce Wayne must conceal his wealth. That’ll be easier than you think. The uber-rich around the globe do that now and no one seems to care. Our real life superhero could either donate billions or lose it on the stock market, but still be rich enough to keep up his general lifestyle. People would think he is merely “regular” rich rather than “build anything I want rich.” That’s the difference between someone like Tom Cruise and Jeff Bezos. One can get financing to shoot a movie in space. The other can build his own rockets to try and go there himself.
Meanwhile, 21st Century Batman would secretly still have plenty of money to fund his vigilante lifestyle. (Which sounds way more fun than pretending to be an astronaut.)
THE PERILS OF OVEREXPOSURE
Flashy, super famous billionaire playboys who also had famous fathers tend to stand out. Despite his best efforts to preserve his privacy, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. couldn’t walk down a street without ending up on a magazine cover. And he died before everyone had a camera in their pocket. Even worse for our superhero today is how countless people document every move of the uber-famous. Taylor Swift can’t even go trick-or-treating in a full squirrel costume without someone recognizing her.
If Bruce Wayne makes his life interesting enough the paparazzi and celebrity blogs become obsessed with him, it’s going to make it much easier for the inevitable Batman sleuths to match his public appearances with the Dark Knight’s own schedule. Attention on the real person behind the mask undermines efforts to create separation between the two personas. Maximum, never-ending attention on Bruce Wayne would shatter that line entirely.
Overexposure would be a problem for his superhero side too, though. The more cases Batman takes on, and the more criminals he busts, the more chances he has at being caught or exposed. As his legend grew so would efforts to find out who he is. Ironically, the better he is at being Batman the less likely he will get to be Batman for long.
Our Bruce Wayne can’t have a public persona at all. He can’t go to fancy, well-covered galas thrown by Lex Luthor, like in Batman v Superman. He can’t throw his own either, like Michael Keaton’s Bruce did. And Mr. Wayne definitely can’t engage in TMZ lead story moments, like when Christian Bale’s Bruce jumped in a restaurant fountain with two supermodels. A real Batman needs his public face to be so boring and unremarkable no one cares where he is, where he’s going, or who he’s with. It can be done, too. You can have all the money in the world and remain entirely anonymous to the general public. Just ask Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen. Who? Exactly. You have no idea who that is, even though he’s worth $5.5 billion!
Bruce Wayne had famous parents who died tragically, though. People would inherently find him intriguing. So our real version would have to make people forgot about him or stop caring. He retreat entirely from public life, like in The Dark Knight Rises. (Only years before becoming Batman rather than after.) Or he could stage a fall from grace where no one would want to be associated with him. We’d like to keep his parents’ good name unsullied, so we vote for total retreat. And if our boring Bruce wants to avoid being compared to Howard Hughes, pop up once very couple years at a museum opening. Just not one where Jack Nicholson’s Joker shows up.
As for his caseload, Batman would need to be highly selective in which criminals he took on. He’d only want to come out of the shadows for the biggest fish, like mob boss Carmine Falcone or corrupt politician Max Shreck. Preferably Batman would do a lot of his work in total anonymity so he could avoid getting credit. No one ever has to know who stopped all those muggers and low-level thieves. And clashes with other secretive figures, like Ra’s al Ghul, can remain totally unknown too. Save Batman’s press for the stories that will move the public to support his work while terrifying evil-doers.
THE ACTUAL AUTHORITIES
To freely work both outside of and with the law, Batman has always relied on Gotham’s most honest cop, Jim Gordon. That partnership allows the Dark Knight to evade capture by the authorities, all while getting valuable information from them. And when you have the law on your side, even tacitly, you can focus on stopping crime without worrying about the ones your clearly breaking yourself.
But good luck actually doing that in a heavily policed country. One that also has the most expensive military and an obsession with “homeland security.” The odds they US would let a powerful, secret figure run around one of its biggest cities, taking the law into his own hands while using advanced weaponry, is zero and nil. Jim Gordon wouldn’t be able to protect Batman on his own. Jim Gordon would lose his pension and end up sharing a cell with Bruce Wayne if he worked with Batman one single time.
This one hurts, but it’s unavoidable. The 2022 Bruce Wayne would have to find high level government officials he can trust. He’d need to partner with someone who has real, genuine authority and access to the highest levels of power. They’ll need to run interference for him. Or, even better, get him de facto immunity to do what he wants. The government would not let Batman operate in the US unless they knew who he really was and that he was working entirely on the country’s behalf and not against it. And that’s true even if he limited his activities to one major metropolis. Our 21st Century Batman would have to be more like Iron Man, only if Tony Stark kept his identity a complete secret from all but a few four-star generals.
This issue, far more than all the other issues combined, stands as the single biggest obstacle to Batman’s real existence. Good thing his secret wealth will let him blackmail government officials.
REMAINING A SYMBOL
“People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol? As a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”
As Bruce Wayne explained in Batman Begins, he wears a mask and hides his true identity because Batman is not a man. He’s a beacon of hope and justice that shines even when things are at their darkest. The Batsignal Jim Gordon beams to the night sky is the living embodiment of what the Dark Knight means to Gotham. To truly be Batman is to represent something bigger than yourself. And no real-world version can hide from that role.
Our Batman can never fully hide in the shadows. In the real world the law, death, or an unmasking would come for him soon enough. It’s far too easy to track everyone anywhere, no matter how smart they are. So he needs to make sure his short time as the Dark Knight counts. He must be incorruptible both in and out of his suit. He must stand for the innocent people and justice. And he must accept that creating a lasting legacy will mean the destruction of Bruce Wayne’s life.
No matter the century, if you want to be Batman you must become a symbol and ensure Batman is remembered for what he represented, not who he was. Especially cause we’d totally figure out his real identity eventually.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.