An Tran has studied martial arts since childhood, mastered parkour and powerlifting, and is working on a bulletproof bodysuit.
I’ve searched for a suit of flexible body armor every year since I first heard about its existence seven years ago. Now a company has finally made one; it is almost exactly what I’ve been looking for. This time my internet search takes less than an hour—the suit is designed for stuntmen to wear beneath their clothes. It’s really just compression gear with impact-resistant inserts made of non-Newtonian gel. My first exposure to the substance was a video of a man with a beanie being bludgeoned by a steel shovel. It works fairly simply: Motion is the only way to distribute energy, so the way to make flexible body armor is through chemistry. The molecular weave of the gel tightens up in response to blunt force and, as the molecules move toward each other, the impact is spread across the surface of the pad. This stunt-suit makes a perfect base, but my sides would be unprotected. I’ve worked as a stuntman before and we rarely took hits under our arms. But I need this for combat and blows to the side and ribs are common in fights. I’ll need to stitch additional pads into the lining, but this find is still monumental; every other supplier for this kind of body armor required a government I.D. or, being designed for motorcyclists, were poor choices for combat. Here, I’ve found the base for my battle suit, my first step to becoming bulletproof.
The steps to come have already been mapped: procure a Kevlar stealth vest; research materials suitable for lightweight chainmail for stab and slash protection; procure a ballistic helmet to modify; construct boots and gloves; etc. Two years ago, I told my girlfriend at the time, “It’s on my bucket list. Eventually, I’m going to make a functional vigilante suit.” She asked why. I answered, “Because Batman.” She told me he’s not real and I told her, “I want to prove that a person can actually be as skilled and as educated as Batman.” She repeated herself: Batman isn’t real.
I’ve been planning the suit for over five years now, ever since I learned about the technology from a fellow parkour practitioner when I was in Canada. It made perfect sense to me: my father is a sifu—a kung fu master—who trained the South Vietnamese military and who began my combat education when I was nine. In the eighteen years since, I’ve studied a litany of traditions: tai chi chuan, wing chun, savate, bagua zhang, aikido, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and many others. I can fight; I can leap across rooftops; I took up powerlifting and became one of the strongest men in the country. Building a suit and actualizing one of my earliest childhood fantasies seemed like the obvious next step. More importantly, it seemed feasible, despite how many times others told me—have continued to tell me—the idea’s absurd.
The planning took years. Gel armor stops neither bullets nor blades; I had to hit the comic books for both motivation and research. I needed stories of Batman’s drive to sacrifice everything for his mission, his devotion to his city, his unswerving drive toward improving himself and honing his skills. I’ve always needed his stories to tell me not to give up. But his armor sucks—mostly Kevlar or plate armor—both useless against piercing weapons. Deathstroke’s scale armor makes a lot more sense, but scales are heavy and still inferior to chainmail. There’s still a lot to be done before this suit’s complete, a lot of research, a lot of money, a lot of cursing at a sewing machine.
I know I have to be a little crazy to not only contemplate this, but to put my plans into motion. I’ve done some hard looking into my own psychology; I’ve confronted my personal demons. I’m okay with being a little crazy, but there are serious dangers I need to avoid. Batman tempers trauma into training. He turns pain into power, despair into discipline. Batman is pure intelligence and raw force; he’s become a paragon of manhood, a self-educated genius, a warrior, a corporate leader. But I’d be a fool to say that Batman should be a measure of masculinity. Becoming Batman is not the same as becoming a good or healthy man.
When Tim Drake becomes the third Robin in A Lonely Place of Dying, he speculates that Batman needs a Robin to balance him out. I think this is a pivotal observation; I think we need to be wary of just how much we idolize fictional crime-fighters. Batman buries his emotions. He has renounced femininity; women are largely transient and replaceable—Alfred, Dick, Tim, even Jason, the slaughtered Robin, are fixed in the Bat-family while the women come and go.
When I think about building this suit, I also think about the man I want to be. Dick Grayson, in a heart-wrenching episode of Young Justice, says it perfectly: “I always wanted—expected—to grow up and become him […] but that thing inside of him? That thing that drives him to sacrifice everything for the sake of his mission… That’s not me. I don’t want to be the Batman anymore.” When I think of the man I want to be, I think of Robin—any of them, including the women. Robin is the balance to Batman’s darkness. It’s too easy to argue that Batman is a perversion of masculinity, but if you look at the set , you see a different person. You see love, compassion, joy, worry, grief and all other facets of humanity.
Editor-in-chief of bodybuilding magazine Testosterone Nation T.C. Luoma argues “that the raw masculine qualities of Testosterone need to be transformed and channeled into manhood, which is largely based on being protective, altruistic, and heroic. Manhood, perhaps counter intuitively, also draws on certain feminine traits like empathy, cooperation, and the ability to support and nurture.” If I’m going to build this suit, if I’m going to continue my training, I must understand also how to cultivate the rest of my humanity as well, how to nurture relationships with others, how to love fiercely and grieve safely. The alternative is becoming lost in the dark, becoming bulletproof only to succumb to spiritual rot, death by disease from the inside out. Manhood is more than just power; Batman needs Robin.