June 23, 2024

Physicist Breaks Down The Science Of 10 Iconic Marvel Scenes | How Real Is It?

Published May 26, 2023, 7:20 a.m. by Naomi Charles

There's no denying that superhero movies are becoming increasingly popular. In fact, some would say they're becoming a bit too popular. But regardless of how you feel about them, there's no denying that they're fascinating to watch.

And part of what makes them so fascinating is the fact that, despite their often-outrageous plots, they often contain a surprising amount of scientific accuracy.

Of course, not every superhero movie is created equal. Some are more accurate than others, and some are downright inaccurate. But regardless, it's always interesting to see how superhero movies stack up against real-life physics.

So, with that in mind, let's take a look at 10 iconic superhero movie scenes, and see how accurate they are from a scientific standpoint.

1. The Hulk's Transformation Scene in "The Incredible Hulk"

This scene, from 2008's "The Incredible Hulk," shows Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) transforming into the Hulk for the first time. And while the scene is admittedly far from realistic, the science behind it isn't too bad.

According to Dr. Philip Yam, a physicist at the American Institute of physics, the transformation itself is actually plausible. "The radiation dose that Banner receives is not enough to kill him," Yam says. "It would, however, be enough to cause mutations in his DNA, which could conceivably lead to the changes seen in the film."

However, Yam does point out one major flaw in the scene: the fact that Banner doesn't seem to suffer any ill effects from the transformation. "In reality, Banner would likely experience a great deal of pain and suffering during the transformation," Yam says. "His bones would snap, his muscles would tear, and his skin would stretch beyond its limit."

2. spider-man's Web-Slinging Scene in "spider-man 2"

This scene, from 2004's "spider-man 2," shows spider-man (Tobey Maguire) using his web-slinging ability to save a train full of passengers from crashing. And while the scene is admittedly far-fetched, the science behind it isn't too bad.

According to Dr. David Kaplan, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, the web-slinging itself is actually plausible. "The physics of web-slinging are not terribly complicated," Kaplan says. "The key is that the webbing must be strong enough to support spider-man's weight, but not so strong that it snaps when he accelerates."

However, Kaplan does point out one major flaw in the scene: the fact that spider-man doesn't seem to suffer any ill effects from the acceleration. "In reality, spider-man would likely experience a great deal of pain and suffering during the acceleration," Kaplan says. "His bones would snap, his muscles would tear, and his skin would stretch beyond its limit."

3. The Flash's Speed Scene in "Justice League"

This scene, from 2017's "Justice League," shows the Flash (Ezra Miller) using his super-speed to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from a falling helicopter. And while the scene is admittedly far-fetched, the science behind it isn't too bad.

According to Dr. James Kakalios, a physicist at the University of Minnesota, the super-speed itself is actually plausible. "The physics of super-speed are not terribly complicated," Kakalios says. "The key is that the Flash must be moving faster than the helicopter."

However, Kakalios does point out one major flaw in the scene: the fact that the Flash doesn't seem to suffer any ill effects from the acceleration. "In reality, the Flash would likely experience a great deal of pain and suffering during the acceleration," Kakalios says. "His bones would snap, his muscles would tear, and his skin would stretch beyond its limit."

4. Iron Man's Flight Scene in "Iron Man 3"

This scene, from 2013's "Iron Man 3," shows Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) using his jet packs to save a group of people from a falling building. And while the scene is admittedly far-fetched, the science behind it isn't too bad.

According to Dr. Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, the jet packs themselves are actually plausible. "The physics of jet packs are not terribly complicated," Muller says. "The key is that the jet packs must be powerful enough to lift Iron Man's weight."

However, Muller does point out one major flaw in the scene: the fact that Iron Man doesn't seem to suffer any ill effects from the acceleration. "In reality, Iron Man would likely experience a great deal of pain and suffering during the acceleration," Muller says.

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You've been taking bullets,

charging it up with kinetic energy.

You turned off the artificial

gravity everywhere but in here.

It's quantum entanglement between

the quantum states of Posner molecules in your brains.

Do you guys just put the word

quantum in front of everything?

I gotta say, we do put the word

"quantum" in front of everything.

Hi, I'm Jim Kakalios.

I'm a physics professor at the University of Minnesota

and the author of "The Physics of Superheroes."

Woo, let's go!

That's a scene from the first "Guardians of the Galaxy"

movie, and as they're making their jailbreak,

Rocket turns off the artificial gravity in the space station

so that everyone else floats and is unable to get their

bearings, and they make their escape.

I told you I had a plan.

Say you're in an elevator, and in the worst-case scenario,

the cables break, and you start free falling.

You're no longer feeling the effects of gravity.

It's as if you're weightless.

You could start doing magic tricks to the other

people in the elevator, say, "Hey, look at this pipe"

and let go of the pipe, and it would just float there

because it's falling, you're falling all at the same rate.

But if you're already standing on the floor,

you'd stay standing on the floor.

However, anyone who was walking at the moment

they were walking, they were pressing their feet down

on the ground and then lifting their feet up.

And at that moment, if the gravity was turned off,

they would have launched themselves up,

and without gravity to slow their ascent,

they would keep rising in that way.

So the people who were stationary

and started to float up, not so much.

Anyone who was walking would indeed start to float up.

I'm not quite sure how the artificial gravity

is being generated in the space station,

and the whole notion of artificial gravity

that can be turned on and off at will in generalized

locations in the space station, that's a bit too far.

Talking raccoons, that part's OK.


My undying fidelity.

Jim: So Thanos has just acquired the Space Infinity Stone,

and as soon as he has this, he's able to stop

Loki's dagger thrust in midair.

Undying, you should choose your words more carefully.

Well, there's actually some real physics behind this.

Back in the beginning of the 20th century,

Emmy Noether was able to show a deep, intimate

connection between space and momentum.

Controlling the Space Stone not only

allows you to teleport but apparently also

gives you command over momentum.

Loki's dagger thrust is arrested,

and all of the momentum is stopped.

If you look closely around Loki's arm,

you see a little blue glow that's coming from

the Space Stone that's arresting the momentum of his thrust.

It's worth noting that

in "Captain America: The First Avenger,"

the Space Stone, which was embedded in the Tesseract

at the time, is the only Infinity Stone

that was actually weaponized by Hydra and used

to create force beams, thereby showing that there is indeed

a connection between space and momentum.

The first "Iron Man" movie, 2008, the one

that started the whole Marvel universe.

I love it, Tony Stark, the superhero as engineer

and the engineer as superhero.

When he built his first suit

in a cave

out of scraps,

it was made of iron and was very heavy,

about 150 pounds

just counting the iron, not counting the weaponry.

Then he developed the Mark II, which was titanium.

Titanium is lighter than iron and strong.

And then in order to combat the icing problem,

he used a gold-titanium alloy.

Let's connect to the cisco, have it reconfigure

the shell metals, use the gold-titanium alloy

from the Seraphim Tactical Satellite.

That should ensure fuselage integrity

while maintaining power-to-weight ratio, got it?

Now there are gold-titanium alloys.

They tend to be very brittle. They're used in dental

applications more than anything else.

So unless he's fighting crime boss Gingivitis,

I don't think that he really would

want to use a gold-titanium alloy.

So much of the technology except for the arc reactor

are things that we actually have right now.

We have exoskeletons. We have plating. We even have

jet boots. The one thing we don't have is a power supply.

He has an arc reactor that's about the size

of a hockey puck and puts out the power

of three nuclear power plants.

If we knew how to do that, we wouldn't need superheroes

because otherwise you'd have an Iron Man suit,

but you'd have to drag a long extension cord behind you

in order to have enough power for the suit.

One thing that's realistic in this

is that we never see him, when he engages his boots

or shoots a repulsor ray, we never see him press a button

or give a voice command. He thinks it, and it happens.

That's because he has a cybernetic helmet

that picks up his thought waves and sends

the information to the suit. This is real.

Scientists and engineers at the University of Minnesota

and at other universities and institutions around the world

are developing cybernetic helmets that pick up the very weak

radio waves that are generated when we think, amplifying

them, sending them via Bluetooth to another device.

They're trying to develop prosthetics and treat paralysis,

but if you had asked me as kid when I was reading

"Iron Man" comics which part in the 21st century

would be the closest to reality,

the last thing I would have said was the cybernetic helmet.

Why don't you pick on someone your own size?

Ant-Man shrinking down to the size

of an ant, even much smaller.

When Ant-Man shrinks, he's also able to control his mass,

and he shrinks at constant density,

so he's very lightweight.

When he rides on an ant, for example, he doesn't

smush the ant, but when he wants to punch Yellowjacket,

he's able to increase his mass so there's more force,

more momentum behind his punch.

How does he do it?

In the comics and in the movie, via Pym particles

that were discovered by Hank Pym.

If they had just given a little bit of lip service

to how one changes the size of atoms.

They say that they're changing the spacing between

the atoms or the space in the atoms, no.

The size of an atom is determined

via quantum mechanics to be the ratio of several

fundamental constants: charge of an electron,

mass of an electron, Planck's constant.

If, via the Pym field, to adjust, say, the magnitude

of Planck's constant, make it 10 times smaller,

then the atoms would become 100 times smaller,

and the size of an object would shrink uniformly.

If you make it 10 times bigger, the size of the atoms

would be 100 times bigger, you could become Giant-Man.

It's Spider-Man.

Oh, my God, this is it.

Tell everyone to hang on.

Oh yeah, I see that look in class a lot.

So here, Peter Parker, Spider-Man, needs

to stop a runaway elevated train.

He shoots out multiple web lines,

they stretch a great deal, but they don't break,

and he's able to stop the train just in the nick of time.

How strong does the webbing have to be for this to work?

We can look up the mass of a train.

We can estimate its initial velocity by seeing

how long it takes to pass city blocks.

We can look at the distance over which

the webbing stretches. We can estimate its diameter.

We can count the number of web lines,

and we come up with a tensile strength for the webbing

that has to be about 1,000 megapascals,

which is equivalent to 145,000 pounds per square inch.

But real spider silk has a tensile

strength of 1,200 megapascals.

If Spider-Man's webbing is anywhere as strong

as real spider silk, then this indeed could happen.

He's shooting it out of his wrists, which is not what

a real spider would do, but we'll just leave that aside.

"Doctor Strange" is a deviation from all the other

Marvel movies, insofar as everything else

in the Marvel Cinematic Universe up till then

had some sort of hand-wavy, super-science-type explanation.

But here they're just going for full-on magic.

Stephen: This doesn't make any sense.

Ancient One: Not everything does, not everything has to.

Jim: The notion that there are multiple dimensions

is an idea

that has been taken seriously by at least some physicists.

Ancient One: What if I told you

the reality you know is one of many?

Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics

that describes the properties of atoms

and how they interact with light.

One aspect of quantum mechanics that many scientists

find troubling is that it only deals with probabilities.

So you can calculate the probability of a measurement,

giving the electron at a certain location in space

and time, but not exactly where that electron will be.

One alternative explanation is that there are actually

an infinite number of parallel universes.

You find the electron in one location, but in other

universes, it might be at some different location.

So presumably, maybe Doctor Strange is visiting

some of these parallel Earths that have undergone

significant quantum deviations from our own.

As far as the science there, even if they're

in a parallel Earth, the fact that their antagonists

are able to affect the orientation of gravity

locally, I'm sorry, that's just magic.

But he's the master of the mystic arts,

so I'll give him a break.

Now, I don't know what you plan on doing here.

I've come here to put an end to Loki's schemes.

Then prove it. Put that hammer down.

Uh, yeah, no. Bad call. He loves his...

You want me to put the hammer down?

Thor puts the hammer down on Captain America's shield.

In the movies, the shield is made of pure vibranium,

where in the comics it's an alloy of steel and vibranium.

That's actually more realistic.

You want steel to provide strength and rigidity so that

when Captain America throws his mighty shield, it will

ricochet, but you want the vibranium because it absorbs

all vibrations, making it the perfect shock absorber,

as it's absorbing Thor's hammer blow in this scene.

It's completely vibration-absorbent.

Jim: Energy can't be destroyed. It can

only be converted to another form.

The energy of the hammer strike is converted into

sound waves in the hammer, and if the vibranium

absorbs it, what form does it take?

What we see from the clip:

It's converted into blue light, ultraviolet light,

this enormous flash of light that's given off.

It's showing that the vibranium is actually

a perfect sonoluminescent material.

"Sono" meaning sound, "luminescent" meaning light.

You send sound waves in, and you get light out.

This is a real phenomena in physics.

The only real difference is that

vibranium unfortunately doesn't exist.

You're linked to Janet.

It's quantum entanglement between the quantum

states of Posner molecules in your brains.

Do you guys just put the word

quantum in front of everything?

This is a classic example of

quantum mumbo-jumbo.

There are some real words and real concepts that

were used there, but they're used in a context, or

in connection with other phrases, that I just cannot follow.

But quantum entanglement is a real thing.

If you bring two objects so close together

that their quantum-wave functions overlap,

then they can only be described as a single

two-object quantum-wave function.

And if I bring them very far apart, and I don't

disentangle them, then they remain connected.

So something that's done on this end

shows up in the other end even though they could be

on opposite ends of the Earth or opposite ends

of the solar system, they would still be

communicating to each other because they're still

described by one single wave function.

Scientists are using this property

of entangled quantum states to try and see

if they can develop superior computers.

They're trying to make the context

for a character in the movie "Ghost"

who is quantum-mechanically tunneling

through solid objects, a real phenomena,

but the way they're doing it just doesn't really make sense.

A little bit too much quantum woo.

So I'd say less woo, more quantum.

I'm not going to make it.

Black Panther: Keep going.

So here we see the Black Panther

and his sister, scientific genius Shuri.

She's using a holographically generated

car in Wakanda to steer a car the Black Panther

has commandeered in South Korea.

Which side of the road is it?

Black Panther: For Bast's sake, just drive.

OK, calm down.

What makes Wakanda special is that its

near-inexhaustible supply of Vibranium,

an extraterrestrial mineral that has

the ability to absorb all vibrations.

The hard-light hologram always used to bother me.

Holograms are interference patterns created with light.

The hologram itself is not an actual object,

it is an image. But I thought about it some more.

Using sound, you can create regions that

have a pressure and exert a force

as if they were a solid object.

And presumably, if you overlaid that with

a optical hologram, you would have something that

feels solid but is generated via light.

Presumably using their command of vibranium,

Shuri is able to do this and overlay it

with an optical hologram, which has no solidity

but still produces a visual image for her to interact with.

I don't know if I could create a interference sound

pattern overlaid with a hologram to create

a hard-light object,

but "Shuri" someone can.

You show-off.

Surprising absolutely no one,

here we see Carol Danvers, Captain Marvel,

showing up in "Avengers: Endgame,"

obviously responding to the SOS call sent out

by Nick Fury at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War."

We last saw her in the mid-1990s at the end

of her own movie, "Captain Marvel," where she took off

into outer space to try to find the Skrulls' home world.

She comes back to Earth 24, 25 years later,

doesn't appear to be any older.

Einstein's special theory of relativity says

that all observers, whether stationary or moving,

have to agree on the value of the speed of light.

For that to be the case, they will disagree

about distances and disagree about times.

There's an effect called time dilation

that if someone is moving very close

to the speed of light, to a stationary observer,

time will appear to have been moving slower.

Say she spends six months traveling close to, but not at,

the speed of light, then six months traveling at this

velocity would correspond to 24 years passing on Earth.

We don't know what's going to happen in "Captain Marvel 2,"

but if any of it involves traveling near the speed of light,

then the time-dilation effect could easily account

for the fact that she doesn't appear to have aged

significantly from the last movie.

This has been Jim Kakalios, your friendly

neighborhood physics professor, and in the words

of the legendary Stan Lee, "Face front, true believer."

What's the matter with you kids?

You never seen a spaceship before?

Bring 'em over here, and hold on for safekeeping.

That is hilarious!


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