Superheroes have captivated the attention of audiences worldwide for decades. The core appeal of superheroes lies within their extraordinary abilities, endowed upon them by any number of sources, from radioactive spiders to godlike powers to remarkable ingenuity. Whatever the origin story, consumers of superhero media have flocked to theaters for over half a century with the intention of being awed by ever-improving special effects. The last decade in particular has rekindled the frenzy for costumed vigilantes, and vast leaps in CGI have been the catalyst for it. Upon executing these grandiose special effects, studios take great care to provide the utmost level of realism possible, but more often than not, disbelief must be suspended in order to enjoy movies of this nature. At their core superhero films are outrageous, but at times they can push things too far- even small things. The devil is in the details, and while small errors regarding physics can be overlooked by most, a careful observer is able to identify moments where the realism slips just a little.
The Avengers is a modern worldwide phenomenon without a doubt. In contrast to DC’s gritty Dark Knight series, Marvel’s series of films following Spider-Man, Thor, and Iron Man are fun and entertaining, if a bit extreme in their action. For the most part, Marvel’s latest films have been believable, though if we take the time to look closely at scenes from each of these films, small mistakes in physics can be recognized.
The first film to be analyzed is the hugely successful Iron Man sequel. Tony Stark, super genius and unapologetic narcissist, has engineered a biotic suit which grants him the ability to fly and perform other feats which are humanly impossible. Near the start of the film he is hosting the annual exposition of Stark Industries’ latest technology, Stark Expo. In his ever-so-flashy style, clad head to toe in the Iron Man suit, Tony leaps from a chopper at an extreme altitude and descends on the Expo. Plummeting at impossible speed, he falls through a hatch in the ceiling and lands, unharmed, in a crouch in the center of the stage. A cool entrance, but is this scene truly realistic, even while Tony wears his futuristic, highly advanced, robotic suit? Not exactly. The principles of momentum and force of impact tell us that the momentum of an object depends on not just its velocity but also on weight, or mass. To stop an object with large momentum requires either a large force to stop the object quickly or a small force which stops the object over time. Thus, in reality, Tony’s landing on the showroom floor would have been more horrific than spectacular. Given that most aircraft fly at least 30,000 feet, coupled with the fact that Tony not only freefell from that altitude but also engaged the thrusters toward the end of his descent, the speed at which he was descending must have been phenomenal. Even to stop him safely from a freefall of that height would have been impossible. Realistically, falling at that speed with such a small time of impact would require a huge amount of force. In all likelihood, despite the advanced nature of the Iron Man suit, Tony would have ended up as a pile of gore amidst a twisted wreckage of metal. The only way that Tony could have landed safely would have been to slow his descent a great deal before landing, or to land on a very soft surface.
Even gods are subject to physics when they visit Earth. Thor may be the son of Odin but he is still made of flesh and blood. Toward the end of Thor’s debut Marvel film, he has been banished to Earth and his powers have been sapped by his jealous brother, god of mischief, Loki. Loki sends a very nasty, nigh-indestructible metal knight creature to do away with his helpless brother. Their father, Odin, awakens from the godly coma Loki had placed him in, and rejuvenates Thor’s power once again. Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, breaks the sound barrier while rushing to return to Thor’s outstretched hand, and he catches it no problem. A cool moment of triumph, but is it truly realistic, despite Thor being a god? Not exactly. To break the sound barrier, an object must be traveling at least 761 miles per hour. Realistically, keeping in mind the principles of momentum and force of impact mentioned previously, even Thor himself couldn’t catch that hammer. Similar to the case in Iron Man 2, for Thor to catch Mjolnir without flinching would require the hammer to slow significantly before coming into contact. Otherwise, in the real world, Thor would be returning to Asgard a day late and an arm short. Being a little more lenient, a more believable reaction would be a bit of recoil on the part of Thor’s arm, to cushion the blow.
Similarly, in the most recent iteration of the Spider-Man franchise, Peter Parker pursues The Lizard across the Brooklyn Bridge. As the villain makes his way down the bridge, he flings a car off the side and Peter struggles to save them and their occupants. Peter leaps onto the ledge of the bridge and attaches a web to the back bumper of the falling vehicle. With the web in his hands, Peter stops the car from plummeting into the river below. A cool save, but is it truly realistic? Not exactly. Despite Peter Parker’s powers, his speedy reflexes and ability to shoot webs and climb on walls, it would take a much greater force than simply his own strength to stop the car from falling at that speed. Given that an average sedan weighs over 3000 pounds, realistically Peter would have been pulled right off the bridge with it- and maybe lost a limb or two. This isn’t even factoring in the strength of the web he produces. Not only does Peter stop the car’s descent but he is able to attach the web to the bridge’s railing. A more realistic approach would have been to make a series of webs attached to the supports of the bridge itself.
All of these observations aside, the phenomenon of superhero movies speaks for itself. The world as a whole does not need absolute realism in their films, particularly ones of this nature. In fact, absolute adherence to the laws of physics would extract the very thing that makes them enjoyable. It is media such as this that reminds us to relax and believe in the power of imagination and pure entertainment.