Superheros are Anti-Science

I’m not really a comic-book guy, but I’ve watched a bunch of comic-book movies recently. Kate was really fired up for the new Captain America movie, so I finally got around to watching the first one as background for that, then when I was sleep-deprived last week I watched the second Thor movie via on-demand cable, then Sunday evening Kate and I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the theater (her second time watching it– she’s really fired up).

Mostly, this has served to confirm that I’m not a comic-book guy. I’m just not invested enough in the idea of a movie about these characters to get past the staggering logical inconsistencies in most of the movies. They’re great spectacle, but as soon as I start to think about them at all, they just fall apart.

By itself, that wouldn’t be worth a post– Tastes Vary, end of story. But I was thinking about this while walking the dog this morning, and there’s a sense in which my dissatisfaction with the genre touches on a deeper issue connected to my current obsessions: in a very deep way, superhero stories are anti-scientific.

That may sound like a crazy thing to say, given that there are numerous blog posts and books by people I know using superheros to teach science at varying levels of plausibility. And an awful lot of superheroes, including most of those appearing in the current run of Marvel movies, supposedly originate in science– Captain America was made in a lab (see image above, which I grabbed from this blog post about superhero science) as were his adversaries. But as I’ve been banging on about for months now, science isn’t just about gadgets, it’s a process, and superhero stories in general are fundamentally incompatible with the process of science.

What I mean by this is that the essential nature of the superhero story requires the hero to be singular, or at most a part of a small team. It’s about one person overcoming impossible odds to save the world via their own personal awesomeness and comic-book-science enhancements. These are, at their core, somewhere between power fantasies and a testament to the human spirit.

Science, on the other hand, is all about duplication. One of the most essential– arguably the most essential– steps of the scientific process is telling other scientists what you discovered. Whereupon they go into their own labs and duplicate what you did, and tease out further implications of it, and so on. The sharing of results is what lets the next generation of scientists stand on the shoulders of past giants.

And that’s fundamentally incompatible with superhero stories. If you could really make superheroes by scientific means, they would quickly stop being superheroes, because they’d be everywhere in short order. Because that’s what science does— it starts with an unusual event, moves to a general principle, and then expands to go everywhere. Even when the original scientists don’t expect it– when Heinrich Hertz confirmed Maxwell’s prediction of electromagnetic waves, he famously shrugged it off as a curiosity: “It’s of no use whatsoever[…] this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right—we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there” (this particular wording via Wikipedia because I’m lazy). A decade or so later, we had radio.

There are ways to get around this, but they generally involve breaking the scientific process in some way. A common one is to invoke the mistaken notion of the ahead-of-their-time genius. Captain America is singular because the only guy who knew how to make super-soldiers was shot in the first movie. Nobody else could figure it out, because Dr. Erskine was a genius.

Except, that doesn’t work even within the context of the movies. Erskine was one of three people who had some success with super-soldier research, the others being Johann Schmidt and Arnim Zola– granted, they were less successful than Erskine was, but the notion that nobody in the intervening seventy years could do better beggars belief. And there have to be people who know an understand bits of the process– note all the folks in white lab coats in the image up top. Surely some of them could build on that knowledge.

And if you try to look in history for evidence of ahead-of-their-time geniuses, the evidence is scant. Feynman is touted as a genius, except Schwinger and Tomonaga solved QED at the same time, and Stueckelberg got there earlier but failed to communicate his ideas. And Feynman’s real genius lay in making QED comprehensible to non-geniuses– that is, in communicating it to others. Dyson played a pretty major role with that, as well, showing that all three versions were equivalent, and nailing down the loose ends in Feynman’s approach.

Einstein gets hailed as a genius, but Poicaré and Lorentz were close to Special Relativity, and Hilbert almost scooped him on General Relativity by virtue of understanding the math better. And within a couple of months of the publication of General Relativity, Schwarzchild worked out a detailed solution to a real situation while in the trenches on the Eastern Front of WWI. That’s not an indicator that Einstein was miles ahead of his contemporaries. Either that, or there was an unusually high genius density in 20th century physics.

There are a few myths in the history of technology that might seem to resemble comic-book super-science, but none of them really pan out. Nikola Tesla has an army of fanboys, but the great ideas he had that actually worked were not all that advanced– and usually got tied up in nasty priority disputes with other inventors who claimed to have the same idea. The ideas that were uniquely his mostly didn’t work, and some of them were just nutty. Leonardo Da Vinci is another example that gets busted out– he invented the helicopter!– but most of his “inventions” were more inspirational than technological. He had nifty ideas that sorta-kinda resemble modern inventions, if you tilt your head and squint like a confused dog, but he didn’t build working versions of any of them, because it wasn’t possible to make working examples with the technology he had available.

To find genuine examples of inventions or discoveries that were developed once and not replicated, you need to go back to before the beginnings of institutional science– things like the ancient Chinese camera obscura of Mozi cited in last week’s Cosmos, or Cornelis Drebbel maybe inventing air conditioning. But those are kind of dubious examples in a lot of ways, and nothing like you see in superhero stories. And the fact that they’re pre-modern supports the general point.

The other way to fix this is to push the story wholly out of the realm of science. So, for example, you could claim that the reason the very public existence of magic Nazi technology in 194mumble hasn’t transformed the world in a more comprehensive way is that all those disintegrator guns Hydra was using need to be powered by magic blue-glowing alien technology that operates on principles beyond human science, blah blah, Clarke’s Law. Except the principles behind that technology were evidently completely understandable by Dr. Zola in 194mumble, who built all that alien-powered stuff in the first place. Given seventy years and the many dozens of examples of working alien-powered gadgets from all the magic Nazis who get gunned down in the first movie, it’s a little hard to believe that movie-present technology isn’t way more advanced.

(You can maybe claim that all of this was suppressed by SHIELD/ Hydra/ The Illuminati, but then you get into the inherent implausibility of grand secret conspiracies. which is a whole different argument…)

The final way out is to attribute things to the singular properties of individuals, which is the route the first Captain American movie seems to be taking. That is, there’s only one Captain America because Steve Rogers’s personal qualities are so great that he alone could survive the super-soldier process without becoming a monster. Which, okay, I guess you can go there. But that pushes you into an entirely different category, the Chosen One story, which is itself fundamentally unscientific.

So, again, there’s a very deep sense in which superhero stories– even stories about technologically created superheros– are fundamentally incompatible with science. Which, now that I’ve realized this, I think is a big part of why I’m not really a comic book guy in the first place.


Please note: I’m not saying that the incompatibility between the superhero genre and science means that superhero stories are Bad, or that the millions of people who enjoy these stories are Bad People. There’s no requirement that everything be scientific at the core, and certainly no requirement that everyone share my tastes. I read and enjoy lots of fiction that is every bit as non-scientific as the core superhero story– I’m rather fond of epic fantasy of the Chosen One variety, for example. But I think there is this tension at the core of the stories, and that seemed like something worth poking at a bit.

20 thoughts on “Superheros are Anti-Science

  1. Superhero stories have been with us for a long time, and in several different guises. Hercules would be an example from ca. 3000 years ago, and the stories of Achilles and Odysseus are even older. The biggest differences between a superhero movie and a Western are the technology level, and that the latter often doesn’t bother to explore the origins of the Clint Eastwood/John Wayne character who is the rough equivalent of the superhero. Even the Star Wars movies wander into this territory, especially with the talk of Anakin Skywalker’s extraordinary level of midichlorians (which the original trilogy didn’t mention–it was enough that Luke was his father’s son).

  2. Speaking as a working science journalist with a love of science fiction (and comic books) —

    I think you’re right that many superhero stories end up anti-scientific in the sense you’re talking about. And they are also fundamentally power fantasies — there was an essay in fact by Norman Spinrad some 20 years ago now that pointed this out quite succinctly. He was speaking of the usual science fictional narratives of course. But the same thing could be said of many superhero comics as well.

    An interesting discussion (as much so in my view) is how so many anti-scientific stories are also anti-humanist or even fascistic. Frank Miller is arguably the artist who goes the furthest in that direction — after the late 1980s he goes into some seriously crypto-fascist territory despite his partial re-imagining of the superhero genre into film noirish forms.

    If you want a good example of the idea you’re talking about, take a look at Red Son — a sort of what if story about Superman landing in the USSR. In that case it brings up all the ideas you talk about — Superman inventing all this stuff that does get duplicated and ushering in a kind of utopia as a result — but it also shows why the power fantasy is a bad idea.

    And Alan Moore also brings some of this up in his Watchmen series, as well as his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which also explore some of the implications you’re talking about. (If you had a super-creature who can easily synthesize lithium, for example, you’d have a whole industry of electric cars).

    But yeah, I also get frustrated with stuff like worshiping Tesla. A good chunk of his ideas were simply unworkable. Also, it’s one thing to have a cool technical idea, but you need a certain infrastructure and such to make it work. There was a version of a fax machine that could transmit engravings made back in the 1880s. But nobody needed the thing, so the idea went nowhere, clever as it was.

    (It worked by simply running a conductor over a pattern in relief on metal, the changes in current were duplicated at the other end of the wire and that enabled transmission of a picture — the current spark at the other end would mark a piece of metal).

  3. There’s a bit of a nod to your point on people trying to replicate the Super Soldier Solution after the War, at least in the movies, that you didn’t mention; Dr. Bruce Banner. I gather that in the Marvel Universe Dr. Erskine’s singular success was a fluke result that may not actually be reproducible.

    But yeah, to your main point, super hero movies really aren’t scientific; the mythic structure just doesn’t mesh with the scientific process.

    — Steve

  4. Anakin Skywalker’s extraordinary level of midichlorians

    To be honest, that scene was what broke Episode I for me. In the many years and multiple viewings of the original trilogy, never once did the question of where the Force comes from ever cross my mind. Midichlorians were an answer in search of a question – and a ham handed one at that. They don’t really answer where the force comes from (where do the midichlorians get it from?), prompt even more questions (so how do you communicate with midiclorians to actually use the force?), and the midichlorian/mitochondria connection is just too blatantly obvious to ignore. The one thing it did do was allow them to show how Anakin was off-the-charts powerful in the Force, though I think they could have handled it in a way which would have left the nebulous nature of the Force intact (e.g. have some Jedi Force-sensing ritual).

    I think that’s where scifi/superhero stories often fall down – there’s too much of a desire to *explain* things, and when they do they tend to leave things worse off than they started. Superheros always need an origin story, and the more detailed the origin story, the more possible holes are in it. Ideally you’d want minimal to no origin story: “Here’s a guy; he’s got superpowers, right? Why/how isn’t really important to our story. Now let’s go smash bad guys!” — There’s a bit of a pushback in the scifi and superhero fan community about that, though. They want a certain amount of “realism” in their counter-factual stories, and fanboys are unwilling to leave ravelling threads unpicked, which prompt writers to supply the missing details in flashbacks and reboots.

    Additionally, one of the goals of most superhero stories is their almost-but-not-quite relationship with the normal world; feeding the “there but for the recalcitrance of God” desires of the reader. You need to make the superhero story seem like it could happen here and now, which tends to rule out “that’s just the way of the world”-type explanations. (Also, the prevalence of Christianity puts the kibosh on the “he’s a demigod”-type supernatural explanations, limiting what’s available.) There needs to be some “external” driver of superheroism, and since superhero comic really took off post WWII, that traditionally would be “science”, reflecting the mood of the era.

  5. Most of the machines of Leonardo and the other Renaissance artist-engineers were never meant to be constructed. They are fantasy studies meant to entertain and impress potential patrons. You might even call them Renaissance comics.

  6. Personally, I think superhero comic books stories provide a good training for a career in scientific research (and it is, to me at least, not surprising that so many fans of comic books are also big boosters and fans of real science). In particular, superhero comic book adventures put an emphasis on three skills that all scientific researchers need:

    (1) Knowledge of the rules of the game.
    (You can’t defeat Electro if you don’t understand how electricity works. Similarly, you won’t make progress in a chemistry lab if you lack a knowledge of chemistry.)

    (2) Creative Problem solving skills
    (They’ve taken away your utility belt, and the walls are closing in while the water level in your cell continues to rise. How do you escape, without using your knowledge of the rules of the game without cheating? Same goes in physics, though occasionally the cheaters win – can’t figure out how radioactive decays avoid violating the principle of conservation of energy? Invent a ghost particle that accounts for the missing energy, that can’t be detected.)

    (3) A dapper fashion sense!
    (Speaks for itself, though I can tell you from experience that spandex is a very unforgiving fabric!).

  7. Should have read: “How do you escape, using your knowledge of the rules of the game without cheating? “

  8. @Anton P Nym — it’s interesting that the TV series Hulk had an origin that was reflective of the human desire for self-improvement and the faddish sense it ha by the 70s — “Seeking to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have” while the earlier incarnation was a Frankenstein-esque nuclear accident.

    @RM – -good point and i should add that the addition of midichlorians also made the whole enterprise seem even more racist than it already was. Besides the thinly-veiled ethnic stereotyping, you had a master race of people that was biologically determined, rather than the zen-like ethical dimension that Alec Guinness brought to the idea, and in fact the whole first movie trilogy.

    (Lucas said he wanted to echo the pulp serials and silent movies of the 20s. He did, but not in a good way).

  9. @Jesse Yes, Banner’s story tends to mirror the era in which it gets written each time… though the common thread is Bruce/David’s hubris at attempting this both as experimenter and subject, thus arrogating himself to the role of ubermann.

    What I found nifty in the current film series’ version, though, was that Banner’s experiment was based on Erskine’s (and Stark’s, given how Tony Stark brings it up in ‘The Avengers’) surviving notes in an attempt to replicate the result… thus tying him closer to the canon, and incidentally answering some of Chad’s observation of how far superhero moves get from portraying real science.

    — Steve

  10. I have a hand wave I tend to grant to superhero settings to at least partly explain things like “with decades and massive budgets, why couldn’t anyone duplicate it?”

    Remember that these are, by definition, worlds where superpowers exist: These ‘decades before their time’ genius inventors are supers. It’s just that, instead of being able to fly, shrug off bullets, lift small buildings, etc., their main superpower is something like ‘Invention!’. Depending on how it works, it might even be impossible for anyone to duplicate the work for the simple reason that the invention is nothing more than a focus for the “inventor’s” power.

  11. Crime scene investigators are like real-world superheroes. They use their intelligence and specialized scientific knowledge to catch bad guys and test hypotheses against evidence. In CSI, the TV series, Grissom is the expert on insects, Finlay is the expert on blood spatter, Hodges is the expert on trace, etc. Together they team up and save the day, usually.

  12. I´m not a fan of scifi or superheros, for the same reason as Chad – when you find so much physical inconsistencies, breaking the laws of nature or violation of scientific process, you get “disappointed” and the exitement about the story vanishes.

    But let´s be a bit merciful, if Captain America tempts youngsters to study science then I guess it has done something good…

  13. Superheros are moderately anti-science. Granted.

    Of course most stories have a degree of willing avoidance of skepticism. I think of them as parables, or jokes. If you think too long and hard about them they fall apart. Star wars, and Star Trek, are heavily into FTL travel and force field or shields and the story lines won’t work if you focus on the fact that none of that has any basis in known science. Funny thing is that I willingly grant them a pass on FTL and shields but the whole midichlorians thing ruined the spell. had I been eating peanut they would have bounced off the screen.

    It isn’t that midichlorians are anti-scientific. The problem for me was that it means that the whole Force things is a simple genetic trait. It isn’t a spiritual, intellectual, skill, or virtue you learn or develop, pretty much it all comes down to genetics … and it is something you measure with the use of a high tech dipstick. So there is nothing special about Skywalker, other than the fact that he won the genetic lottery. That and he is kind of a dick essentially saved by luck instead of any great effort or virtue. Buzz kill.

    OF course the whole reason for not overly intellectualizing things during the show is that sometimes it is a pretty good story, sometimes with useful insights and/or messages, or, perhaps the biggest reason of all, it can be both entertaining and fun.

    Like this:

    It made the movie.
    But, on sooo many levels, it doesn’t make sense. And it still cracks me up.

  14. What you’re referring to is also called “the Cowboy Myth,” and the usual way it’s expressed in Hollywood PR for films is, “….one man alone can (solve the case, save the world, whatever).” The exact phrase “one man alone” is so common in the marketing material that it’s practically a slogan.

    I find the “one man alone” myth pernicious, as it wholly ignores the fact that most worthwhile human endeavors are in fact collective. But it’s reinforced by celebrity-CEO culture, by John Galt ideology, and even by TED with its tendency to perpetuate celebrity culture by its focus on “personalities.”

    What film usually seeks to accomplish is not to communicate _ideas_ but to communicate _emotions_. Story plots are usually emotional narratives: “hope, despair, triumph,” or “love, loss, new love,” etc.

    We use the names of emotions in descriptions for a number of genres of film: thriller, horror, mystery, love story, comedy, tragedy, etc. But the emotions that make for progress in the sciences particularly, tend to be subtle and less easily conveyed in film than in writing.

    What happens with Einstein, Tesla, et. al. is very similar to what happens with cultures & deities, and with children making pictures of “the Man in the Moon” and the Sun with a sunny smile: projection and personification, made easier by the fact that the subject is already a person. But the seemingly-opposite attitude of e.g. “Tesla was just a crank” is the same dynamic with a different set of emotions attached.

  15. “And if you try to look in history for evidence of ahead-of-their-time geniuses, the evidence is scant.” What sometimes happens is that the majority of scientists have a wrong idea for a long time.the dark matter crisis

  16. I find the “one man alone” myth pernicious, as it wholly ignores the fact that most worthwhile human endeavors are in fact collective. But it’s reinforced by celebrity-CEO culture, by John Galt ideology, and even by TED with its tendency to perpetuate celebrity culture by its focus on “personalities.”

    QFT. This has been a tendency throughout human history. Kings and emperors get credit for the good fortunes of their countries (and sometimes, blame when they don’t–see “Mandate of Heaven”). It’s been around since at least Homer’s day (the Greeks are barely able to maintain their siege of Troy while Achilles is off sulking, but as soon as he returns to battle, the Greeks quickly move toward victory). But it does seem to be particularly acute in American culture, and it seems to have gotten worse during my lifetime. That’s how so many CEOs get eight-figure (or higher) salaries for running their companies into the ground, when I could run a company into the ground just as effectively for much less (and probably, most of the people reading this blog could, too).

  17. A great Marvel Team-Up would be for you and Prof. Kakalios to collaborate on a book.

    I anticipate that How to Teach the Physics of Superheroes to Your Dog will devote an entire chapter to the adventures of Krypto.

  18. @Anton P Nym – point taken. The funniest line tho is when Stark (in the Avengers movie) asks how Banner stays calm. “What, do you have a big bag of weed?”

    And I was thinking that all through those periods when they were talking about how Banner has to stay calm to avoid hulking out, all he had to do was carry around a huge bong. “Hang on… must… toke … ahhh. Man, we had a close one there, but cue up some more Marley, would ya?”

  19. I was really put off by your complaints that superhero comics don’t depict your ideal of how science should be (accomplishments require large teams, only replicable events exist) even though they’re not about science, but at first couldn’t figure out why. Finally I realized that the term “anti-scientific” strikes me as a huge red flag. It reminds me of Christian fundamentalists who call any children’s book that is not explicitly Christian not just non-Christian but anti-Christian, or Muslim fundamentalists who label all secular music and games un-Islamic. Such terms suggest that a primary purpose of the arts should be to propagate the speaker’s worldview and any art that fails to do so is not just, shall we say, outside the magisterium of that worldview but its enemy. Though you laudably agree that such art is not necessarily Bad, the language of dualistic opposition still implies that art and perhaps every other aspect of life really ought to exist to serve Science – a sort of scientific fundamentalism that seems untenable to me. (Since art is a more fundamental human activity – depending upon who’s defining science, at what moment and with what agenda – one could just as well argue that science should exist to serve art.)

    I am reminded of, I think it was, Spider Robinson once throwing a tantrum about how un-Scientific it was that characters in Stephen King’s book The Stand paid attention to messages received in shared dreams. What he missed was that given the circumstances portrayed in the book’s plot, that was, in fact, the [small-r, dictionary definition] rational thing for them to do. Such a circumstance might never exist in real life, but neither may undead vampires or ghosts or many other things depicted in horror novels. That doesn’t make horror anti-scientific; it just means that horror is a form of art that isn’t about science.

  20. Non-factuality is the foundation of so many blockbuster movies. If writers were to decide they would not write anything that might not be scientifically possible, what would become of imagination? Writers can not restrict their mojo by facts.
    I must admit that I do appreciate researched topics, for example series that are based on actual events. But even so, the research, in my opinion, may be neglected to an extent, to make a story more interesting. Avatar was an amazing movie about alien life-forms-that may or may not exist- in a world where these aliens could breath toxic gases. The whole movie is based on a human that could somehow ‘live’ inside of an alien body by the use of some sort of machine. This has not been established by scientific research, but by the use of imagination.

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