Science in superheroes

The magic of the movies means almost anything can happen. You can time travel, control objects with your mind, or even heal yourself no matter how serious your injuries are. But did you know that filmmakers often consult scientists and engineers for their input in movies?

Dr. Jim Kakalios, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy, has written books which examine the scientific principles that give comic superheroes their extraordinary abilities. He has also been a consultant on comic-based movies such as the Watchman, where he contributed to the explanation of how Dr. Manhattan could appear in more than one location simultaneously. 

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of science behind the powers of many famous superheroes. Mr. Fantastic’s ability stretch his body into any shape, Spider-man’s ability to scale walls, or even Ironman’s suit of armour that makes him strong—all have some connection to science and engineering technologies.

Mr. Fantastic can stretch his elastic body and then release it back to its normal shape. Like Mr. Fantastic, shape memory materials have this ability to take on a temporary shape and then revert back to its original shape. These materials can be stretched and bent into a variety of configurations but recover their original shapes when heated (for example in an oven) above a threshold temperature. Veritex™ is a commercial shape memory polymer that can even be stretched to almost double its original length. Typical applications include car racing repair and outdoor equipment repair.

Spider-man’s abilities—from his superhuman strength and reflexes to his ability to cling on any surface—have been attributed to a radioactive spider bite. But in the movie Spider-man also has tiny hairs all over his hands and feet. These tiny hairs allow Spiderman to scale walls just like geckos which also have millions of tiny hairs on the bottoms of their feet that help them ‘stick’ to walls and ceilings in real life. The adhesion comes from surface contact forces (called Van der Waals forces) created between the foot-hairs and the surface.

Researchers at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia have built a new type of climbing robot that can scale walls using the adhesion from surface contact forces. Check out a video of their robot: 

Another form of robotic technology is Ironman’s suit of armour which allows him to fly and fire a range of sophisticated weapons. While today’s robotic suits aren’t designed to help you to fight evil, they can help you lift just about anything. Engineers at Japan’s Cyberdyne Inc. have created powered suits known as exoskeletons that give humans extra strength. The suit can enhance the wearer’s existing physical capabilities by 10 times! Normally your brain sends signals to your muscles to get them to move. The exoskeleton uses sensors which are attached to the wearer’s skin and detect his/her brain signals. The exoskeleton’s computer then analyzes the signals and determines how much it should move to assist the wearer.

The appeal of superhero movies is largely due to the imaginary world the heroes reside in. So while their superpowers may be science-based they do not have to be and are not 100% accurate. “The story will always trump the science, but plausible science makes the story line stronger and more engaging, “ says Rick Loverd of the National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange. “It creates the rules in which those imaginary worlds can logically operate.”

Lynne Robinson (2012). The Super Materials of the Super Heroes JOM, 64 (1), 13-19 DOI: 10.1007/s11837-012-0256-x

Greenemeir, Larry. (2008). Real-Life Iron Man: A Robotic Suit That Magnifies Human Strength. Scientific American. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from

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One response to “Science in superheroes

  1. Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Science of Superheroes, The Problem with Mobile Apps, and Imaging the Brain’s Acidity·

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