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.