World's Fair

Going to a party at Tony Stark’s house would be awesomely fun, and Iron Man 2 has its fair share of highly enjoyable scenes, though not as many as Iron Man 1, but it definitely could have used some science consulting help. Despite Tony Stark’s apparently scientifically flawless use of a soldering iron in #1, here in #2 he constructs what appears to be a cross between a laser and a small synchrotron (which shot light in the wrong direction, inward instead of outward – or possibly looked like it might have been diverting the whole beam, which wouldn’t work for more than about a nanosecond – and no matter what kind of light it was emitting, that’s no way to make a new element, it needed to be an atomic particle beam). Then he uses a freakishly large plumber’s wrench (if you can’t use the right tool, always use a bigger one) to steer a coherent blue light onto a small piece of metal and create his new element. Wow! Now the synchrotron-accelerator-cyclotron-laser do-hickey is one thing, but creating a new element to stick in his chest piece is another. I believe that a scientific consult from almost any high school chemistry class could have helped with this part.

My high school freshman son remarked that any new element he might have created using proper tools would have been so unstable and radioactive that it probably would have killed him faster than the palladium he was trying to replace (which actually is considered to be at most “slightly hazardous” and of low-toxicity – five minutes of googling could have gotten them that info). Chemists here at LSU and around the world are creating exciting new metallic compounds and crystal forms every day that are finding uses in computer and cell phone technologies, why not have Mr. Stark make a new one of these instead of a new element? Or even just a new isotope of an element? Either would make more sense (– maybe he was making the first atoms of unobtainium by bombarding nonsensium with looks-like-blue-lightium). At least they had the good sense to add a pithy “Well, that was easy.” one-liner at the end of the scene.

No one expects Sci-Fi to be totally accurate, that’s why it’s Sci-Fi, but it’s often not that hard to avoid techno-lameness. It’s quite interesting to ask, however, why certain parts of a movie, play, or story induce a cringe factor, while others don’t. Why didn’t it bother me that the Iron Man suit does all that it does, or that it even exists at all? Why didn’t it bother me that Ivan (like Tony before him) could create such a suit (and some amazingly adroit drones, and a second suit) all in a matter of months, working alone? Why didn’t it bother me that there seems to be a lack of correspondence between the tiny eye slits in the Iron Man mask and the full heads-up display that the wearer sees? (A: tiny cameras, of course). Why didn’t it bother me that whatever it is that comes out of Iron Man’s hand is never really explained? Or that Tony Stark (and Ivan) both invented amazing new power sources? Conversely, why did the palladium, the cyclotron-synchrotron-accelerator-pretend-erator, and the Starkly-unobtainium all bother me? I believe it’s because a lot of the science they got wrong, or presented very poorly, is known science – real science – and it’s just really lazy to get that wrong (and thus really makes you cringe while watching the story), and, quite frankly would have been easy to fix, while most of the rest is stuff that doesn’t exist yet, so it’s not that bothersome that it is fantastical or non-realistic. It’s like watching a film when a blue-jay and an imaginary new bird fly into the picture and the main character says: “Hey, look at that azure-wagsbacker and that harleybird.” Who cares what they call the made up bird, but the blue-jay mistake is going to make a lot of people groan. At least upon reflection that seems to be where my cringe factor line is, other people’s lines will be at different places for different reasons.

All in all, though, it’s definitely a fun summer blockbuster action film – far better than gut-wrenchers like Transformers 2. Also on the good side, Scarlett Johansson and Mickey Rourke are incredible additions – even with half his dialogue in muttered Russian, Mickey Rourke actually upstages the always-entertaining (in jail or out) Robert Downey, Jr.

Comments

  1. #1 Brian Switek
    May 9, 2010

    Loathe as I normally am to link to a FOX News story, this piece explains that there were some science consultants on the film (who even got mentioned in the credits!) – http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/05/05/science-iron-man-movie/

    No matter how many scientific consultants get brought onto a film, though, I think there will always be at least some cringe-worthy moments because, at the end of the day, the story the filmmakers want to tell has to get from point a to point b. They’re in the business of telling stories, and while I would love to see scientists help eliminate groaners from movies, I have to admit that filmmakers are talking to scientists at all.

  2. #2 Dunc
    May 10, 2010

    It’s an issue I’ve thought about a bit… Pretty much all of the stuff you accept is stuff that’s actually necessary to make the story work, so it falls under “acceptable suspension of disbelief”. Sure, the Iron Man suit is completely infeasible, but it’s central to the whole concept. The stuff you don’t accept is usually completely unnecessary – they could have achieved the same dramatic outcome without getting anything obviously wrong.

    Science fiction writers get pretty much a free pass in the suspension of disbelief department, but only as long as it serves the story.

  3. #3 Tracy W
    May 11, 2010

    Gary Larson wondered that once in a book of his cartoons I read. He had a cartoon that involved an angry female moth opening the door of her suburban house to her dishevelled-looking month husband and snapping something like “You’ve been buzzing around the Jones’s porch light again, haven’t you?”
    Heaps of people apparently wrote in to complain that it’s the female moth that buzzes around porch lights, and Gary wondered why they didn’t write in to point out that moths don’t wear clothes, or talk, or open doors.

  4. #4 Kermit
    May 11, 2010

    My daughter and I were watching “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. We were OK with the vampire running up the side of the building (because vampires do that) and the invisible man, but when Tom jumped out of the moving car traveling about 35mph (horse galloping speed) and landed on his feet, we both shouted “No way!”.

    Indiana Jones would have face planted, which is what makes his impossible movies (well, the first three) non-cringey.

  5. #5 DuaneBidoux
    May 11, 2010

    I’ve also thought about this a lot for myself. For me a large factor is how seriously the movie is taking itself.

    If there is an underlying “wink wink” at the audience I don’t have that much trouble with it. This is why I consistently have a lot more trouble with a picture like “Avatar” than I did with one of the movies that comes from a comic book, such as “Superman,” or indeed “Iron-Man” or “Spiderman.”

    Some things I’ll let go if I think there is some kind of remote possibility that some day it could exist. It is easy for me to believe that, short of accelerations that would leave the brain of the user on the back of his skull and 1/16″ thick, there will be some kind of small suit, or aircraft, that will be essentially wrapped around or an extention of an individual.

    And then sometimes the movie is simply so much fun to watch I don’t care.

  6. #6 sanud002
    May 11, 2010

    Good science fiction is always based primarily on good science. Although there are clearly some discrepancies I still think most of the content is valid. Most of the main technologies that are highlighted in Iron Man are actually already in production. It seems like the exo-skeleton/body armour technology is closest to fruition. I just saw a great video the other day about how science has figured out a way to build extremely strong yet highly flexible body armor that is made using nano-fibers. Not only can this suit save your life but can also charge your ipod at the same time! It’s pretty unreal. If you have a minute check it out. I’m for sure seeing Iron Man asap!

    http://www.ndep.us/Spinning-Nanofibers

  7. #7 Torq
    May 11, 2010

    Science fiction writers get pretty much a free pass in the suspension of disbelief department, but only as long as it serves the story.

    Hear hear.

  8. #8 Vince LiCata
    May 11, 2010

    I was surprised to see that the Science and Entertainment Exchange had actually consulted on the movie, and on the “making a new element” scene (see Switek’s comment), as they are a really high-end act, so my guess is that their advice got the sense edited out of it in post. Other people have told me, unprompted and without knowing my opinion, that this scene was quite cringe prompting for them too. I guess you can lead a horse to water…

  9. #9 ChicagoMolly
    May 12, 2010

    This is why, in the original Star Wars, we were quite willing to forgive Lucas for the roaring spaceships in a vacuum, but when Han Solo said the Millennium Falcon was “the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs” we threw popcorn at the screen.

  10. #10 cb
    May 12, 2010

    Maybe the reason is they are trying to explain it.
    They don’t try to explain how all that equipment fits inside the suit, so it’s easy to just accept.

    I think also A.C.Clark’s words that highly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic has some bearing. For the things that we don’t understand we accept and they seem magical. But for other things, they try to explain it, which thus brings it down to a more earthly level, it is no longer magic, and instead it annoys us.

  11. #11 Rorschach
    May 12, 2010

    It seemed to me that there were a lot of logical problems in this movie. Like, if the reactor in your chest powering the electromagnet keeping you alive is poisoning you, why not take it out and just use a car battery the way you did in the first movie? Less glamorous, but it buys you time to build a better reactor. And since the reactor could obviously be built into the suit itself (I assume that’s how the War Machine armor works when Rhodey steals it) it’s not like you NEED the chest arc reactor.

    And the whole ‘Stark Expo model is a diagram of the magic atom’ thing reaked of ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Weak sauce, Favreau. Weak sauce.

  12. #12 embertine
    May 13, 2010

    I agree that it’s when they try to use “real” science that my suspension of disbelief wavers. I have no problem with the flying suit, even though I know it wouldn’t work, but the idea that you can knock up some unobtainium using a soldering iron, a laser and some steel tubing had me shouting “Come ON!” at the screen.

    I think it also depends where your area of expertise lies: I just read a book called The Outlaw Varjak Paw – I had no problem believing that cats could talk and smile, but when they stated that a tomcat was a tortoiseshell I stopped reading.*

    *Possible, I know, Just very unlikely.

  13. #13 kellis
    October 13, 2010

    it is my advise that everybody should remain close to reality sometimes one can use fiction to attract or involve into story but reality is reality