Aren’t “Superman” and “physics” incompatible?

This afternoon, at 3pm EDT, James Kakalios, Sean Carroll, and E. Paul Zehr are going to do a live chat about the Science of Superman. I’d say it needs MOAR BIOLOGISTS except just the physics of that movie alone ought to fully occupy the panel.

I’m a little afraid that the movie will get praised (it provides so many “teachable moments”!) rather than reamed out, but we’ll see.


  1. says

    The biology aspect has always gotten me. An alien being from a distant world that is so humanlike, it can be raised as a human and never be detected? Who is not poisoned by our air, water or soil? Who has no allergies to the tens of thousands of proteins that never existed on his home world? Who is able to metabolize and derive nutrition from Terran foodstuffs?

    Consider the fact that humans have more in common with a radish than with Superman, and we can talk biology.

  2. Holms says

    Yes, it’s a fictional movie… that happens to make very little sense.

    Also, does anyone else find superman to be pretty much the most boring / unengaging hero ever or is that just me?

  3. says

    ….all of #1 AND the light of our sun imbues him with super powers. But he’s violently allergic to fragments of his home planet. Because.

  4. says

    Gregory, I don’t know how DC comics handles it, but Marvel has essentially said that all the human-like aliens, and humans, all came from the same stock. Created, tweaked, and plunked down on various planets by alien super-geneticists.

  5. says

    Also: spouse and I are working our way through Heroes, which is good escapist fun and all, but. like X-Men, is based on the idea that genetic quirks can enable their bearer to defy known physics. Again: because.

  6. says

    Aren’t all superheroes just the positing of scientifically impossible beings with powers of one stripe or another….for the sake of it?

    And that’s why movies about them all suck?

  7. Randomfactor says

    Notice how all these aliens in the DC universe are identical to humans are always all white..

    Couldn’t the Martian Manhunter “pass”?

  8. says

    Is it Prometheus level bad PZ? Cuz if its not I’d like to go see it because its summer and all and I wanna see a few movies where good guys beat up bad guys in a fairly uncomplicated fashion, but with my schedule it’s hard to do that before EVERYBODY HAS SHIT ALL OVER ALL THE MOVIES!

    Sorry for yelling.

  9. A Hermit says

    I forget who it was who wrote the bit about the difficulty Superman would have faced having a sex life..would the force of his ejaculation kill a human sex partner? Would exposure to Red Kryptonite (which caused Superman to become a giant in one episode) cause his sperm to grow to the size of beach balls?

    Sciency stuff…

    This might actually be a better fit…

    Sermon suggestions…

    Jesus – The Original Superhero

    Superman’s mythical origins are rooted in the timeless reality of a spiritual superhero who also lived a modest life until extraordinary times required a supernatural response.

  10. Trebuchet says

    I forget who it was who wrote the bit about the difficulty Superman would have faced having a sex life..would the force of his ejaculation kill a human sex partner?

    Larry Niven, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex.

  11. A Hermit says

    Thank you Trebuchet!

    I had misremembered slightly… this was the remnant that inhabited my adolescent memory:

    Consider: these sperm are virtually indestructible. Within days or weeks they will die for lack of nourishment. Meanwhile they cannot be affected by heat, cold, vacuum, toxins, or anything short of green kryptonite. (*And other forms of kryptonite. For instance, there are chunks of red kryptonite that make giants of kryptonians. Imagine ten million earthworm size spermatozoa swarming over a Metropolis beach, diving to fertilize the beach balls… but I digress…

  12. A Hermit says

    I think “Mystery Men” is the only superhero movie that didn’t just mostly bore me…“I can turn myself invisible…but only when no one is looking…”

  13. busterggi says

    I’ve always had a secret fantasy about Supe’s & Lois’ wedding night where he undresses and looks like Wilbur Whately under his clothes.

    BTW Hermit – look up a movie called ‘The Specials’.

  14. eveedream says

    “Lou Doench
    20 June 2013 at 1:24 pm (UTC -5)
    Is it Prometheus level bad PZ? Cuz if its not I’d like to go see it because its summer and all and I wanna see a few movies where good guys beat up bad guys in a fairly uncomplicated fashion, but with my schedule it’s hard to do that before EVERYBODY HAS SHIT ALL OVER ALL THE MOVIES!
    Sorry for yelling.”

    Yes, it’s Prometheus-level bad. I was physically angry for at least 24 hours about how bad it was.

    Everyone: Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks every piece of Kryptonian architecture in that movie looked like a penis. Just full of dicks, dicks everywhere…

  15. A Hermit says

    Actually “Confessions of a Superhero” was pretty good too…in it’s own sad way…

  16. inflection says

    My primary complaint with this movie was Zod’s motivation. Rot13’d:

    1.) Pbzzvggvat trabpvqr va beqre gb nibvq n srj lrnef bs nqncgngvba cnvaf? Furrfu.

    1a.) My solution to this, which made for a fairly enjoyable few minutes of screenwriting in my head and made it a much better movie IMO: na rkpunatr va juvpu gurl rkcynva gung Fhcrf jnf bayl noyr gb nqncg orpnhfr ur fubjrq hc nf n onol, gurl pna’g znxr arj puvyqera hayrff Fhcrf unaqf bire gur Pbqrk (gurl’er abg fzneg rabhtu gb sbyybj Wbe-Ry’f cebprqher sbe erirefvat gurve fgrevyvgl), gurve whel-evttrq Jbeyq-Ratvar’f abg va tbbq rabhtu funcr gb greensbez nal cynargf snegure sebz Xelcgba-abezny, naq gurl’er abg tbvat gb fhozvg gurve fcrpvrf gb n fvatyr cbvag bs snvyher yvivat ba n fgnefuvc.


    2.) Ur fubjf hc naq guerngraf Rnegu svefg guvat bhg bs uvf zbhgu? Jul abg fnl jr’er gur ynjshy tbireazrag bs Xelcgba, Xny-Ry unf fgbyra na vzcbegnag phygheny negvsnpg, unaq uvz bire?

  17. eveedream says

    @inflection: Absolutely. Right there with you. We spent 45 minutes with things blowing up where we could have discussed any of that.

  18. eveedream says

    And did anyone else have a problem with this part?

    Qnqql Xrag univat ab gebhoyr fgnaqvat naq jnivat yvxr gur Grzcyne Xavtug va Vaqvnan Wbarf VVV juvyr pnef ner orvat gbffrq nebhaq ol gur gbeanqb.

  19. RFW says

    I look in on the Craigslist “Science and Math” discussion forum from time to time. Readers of Pharyngula would be shocked how often someone posts a message that makes it clear that they don’t understand that movies are fiction. Questions about Star Trek and Star Wars “technology” are perhaps the most common.

    I can excuse a friend’s young daughter who, after seeing Jurassic Park, wanted to go see the dinosaurs. But adults? (At least I assume they’re adults! Maybe not!)

  20. stevem says

    re “teachable moments”:

    Besides all the “magic” physics in the movie. What bothered me most was the flashback scene when the Kents, driving along, encountered a tornado ahead. (Nevermind that it seemed to appear out of nowhere instantly) Pa Kent told Clarke to take his Mum “under the overpass for protection”. Which he then did and had to watch his Pop get crushed by a flung car. I wanted to shout out to everyone in the theater, “NOT the overpass! That’s the MOST DANGEROUS place to be when a tornado passes over it (or nearby).” The wind is concentrated by the overpass, and any debris in the wind will just be as bullets flying through there (usually the debris is much bigger than bullets but still travelling just as fast). Most of the movie is just big screen “destruction”; “bangs” and “booms” that are easy to shrug off as ‘just fantasy’. But the tornado scene is very real and all too common for ordinary people to encounter. I’d hate for someone in that situation to just immediately head for an overpass to hide under if a tornado is heading for them (because Superman’s Pa told him to do so; even if they don’t consciously rationalize it that way as they head for the overpass). [FYI, just lay down in the roadside ditch, or no ditch; flat on the ground. Tornadoes can’t “suck you up” if the wind can’t get under you. Vacuums don’t *suck*, it’s the air that *pushes*]

    re “biology”:
    There were a few ‘moments’ of biology there. Earth’s atmo was poisonous to Zod et al, and Kypton’s air was poisonous to Earthlings (Lois in this instance). Kel Al ‘adapted’ to the atmo since he arrived as a baby and grew up with it. It also took Zod only a “few minutes” (Kel took years) to adapt to X-Ray vision and get skilled with that “heat vision” ability.
    Also there was some discussion of their “reproductive ability”. Most everyone was birthed by that giant artificial womb (the “Genesis Tank”) and it had been centuries since any Kyptonian woman had a “natural birth”, so Kel Al was therefore “special, so special” [I know, Jesus retold].

    [sigh] tl;dr … won’t continue. could go on and on. But “The Tornado Scene” stepped over the line, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, etc.

  21. says

    At least they could have gotten the allegory the right way around!

    The Kryptonites genetically engineered themselves into specific types – leaders, warriors, workers – and grew every baby in “genesis chambers.” Jor-El and La-Ra defy convention and have little Kal-El by combining DNA using old fashioned, natural methods. (The horrors!) Then our well-designed one-type warriors go all “we are the perfect product of evolution and we have no morals so we will Krypton-form earth for our use and if all the earthlings die, oh well.” No! Idiots!

    You one-design guys are obviously the result of “Intelligent Design” and Kal-El, who whups your ass, is the result of undirected DNA recombination and a product of evolution! Did you really want to say that?

    If you are going to do the thing as an allegory, at least get them right! If the Kryptonites had ‘degenerated’ beast-wards by NOT designing their DNA then you could use that to show how evil they were. Kal-El should have been the one designed by the ‘intelligent ‘designer’ to be ‘better’ than the devolved evil, immoral ones! Sheesh!

  22. stevem says

    re Atticus@32:

    Does he cut it? Or does it just grow to that length and just stop, perfectly inplace?

  23. Arawhon says


    In the comics it shows him using a mirror to bounce his “heat” vision like a laser to shave and cut his hair. Its completely ridiculous.

  24. Amphiox says

    How does Superman cut his hair?

    In the Justice League series of the DCAU, there was an oblique mention of Supergirl getting an injection with a syringe needle coated in kryptonite. I suppose Superman could get a pair of scissors similarly treated.