Comics Versus Physics

I just wrote this in response to a question on Ask Metafilter. Might as well get a blog post out of it, too.

The question was whether a super-strong superhero could actually shoot down fighter jets by throwing things, in this case coins, at them.

Thanks to lousy writing, superheroes often seem to warp space-time around them to let them achieve things that even someone with their powers should not be able to do. Throwing stuff at ultra-speed is one of those things.

Superman, like several other Flying Bricks, has super-speed as well as super-strength. So he, or a speedster like the Flash, could plausibly throw a rock, a coin, or a cupcake for that matter, fast enough that it'd punch a hole through, or just violently annihilate, any non-superpowered object it hit. The thrown object might just be a cloud of superheated gas by the time it hit the target, but it'd still do the damage.

(See also Superman's mysterious breath powers - super-blowing, and super-cold-blowing. His ability to blow up a typhoon on demand is strange - where's all the air coming from? The comics give some cock and bull story about how his lungs can compress the air they contain - thereby explaining the cold breath, because as air decompresses it becomes cold; never you mind why he doesn't blow cold all the time, or where the heat from compressing the air went. How cubic kilometres of air get into Superman's lungs in the first place also remains unexplained.)

Lots of superheroes are super-strong but only able to move at normal human speed, though. Rogue is one of those; she's got a few Flying Brick powers she soaked up from Ms Marvel, but I don't think those include super-speed. Characters like this may be able to throw a 40-kilo dumbbell as far as a baseball pitcher can throw a rock, but they shouldn't be able to turn bullet-ish objects into actual de-facto bullets, because you can't throw anything any faster than you can move your hand.

Heroes that can fly could fly at top speed and then fling something ahead of them at top-speed-plus-throwing-speed, but you've got to be super-tough to fly super-fast without dying if you hit a bird - another point that's glossed over in most comics. If you're super-tough, you'd think you could just fly through the target rather than toss mundane objects at it.

Super-strong heroes could also throw heavy things much faster than they could by hand if they used an appropriately strongly-built sling-like device. But that'd give them an attack like a 18th-century cannon, not like a handgun.

Yes, I do spend quite a lot of time thinking about things like this. Doesn't everybody?

17 Responses to “Comics Versus Physics”

  1. tantryl Says:

    You also have to wonder why the non-super-strength women don't have severe back pain.

    [Obligatory TVTropes link. -Dan]

  2. Red October Says:

    Of course we do!
    I always hated Superman for that very reason. What fun is a hero who could stand under the Tsar Bomba as it went off, and probably not even flinch? I much preferred Rogue as an example of what an "Invulnerable" superhero should be - normal attacks are not so severe, but you get the sense that if you used ordnance, an M134 Minigun, or any of the assortment of nifty attacks that come from being a superhero/villain, that you'd at least see some effect.

    Somewhere I saw a list of characters who'd stand a chance against Superman, and I remember that Harry Potter topped the list because apparently Superman's powers cannot stop magic, and well, y'know, Avada Kedavra, and all that...

  3. reyalp Says:

    How you got this far without linking to Larry Niven's classic Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex I don't know.

  4. Ice8205 Says:

    The main hassle I have from super heros being able to do stuff, and Movie actions that can't be done, etc, is having to explain to people WHY they can't buy/make/whatever something with that behaviour...

  5. KilgoreTrout Says:

    Another strange phenomenon is how super-strong heroes can cancel gravity at will. Take the Hulk, for instance. In the first film he grabs a 40-ton tank by the end of its gun barrel and slams it up and down like a toy. What really should happen is the Hulk doing some impressive one-hand gymnastics while the tank remains pretty firmly on the ground.

    Another example that comes to mind is Robocop grabbing the muzzle of an automatic rifle with one hand and bending it down 90 degrees while the bad guy is still holding it. Unless the bad guy weighs something like 2,000 pounds he should go flying and the rifle remain relatively intact, although now pointing at the ground.

    [Actually, I think Robo in this case would just wrench the gun out of the guy's hands, and probably bop himself on the head with the butt. -Dan]

    Yes, everybody spends a lot of time thinking about these things. Don't they?

  6. arteitle Says:

    KilgoreTrout: I do... Like when the Hulk or another super-strong hero lifts something mega-massive, why doesn't the immense weight supported only by their (relatively) tiny feet result in their legs becoming embedded in the ground? Or when a hero with the body weight of a normal human is, say, hit by a car, the car deforms around him rather than sending him flying? Regardless of how durable and stiff his body may be, he's still standing on little unstable feet and still weighs far less than a speeding car, and it would still knock him over.

  7. Changes Says:

    The main problem I have with most superheroes is that they plain don't make sense - and I'm not talking about the powers.
    They can be invulnerable, superfast, superstrong and supereverything, yet they still spend time worrying about things like doors and passages when they could carve their own tunnels. And why does an unstoppable, unkillable person waste time going after petty crimes in the local megalopolis when they could be stopping world war by killing all the warmongers one by one, or curing cancer by using their laser eyes to perform perfect surgery in a heartbeat, or a million other such things?
    Also, they're more often than not dumb as bricks. Take Clark Kent in the Smallville era: some dude goes to him and threatens to expose him if he doesn't help him steal something. You'd think Clark would just punch the guy so hard he'd fly straight to Mars, or counter-threaten him with extreme revenge if he got exposed (how do you counter-counter-threat a super person?).
    But no, he just goes and does it.

    This is why I thought the recent Iron Man movie was a breath of fresh air in the genre. Aside from the fact that the man doesn't actually have superpowers, when he builds the suit he does actually try to stop war. He's still dumb though (only one arc reactor? no backups? Oh come on!)...

  8. Daniel Rutter Says:

    You've basically just got to treasure the moments when they get physics and/or the behaviour of the characters right.

    Image Comics, for instance, had the new and inexperienced Mighty Man making a right hash of things like picking up a car (and just ripping the bumper off).

    And early in the Supreme story, before he became a metaphor for man's inhumanity to Cerebus the Aardvark or something, he was the first plausible kind of Flying Brick: He believed himself to be, and demanded to be treated as, a god. A generally benevolent god, but if you take hostages and make demands, he will deal with the problem by annihilating the whole city block.

    Samaritan is at the other end of the Flying Brick attitude spectrum. He doesn't have a moment to himself, because any time he slacks off, his laziness will surely result in at least one disaster that he could have prevented.

  9. ChrisBurton Says:

    Just been following the links from the Answer, and got to this page about hitting a Star Destroyer with a can of ravioli.

    Towards the end:
    "Thermonuclear interactions, such as hydrogen fusion, may take place in the tomato sauce."

    My uncontrollable laughter has redecorated my office wall with a fetching cereal-and-milk motif.

  10. Bastard Child Says:

    'Super' man, 'super' skin - does he need Head & Shoulders?

  11. addaon Says:

    Shouldn't a sufficiency strong/tough superhero be able to "throw" an item twice as fast as they can move their hand? Rather than just using a simple toss, think of a volleyball serve. With the left hand (which is still infinitely strong, of course), do a max-speed underhand toss of the object backwards... then, with the right hand, provide a max-speed surface for the object to bounce off of.

  12. Red October Says:

    Re: lifting heavy objects whilst stepping on the ground: I've always assumed that Superman, or Rogue, or whomever who fills the "Flying brick" square, however realistically (with Superman sitting at the absurd end of the spectrum and Rogue at the other) would just apply a little bit of their "flight" power to keep themselves from sinking like a King Tiger that's left the pavement. Remember that a power is always as strong as the plot says it must be. The rest, well, I guess they just hope we didn't think to hard on those moments.

  13. TwoHedWlf Says:

    I suppose your double bounce idea could work. But, I think the fastest any human has ever thrown anything is roughly 100mph. So lets say you can get it up to 200 mph. That's still only roughly 300 feet per second, a high powered bullet would be more in the region of 2500 feet per second.

    A rock through at 300 fps would be pretty effective short range though.

  14. theSeekerr Says:

    An arrow from the best compound bows will reach 360 feet per second, and they're pretty damn effective. I'd imagine that something heavier would be even more so.

    That aside, though, the double bounce idea seems flawed - unless the object you're "throwing" is perfectly elastic, most of the energy from the "bounce" would go into deformation.

  15. addaon Says:

    Absolutely, as described. But to generalize, it only needs to be elastic enough to have some energy gain with impact with an arbitrarily strong palm. The next maneuver is to bobble the object back and forth back between two hands, gathering momentum, until firing it off. Voila -- high speed projectiles with nothing but arbitrary strength!

  16. Jonadab Says:

    I don't know about the volleyball thing (a rock is, as you note, not very elastic), but an athlete uses (probably without thinking consciously about it in may cases) assorted tricks to throw things faster than any individual part of his body can move. Think in terms of snapping the wrist on the end of the swinging arm while also rotating at the hips, and that sort of thing -- adding momenta together, in other words. Nonetheless, a hero without any extra speed wouldn't be able to throw an object significantly faster than a normal athlete can do, although with super strength he'd presumably be able to do it with a somewhat heavier object. Superman, of course, was supposed to have both super strength and super speed, so he'd be able to throw things with an enormous initial velocity, though inside an atmosphere the velocity would still be expected to decline with distance, if normal physics applies.

  17. DZ Says:

    One of my friends actually just gave this book to me for Christmas which you may find interesting. I don't know nearly enough physics to be able to tell how accurate it is, but it sounds reasonable makes for okay light weight reading.

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