Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Iron Man Ironies

I saw "Iron Man" this weekend, and while I thought it was good for its genre -- I freely admit to being entertained -- I was somewhat disappointed by the physics. Of course the whole thing was a cinematic comic book, but when the hero is supposed to be a brilliant engineer, one expects at least a mild dose of reality. Here the physics was just part of the film's general otherworldliness. (Caution: spoilers ahead.)

This physics professor complains primarily that the amazing Iron Man suit would require too much power to carry around. Well, that, I think, can almost be forgiven -- a vital part of the premise was that Tony Stark, the hero, invents a fabulously miniaturized power source. Of course, if he'd really done that, one might imagine that when he gets home he would find better and more profitable things to do with it than to build a flying, fighting suit (zero emission cars? clean power plants?), but OK, he's in the weapons business, so that's what he naturally thinks about. But there were so many other bad physics cliches -- standing in a huge shower of falling broken glass without getting so much as a scratch; being 10 feet from an explosion that destroys a huge building, ditto -- that it required a little too much suspension of disbelief.

And the physics was just the beginning. What really got to me was the idea that all it takes is a supersuit to solve any military problem. There wasn't much recognition of the need for actionable intelligence. We already have the ability to make things blow up a long distance away. But you need to know what to blow up. It's one thing to put on a supersuit that can fly you halfway around the world in a few minutes -- you still need to know where to go. Somehow Stark didn't have to spend even a moment asking anyone for directions -- he just flew straight to the exact spot where the bad guys were hassling their prisoners. Also, the suit magically distinguishes enemies from civilians. In real life, you could send someone in wearing a supersuit and he'd end up killing at least a couple of friends and civilians for every 10 enemies, I expect.

The cybernetics were also a little too much. We already have voice recognition software, so I wasn't bothered by Stark's ability to talk to his computers, but where is the computer that understands everything you say and answers back in perfect natural English -- with delightfully wry sarcasm thrown in? Where is the program that provides perfect Pashto-English voice translation at the touch of a button? If he's really got these things, he could be making far more in civilian software than in weapons technology, I would expect.

And by the way, why does Stark almost keel over when his power source is turned off? As far as his personal body was concerned, all it was doing was powering the magnet that kept the shrapnel away from his organs. It's not like it was keeping his heart pumping. He should have just casually said, "Damn, I'd better replace that soon -- gotta keep that shrapnel away from my heart."

Still, I enjoyed the flick more than I thought I would and recommend it as an action film where they actually expended some effort on the story line. It's not just a bunch of meaningless explosions.

And for a great site on movie physics, go here.

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