On The Physics of Superman: Why Most Superhero Movies Suck

physics superman the physics of superman physics

Newton’s Third Law of Motion prevents Superman from stopping a moving train. Here’s Jason Dias on the physics of Superman, and why most superhero films suck.

aNewDomainIf you know anything about anything, it’s settled. Any superhero movie you’ve ever watched or want to watch is ruined.

First consider this Superman-physics debate from TV’s “The Big Bang Theory.”

Problem is, Sheldon knows too much about physics to enjoy a good Superman movie. 

But I can’t see why he’s so into it, anyway. The thing with movies in general and superhero movies specifically is that the laws of physics are totally out of the window.

Think I’m being too harsh?

Let’s start with the most elementary laws of physics. 

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

So when Superman stops a train, what is he pushing against? And what is he pushing against when he flies?

Think about it: If Superman were to leap over a tall building, he’d have to push off against the pavement. Shouldn’t the pavement crack? 

What about when he stops a plane from crashing by pushing against the front of it? 

Aircraft aluminum isn’t capable of standing up to the force of a plane weighing well over a million pounds. There is nothing on the front of the plane could stand such strain. If Superman were to push the front of a plane, he wouldn’t stop it so much as collapse it, an action that would actually forceSuperman through the fuselage and into the cockpit.

Also: When Superman’s hovering above the ground holding the entire plane over his head, again, what is he pushing against?  That force has to go someplace, right? It go right into the ground, presumably. But then Superman would make a huge divot, a crater.

See, it takes multiples of the weight in force to deccelerate something and then accelerate it in the other direction.

And where’s my crater?

crater superman physics physics of superman

a crater

Now, what about when Superman lifts a continent made of Kryptonite? 

Don’t you wonder what’s he pushing against when he pushes it off into space?

The landmass he’s upwardly tossing has to go really fast to enter orbit and not get sucked back down to Earth. It in particular needs to orbit high enough that atmospheric drag is negligible. 

A nice rate for this is about 17,500 miles per hour, which ought to put it in a nice, semi-synchronous orbit — that is, an orbit that will have it going around twice every time the Earth rotates once. 

How much does a continent weigh? How much force is required to get it up to that speed? 

Funny thing, though: Pictures and movies rarely make it look like he accelerates the thing into orbit. Rather, it appears that Superman just moves it fast enough to exit orbit entirely. 

Did you know that the Moon doesn’t orbit Earth? 

It doesn’t. It co-orbits with the Earth. That’s because the moon is about one sixth of the Earth’s mass. The Earth and the Moon co-orbit a point that is 1/6 of the way between the Earth and Moon. 

Now back to Superman’s continent moving. A continent, of course, would have significant mass. And, as it’s made from matter already present on Earth and in the sea, its absence would actually move our orbit closer to the Moon. 

Furthermore, just his pushing off the Earth itself would cause a significant wobble in our orbit around the Sun, which probably would make it more eccentric.

Superman physics of Superman

In other words, as Sheldon says on “The Big Bang Theory” in the above clip, there was no way to save Lois Lane if you understand physical laws. She couldn’t be decelerated over a long enough distance. And Sheldon is right, too, when he says there was no way to get that Kryptonite continent off the Earth without destroying Earth. 

And those are just the most egregious of the technical errors, which truly just illustrate ways in which movie makers assume you are stupid.

Consider The Incredible Hulk. When the Hulk picks up heavy stuff, all that weight in now on his ankles. Why don’t they break? 

And when Superman or Spiderman lift ridiculous stuff like train cars or planes, why aren’t they forced through the crust of the world? 

And why doesn’t the Cyclops burn out his own eyes? 

And, when Ice Man makes everything all frosty all around him, where does the displaced heat go? Why doesn’t everything outside the freeze area burst into flames? 

And one last question: How does Elastic man withstand the g-forces of snapping back into shape?

physics and superheros

That’s the trouble with movies.  The more you know, the less you can watch.

There’s something worse about such films, though: they present our problems as things with easy, monolithic solutions.  The kinds of problems faced by modern humans are only solvable by some serious teamwork – especially difficult when we can’t even agree what those problems are.  We make Superheroes out of people like MLK, and try to forget about all the people who stood with him.  Alongside, behind, with.  We forget that we’re the ones with all the power.

We can’t fly. But we aren’t cartoons. Cartoons are fictions. 

We can know things, though. And knowing things is so much better than being entertained. That’s true eight days a week and twice on Sunday.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.

Cover image: Manapop.com, All Rights Reserved; image two: MeteorCrater.com, All Rights Reserved; image three: MeteorCrater.com, All Rights Reserved; image four: Cnx.org, All Rights Reserved; image five: D3GO.com, All Rights Reserved.

About the author

Jason Dias

Jason Dias

Jason Dias, PsyD is an existential psychotherapist who breathes words. He's a senior columnist at aNewDomain.

4 Comments

  • The same external force field like “aura” that keeps his cape and suit from bursting in to flames extends subconsciously around the things he is interacting with.

    This is also why bullets don’t ricochet killing those around him, and when he flies faster than a bullet that the wind around him doesn’t kill everyone in the room, and why his heat vision doesn’t cause the air to vaporize around him, and why X-ray vision works rather than just giving everyone he looks at brain tumors.

  • Don’t we want to make even the slightest allowance for “suspension of disbelief,” Jason. That may be the only thing that makes any fantasy fiction possible at all! LOL. Great piece, though!

  • “Did you know that the Moon doesn’t orbit Earth?

    It doesn’t. It co-orbits with the Earth. That’s because the moon is about one sixth of the Earth’s mass. The Earth and the Moon co-orbit a point that is 1/6 of the way between the Earth and Moon.”

    Ah, nah – this is about as real as Superman. The barycentre is INSIDE the earth – maybe check facts??

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