By Sean Carroll | December 18, 2009 8:36 am

My favorite example of a recent Hollywood blockbuster that scientists should like is Iron Man. Yes, it’s implausible that a prisoner in a cave in Afghanistan could build a lethal flying suit out of scrap metal, etc. But plausibility should never be the criterion for judging a science-fiction/fantasy scenario; sometimes you just have to bend the rules of the real world to get the required dramatic effects. Consistency, on the other hand, is crucial; the non-real world you invent should follow some set of rules, even if they veer away from the actual world. (Nobody complains that the Enterprise travels faster than light, but there are plenty of complaints about the bizarre use of time travel in the Star Trek franchise.)

Even better is when a film does a decent job at reflecting the practice of science. And that’s why I loved Iron Man — the whole second act revolves around Tony Stark in his lab, engineering designs and using trial-and-error to determine experimentally what works and what doesn’t. It makes for compelling viewing, which should be a lesson to people.

So we’re all excited about Iron Man 2, right?

The Science and Entertainment Exchange had a small hand in this one — apparently they needed a particle physicist to help get some of the scenes right. I don’t think it was the scene with the whips.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I loved “Iron Man”. More importantly, my wife loved Iron Man. Always a dicey proposition, taking her to these flicks. I adored “District 9”. She abhorred it. I mean got-up-and-left-the-theater-so-I-had-to-come-back-by-myself abhorred it. I guess something about insectoid freaks and splattering entrails really bothers her. Anyway, if a flick has plenty of exploding shit and futuristic fun, and can even throw in a decent script with good acting, I’m there. The fact that my wife not only sat through it, but wanted to rent it and watch it AGAIN…well now, I owe Robert Downey Jr. & Co. a debt of gratitude for that one. I do indeed eagerly await the sequel.

    But not once while watching those recent sci-fi (-ish) successes did I ever think “And what a fine portrayal of science and those who labor at it.” There was nothing remotely plausible about either film. Wonderfully entertaining, even moving and thought-provoking? Absolutely. Well-acted, well-written, fine cinematography, etc.? You bet. But these films are pure fantasy, using technology like The Lord of the Rings used magic. I’ll like some of the sci-fi of 2009 for what it was, but I’m not letting the genre off the hook. As science anything, it’s still laughable.

  • Sergey, VT

    I like Iron Man too and I can’t believe that once in a while I could completely agree with Sean! Yes, it is not exactly the fine portrayal of science but for some audience such as my kid the fair portrayal of science would not be so enticing movie. Iron Man glorifies science and engineering and Tony Stark is a good role model for little kids, in any case he is a better and more realistic role model than Star Wars heroes. At least I could say to my son: look if you study well in school, learn well Math and Physics you too can be as Tony Stark. The other thing I like in the movie is that Tony Stark is a free man who works for himself rather than for government, he is typical American capitalist with his instincts of private property (transparent even in the new trailer.) I think that my son liked this point as well and for some time he says that he wants to own a company and be a capitalist .

    It is very hard for one man to be a good scientist+ good engineer+ good CEO+ good sportsman. This almost never happens in the real life, but still it may be not as hard as to master the Force, so we and our kids still can aspire :-)

  • hackenkaus

    Wow, is that Mickey Rourke? Now I see why he got all that weird plastic surgery. It’s perfect for the roll.

  • gopher65

    I thought much the same thing watching Iron Man. It was completely implausible, but I loved the portrayal of an engineer (not so much a researcher) in his lab, using a trial and error method to figure out how to make a decent end product. It wasn’t a good presentation of how engineers work in reality, but it was a good presentation of part of the *concept* behind engineering.

  • http://www.domenicdenicola.com/ Domenic Denicola

    Did anyone catch what Tony says to Pepper before jumping out of the plane? Something like “you can keep me” is what I’m hearing, but that doesn’t make much sense…

    1 <3 Iron Man.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

      “You complete me.”

  • Nick

    Every male engineer secretly sees himself deep down as Tony Stark

  • http://www.youtube.com/kevinanderik Kevin

    Hang on, are you saying there’s a problem with the whip physics? I don’t see what that would be. Care to enlighten me?

  • Gammaburst

    Our local (St Louis) theater group put on “Amadeus” recently. The liner notes pointed out that in “Ironman” there is a scene were Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is playing a piece by Salieri on the piano. What a great and understated way to draw a comparison of the relationships between Stane/Stark and Salieri/Mozart. Obviously “Ironman” is no “Amadeus” but a fun fact none the less.

  • Eugene

    All I remember from that trailer is Scarlett Johanssen looking like she is going to kick-ass. I hope that’s the one sole contribution from the said particle physicist.

  • http://www.geoffreylandis.com Geoffrey A. Landis

    I have to say, I loved the high-altitude icing scene in the Iron Man movie. It’s great to see real-world complications show up in Hollywood engineering, and even more wonderful to see them actually play a role in the plot.

  • joulesm

    I love Ironman!! Best engineer I’ve ever seen *swoon*


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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