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Suspending Too Much Disbelief

John Derbyshire, contrarian that he is, didn't like Spiderman II.

Even comic-book movies must obey certain unities. In the realm of science fiction -- and c/b movies are a species, even if a low one, of science fiction -- the golden rule is: You can have one highly implausible bit of science. The rest of the science should be sound, or at least should follow logically from the central implausibility. THE TIME MACHINE is a great sci-fi novel because, once you have granted the central, fairly preposterous, premise that time travel is possible, everything else is just basic Darwinism and stellar evolution, as it was understood at the time.

The central notion in SPIDERMAN is that if you get bitten by a spider whose genes have been messed about with in a certain way, you will develop the ability to shoot 100-ft silk threads from your wrists (without, apparently, any loss of body mass). This is preposterous -- though not at a sensationally high level, as spider genes can be messed around with in an infinity of ways, and we don't actually know what would happen if you were bitten by a spider whose genes had been messed around with in way No. 29,485,672.

Having been persuaded to suspend our disbelief with respect to Spidey's powers, we should not then be asked to swallow any more preposterosities. And we know perfectly well what whould happen if you dumped a fusion reaction into the East River -- ka-BOOM.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I intend to, and won't let this curmudgeonly review put me off of it, though I actually agree with the principle. That was one of the things that bothered me about the first movie. Once you tell me he's been bitten by a radioactive spider, then fine, I'll buy the superpowers on the part of Spidey. I'll even accept the notion that, as Derbyshire points out, he doesn't have to conserve mass.

But Mary Jane has no superpowers, yet she performs a superfeat near the end of the movie, when she falls off the cable that's being flung around (face it, she wouldn't have been able to hang on to it that long without her arms being torn off), and then catches the side of the cable car as she falls some distance toward it.

Sorry, just Not.Gonna.Happen. It defies physics and the strength, both muscular and structural, of a normal human body, even one pumped on adrenalin. I enjoyed the movie up to that point, but that bit really bugged me, because there was no good reason for it--it could have been just as exciting while being realistic.

And of course, there's the other thing that bothered me about the movie--the ending.

Parker was under no obligation to keep Harry in the dark about his father's end. Just because he was requested to, he didn't agree to the request, and he did himself and Harry a disservice by allowing Harry to continue to live on in a fantasy world about his father's true nature, a world that's likely to cause him to attempt to kill Parker's alter ego (and hence Parker) in the future.

At a minimum, he should have at least pointed out to Harry that the fact that Spiderman returned his father's body to his home didn't mean that Spiderman was the killer. He might not have accepted it, but there would have been no harm in exercising a little logic on him, even if he wanted to spare him the knowledge that his father was a murderer (though again, I think that was no favor).

Also, he's not protecting MJ by not reciprocating her love. The key is to keep his identity a secret (though not from her). I found it highly unsatisfactory, but apparently it was more important to them to set up some dubious sequel plot than to employ logic, or ethics.

I guess that SF movies will never get made right until they hire me as a script advisor. And listen.

[Update on Tuesday]

For those endlessly or otherwise fascinated by bad movie physics, check out this site (including a review of Spidey I). It says The Core (which I haven't seen, and probably won't) takes the prize for the worst movie ever in this regard.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 05, 2004 11:14 AM
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I perferred when he had WEB SHOOTERS like in the comics.

Also, he punched Doc Ock in the face numerous times.

Doc Ock in the comics would have been out like a light.

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 5, 2004 11:25 AM

Modern action movies often labor under the imposition of Hollywood physics. The kind of activities he mentions are routinely done in these movies.

Also, Rand you may have met in your many travels someone who makes a clearly bad decision which didn't seem so bad. If you really strain, you may recall when you did that last... I know I can't. ;-)

Posted by Karl Hallowell at July 5, 2004 11:50 AM

My credentials for this discussion? Why, when I was 15, I sent Stan Lee a letter serving notice that someday I would be a comic-book writer. (He wrote back trying to talk me out of the idea...)

More to the point, I've been reading Spider-Man since my tenderest youth, and even way back then, I was always a little bothered by the web-shooters. In the comic book, Peter Parker did not get the power to shoot webbing from his wrists along with his other spider-powers. Instead, he had to invent a web-shooter and a web fluid as a supplemental add-on. (And that right there was a bit much to swallow, since even if Peter was a super-science genius, he was still a high-school student -- he can invent high-tech stuff that good on the spur of the moment?)

Since shooting webs was Spider-Man's most obvious and spectacular trademark super-ability, and that was the one power he _didn't_ get from the radioactive spider, it just seemed... unelegant, somehow. Needlessly complex. Over-complicating the origin, like making Superman fly with a rocket belt. It occurred to me even way back then that making the web-shooters organic would have simplified things: one simple origin, everything accounted for. Somebody obviously felt the same way...

But after seeing the idea put into action in the first movie (haven't seen II yet), I'm not so sure. Generating a sticky fluid within one's own body and then squirting it out? That's kind of, er, gross, even without thinking of similarities to certain things I'm not even thinking about right now and neither should you. That's not even considering the practical limitations: how much goo can Peter generate at a time, how soon does it run it out, does he have to go hide from Doc Ock when he runs out in the middle of a fight and wait to generate more, and how long does that take? With the add-on web-shooter and fluid cartridges he used in the comics, he did run out now and then, and had to take a break to reload, but if anything, that added a certain human plausibility to the prodcedings, without increasing the eewww! factor.

Maybe the movie should have made the web-shooters mechanical add-ons, but improved the plausibility by having them less outright new inventions Peter had to design and construct. A shot of Peter paging through the Edmund's catalog for already-existing gadgets he can modify for his purposes, or placing an order to 3M for a few cans of Industrial-Strength Sticky Goo (the products don't have to really exist, just assume that they do for the movie) would have covered the point.


Posted by Dwight Decker at July 5, 2004 12:30 PM

Rand, given your comments about the first movie I predict that you will positively hate this one. I know I did. It was a wordy, overly romantic soap-opera with a minor action sub-plot. Way too much, really bad, technobabble (Star Trek was better on this point IMO).

I could complain more, but then I'd be spoiling things. I'll just mention that one of your complaints regarding the first movie gets addressed (though not well) in this one.

Posted by Jason Bontrager at July 5, 2004 01:46 PM

You guys are all wet.

I just saw the second movie about two hours ago and loved it. About halfway through it the little brain in my voice said "How about that! There's actually a STORY here and it is not about fighting supervillains." It's all about the choices that we make and the responsibilities we face and it is a remarkably sophisticated and nuanced one.

Go see the movie, and if you're bothered by the physics, then you're missing the point.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at July 5, 2004 02:59 PM

Has any science fiction movie ever gotten the "science" part right? or any movie stunt at all for that matter.

There are probably a hundred physical impossibilities (impossible even if one accepts all of the movies premises) in the first SpiderMan movie alone.

But Spiderman is not alone. Look at Star Wars: ships that can travel in the atmosphere, in free space at a substantial fraction of lightspeed, and even at "hyper-speed"... with no relativistic effects. Laser beams that emit sound... which carries across the vacuum (ditto for engine noise and explosion noise). Ships that bank into turns, while in orbit and in vacuum.

Look at Armageddon: better yet, don't.

About the only SF movie I can think of that got the science "right" (or at least, plausible) is 2001: a Space Odyssey.

Posted by Ed Minchau at July 5, 2004 04:59 PM

Mr. Minchau asked rhetorically:
"Has any science fiction movie ever gotten the "science" part right? or any movie stunt at all for that matter."

I was listening to the commentary track for an episode of "Futurama" on DVD and Matt Groening pointed out that _all_ science fiction has at least one element of magic in it, at least one physical improbability. And when you think about it, he's absolutely right. No matter how close they try to adhere to the proper physics, they always have to cheat at least once.

"2001" cheated. If you read about the technical designs for the movie, you'll see that they debated about including giant radiators for the nuclear reactors on Discovery One. They decided that if they included them, the audience would ask "why does it have wings?" And this is not to mention the fundamental leap of the Monolith.

Once you accept this, the question becomes how much you are willing to allow. I think that certain movies just push many of us who are logically-inclined over the edge. I hated "Armageddon" as a movie, but its physics also bugged the hell out of me as well. But I rather enjoyed "Independence Day" and for some reason am willing to turn my brain off and just enjoy the movie.

My real gripe is when the movie defies physical laws for no real reason when they just as easily could have made it conform. My own particular beef is over the portrayal of spy satellites in the movies, when they are often shown to have amazing capabilities primarily because the writer is a lazy bum who did not want to actually put his brain to use and merely invented a wonderful technology to enable the heroes to do something.

Posted by Dwayne A. Day at July 5, 2004 05:29 PM

"I was listening to the commentary track for an episode of "Futurama" on DVD and Matt Groening pointed out that _all_ science fiction has at least one element of magic in it, at least one physical improbability. And when you think about it, he's absolutely right. No matter how close they try to adhere to the proper physics, they always have to cheat at least once."

Sez who? If it's set in the future, they can always postulate economic growth and further capital investment that allows currently known physical laws to be used to create gadgets that we know how to make in principle, but are way to expensive to actually build at present.

"But I rather enjoyed "Independence Day" and for some reason am willing to turn my brain off and just enjoy the movie."

I guess some movies are just so over the top that they make you laugh at them. And not just the questionable physics. Consider Will Smith, a US marine that has presumably gotten some combat training, confronting the alien in its crashed spaceship, punching it in the face, and then turning his back on it after it falls over, somehow knowing that this alien creature that he's never seen before and knows nothing about will remain unconscious for the next several hours.

Posted by Ken at July 5, 2004 06:37 PM

Dare I say - you are starting to sound like Easterbrook.

Up next - a fisking of the physics of Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ... :)

Posted by Duncan Young at July 5, 2004 08:44 PM


Posted by Mumblix Grumph at July 5, 2004 10:02 PM

No problemo, Duncan.

Easterbrook isn't always wrong...

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 6, 2004 05:36 AM

Part of the genius of Stan Lee's writing was the way he piled improbability on improbability, technobabble on technobabble, and hype on hype until you just gave in and enjoyed the ride. I found Spiderman 2 had a similar energy.

Posted by Eric Akawie at July 6, 2004 05:46 AM

It's funny how some folks just can't get the suspension of disbelief thing down. It must be tough to see a fun movie.

It's like this: All of these stories, with their elements of the fantastical? They do not exist in our universe. Trying to place the rules and constraints of our universe on these other universes (universi? ;) ) is silly - as silly as trying to place the rules and constraints of their's on ours.

Just accept it, and then enjoy it - it's not supposed to be real - these stories were all fantasy - a dream of "What If?"

And, like is stated in the first movie, "This, like any tale worth telling, is about a girl."

Posted by Steve at July 6, 2004 08:35 AM

I often get annoyed when movies hash up the physics for no good reason, as well, but they can go a long way toward minimizing my irritation by expressly acknowledging that they know they're hashing up the physics. Although truly silly, I enjoyed "The Core" more than I thought I would because of the inventor character's comment, early in the movie, that his vehicle was constructed of "unobtanium." Because of this wink-of-the-eye to those-who-know-better, I was willing to silence my inner critic and enjoy the movie for what it was -- stupid fun. As for "Spidey II" -- damn fine movie, despite the stupid physics.

Posted by David A. Young at July 6, 2004 11:39 AM

Ed Minchau
"Has any science fiction movie ever gotten the "science" part right? "

I felt that 2001 and 2010 (absent the big black rectangle things) got the science part as right as possible.

Posted by Brian at July 6, 2004 12:42 PM

I used to get into endless arguments on technical issues in science fiction movies and TV series. And it isn’t a new issue – look at some of the mail in ‘50s science fiction magazines and you’ll see the same type of discussions.

In science fiction stories, the general rule is to limit “rubber science” (ftl, time travel, etc.) to what is specifically needed for the plot. The author carefully defines the rules for its use, and uses it and describes it as little as possible. And, except for the specifically noted exceptions, real physics applies.

There are very few movies and TV series that come close to this. For a series, there is the additional issue that the writers have to come up with many different stories, so are more likely to get in trouble even if they are trying. Some things must be there because it looks or sounds good (laser beams/sound in space).

The problem is that in Hollywood many of the people involved not only don’t have a clue what is technically correct, but don’t care.

Everybody has different ideas about what is acceptable, and a lot of it depends on their areas of knowledge. Pointing out a technical issue to someone who doesn’t understand it is likely to just make them defensive. And I know I miss a lot of technical issues others do notice. I make allowances for comic book, fantasy, or humorous stories, especially ones poking fun at the genre. I get especially annoyed at “In your face” ridiculous bits taken seriously that are central to the plot, internal inconsistency, nonsense thrown in for no obvious reason, cliches, and Deus Ex Machina plots. Star Trek Voyager and Enterprise have great examples of all these bad story types – after about the third awful time travel story you just give up hope.

Posted by VR at July 6, 2004 03:26 PM

I think the physics in the new Battlestar Galctica miniseries were fairly good.

Posted by Mike Puckett at July 6, 2004 07:11 PM

Two problems I can see right off the back. The fusion machines relies on magnetic fields, which
in reality would do nothing to initiate the
reaction; when in fact some kind of gravitron
emitter or laser array, would probably do the
trick. Second, fusion reactions, involve both
tritium and deuterium; the last which is large
supply in sea water. Consequently, dumping the
reactor into the Hudson River, would explosively separate out the deuterium, and create an unstoppable chain reaction
out the deuterium

Posted by narciso at July 6, 2004 08:22 PM

What are the odds that spider-gene therapy results in both:
(1) webshooters
(2) webshooters aimed the right way on the appropriate body part?

Posted by Andy Freeman at July 7, 2004 10:02 AM

My little 5 year old boy was so anticpating Spidey 2, which tickles me as a forty something dad who loved the cartoon as a kid many years ago as well, Unfortunately, this movie, marketed to children of all ages and adults alike, had a few too scary secnes for a child his age.

The breaking glass flying toward Mrs. Doc Oc, and her subsequent death (even ovvious to my son) scared him and we had to walk out for a while. After I relaxed hime and reneterd, it was only 10 minutes before Doc Ock was busy mutilating medical staff and we had to leave for good.

IMO, this movie had scenes that were too violent for young children. While you can't make a good superhero movie without the implication of violence, this movie went far past the implication and showed in somewhat graphic detail scenes sure to scare many young children (or at least teach them that you can be GOOD, as superheros are, and use violence as your first solution to battling crime and evil.) G'day

Posted by AndyJ at July 7, 2004 10:31 AM


The PG-13 rating this movie carries exists for a reason. It lets parents know there is going to be stuff in this movie too intense for a small child but reasonable for older children. Your kid has probably seen ads for R-rated movies that looked interesting to him, too. Are you taking him to those as well until you get to the nasty parts?

Posted by Eric Pobirs at July 7, 2004 02:33 PM

THe webshooter problemn is a case of substituting one improbability for another. They decided it was too improbable for Peter to develop the web shooter chemistry and deployment system but instead they create a new problem of making it part of his biology.

The mass issue is consistent with the comic webshooters, though. Spidey typically got a lot of mileage out of a pair of little cartridges about the size of Nintendo GameBoy cartridges. That isn't a great toll on body mass. The bigger issue is how long it takes him to replenish his silk glands if he overdoes it since he can't just changes cartridges like he does in the comics. (He keeps a supply of replacements on his belt along with the handy Spider-signal light which, BTW, has always produced a prodigous amount of light for its size and that of its probable power source.

Part of the inspiration for how the movie webbing is handled might come from the well remembered alien symbiote that was his black costume for a while and later became part of a major enemy, Venom. THe symbiote produced its own webbing on demand and never seemed to run out but was presumably feeding on Parker himself.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at July 7, 2004 02:40 PM

The creation of the webshooters and fluid by Parker was always intended as an illustration of his great potential as a scientist but was sidetracked by his emotional and economic woes. Once he achieved great fulfillment from being Spider-man it became an addicition that took over his life. Over the years there have been many storylines that involved Parker going back to finish school and later to get serious about a career in science but the ability to make a difference where no one else can always takes priority. It's part of what mades him intersting than the guys like Bruce Wayne who seemed to have it all until later writers considered what a strange and driven person Wayne must be.

There was once a stryline where Parker tried to cash in on his webfluid and equipment but it was thrown out because he couldn't come up with a version that didn't dissolve within a half hour or so. (This is why Spider-man hasn't been targeted for death by NY building maintenance unions.) It worked for Spidey's needs but was useless for industrial apps.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at July 7, 2004 02:48 PM

I don't think this is much of a spoiler given the comments above, but the only thing that really bothered me about the movie is that, when they dump the fusion reaction, which was described in the movie as being like holding the sun in your hand, and looks pretty much like a minuature sun, into the river, it produces no steam. Basically it has no reaction with the water at all.

I mean, how much of a scientist do you have to be to know that when you throw something hot into water, the water boils and produces steam? I can suspend my disbelief on a lot of topics, but something as basic as "hot things in water cause boiling" not happening ended my disbelief's suspension. There's just no excuse for not doing that - not only would it have been more accurate, it would've looked cooler.

Posted by Brett A. Thomas at July 7, 2004 03:51 PM

What are the odds that spider-gene therapy results in both: (1) webshooters (2) webshooters aimed the right way on the appropriate body part?

I dunno - About the same as producing super strength, ultra-quick reflexes, Spidey-sense, and the ability to sew lycra into costumes?

But my not-so-smartass answer would be "Approaches unity, if you want a SpiderMan movie."

Posted by Steve at July 8, 2004 04:47 AM

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