I really liked the new Iron Man movie. Unlike other superheroes, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is arrogant, quirky and unapologetic. Like Batman, he derives his power from his own ingenuity, using applied engineering and science to fight the bad guys. His lab, his robots and his problem-solving abilities are all testaments to the power of science and human knowledge.
But I did have one huge gripe with the science in the film and I think it goes beyond normal sci-fi nitpicking.
In the film, Stark has to invent something to replace his artificial glowing heart. Early in the film, he says he has already tried ‘every known compound and every possible combination of compounds.’ (I’ll charitably chalk that up to overstatement.) Finally, after unlocking some secret code his father leaves him embedded in a diorama, Stark invents a new element. And he does so by erecting some sort of pipe-like particle accelerator — humorously propped up by Captain America’s shield — and shooting some lasers at a triangle.
The idea of inventing a new element is just too over-the-top. Obviously, the writers wanted something that sounded incredibly hard for their hero to accomplish. But did they really need to stretch the laws of physics?
I think the writers could have come up with an equally compelling achievement that didn’t go beyond basic science. What if Stark had invented a new way to combine known elements? What if he heated something up to a previously unachievable temperature with a fusion reaction? What if he found some breakthrough in real, but sci-fi-sounding technology like carbon nanotubes? What if he invented a symbiotic organism that was part animal, part machine that would live inside him ?
Some scenarios like that still would have worked for audiences. And they wouldn’t have been completely implausible.