The Mathematics of Spiderman and the Physics of Superheroes

I have not seen the new Spiderman reboot, so I’ll have to reserve judgment on the virtues of the movie. But, in general, superhero movies succeed or fail for me based on how plausible and consistent the physics of the alternate universe they create are. In the above video from the “Emory [University] Looks at Hollywood” series, Skip Garibaldi, professor of mathematics (who previously examined the math of rock climbing) explains that the new Spiderman film does, with a minor exception, portray the feats of Spiderman in a mathematically possible way—granted that we’re willing to believe in superpowers. For example, Spiderman’s graceful swings through the city on long strands of webbing don’t just serve a cinematic purpose; they also keep him from possibly dislocating his shoulders while coming to a full-stop from a free-fall.

Analyzing the science of superheroes is a fun sideline for pop culture-minded scientists. In some cases, it can be an effective teaching tool as well. University of Minnesota physicist and comic book fan James Kakalios devotes an entire lecture to “The Uncanny Physics of Superhero Comic Books.” Kakalios, who has written a book called the Physics of Superheroesworked as a science consultant on the Spiderman reboot and on Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, which he discusses below.

Many great physics courses (some introductory, some advanced) can be found in the Physics section of our collection of 500 Free Online Courses.

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