How realistic is Iron Man 3′s technology?

Iron Man 3′s science and technology explained, by The Physics Of Superheroes’ James Kakalios

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Tony Stark at his workbench in Iron Man 3
Tony Stark at his workbench in Iron Man 3

With so much effort put into the reinvention of comic-book icon Tony Stark as Robert Downey Jr’s semi-believable big screen arms-dealer-turned-superhero, all afterburners and chaff in Iron Man 3, you can’t help but wonder – is all of this as plausible as it looks?

We caught up with James Kakalios, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, author of The Physics Of Superheroes, and scientific consultant on Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man to see just how well this whole super-scientist thing measures up…

What’s your personal view of the pseudo-scientific presentation of the Iron Man films? Was it just what the character needed to make the leap onto the screen?

I thought they did an excellent job of portraying the engineer as superhero and the superhero as engineer. Every time we see Tony Stark in a tough spot, he thinks his wait out!  Whether its building the first arc reactor and Mach I suit in a cave with a bunch of scraps, or tricking the Iron Monger to the outer edges of the atmosphere, he uses his wits and knowledge. Moreover, we see Tony building and testing his next generation of suits!

Often superheroes go straight from gaining amazing powers to fighting crime, with no evident learning curve. We see Tony Stark “beta testing” his suits, and that again illustrates his intelligence.

One scene in the first Iron Man film sticks out for me.  When Tony Stark is back from captivity and is building his new and improved suit of armor, we see him soldering wires.  I was pleased to note that Tony was using the same brand of soldering iron that I have in my laboratory – and he was doing it right!  (I’m probably the only person who was excited during the film over the soldering!).  But this goes toward creating a believable, fake reality.  It is so clear that Robert Downey Jr. knows what he is doing that it helps the audience maintain their suspension of disbelief – crucial for a superhero movie.

Rocket boots, how much is wrong with that? What sort of thrust would we be look at to get a piece of hardware like Iron Man into the sky?

Throughout the film Tony Stark withstands accelerations and decelerations that would kill a lesser person. Avengers Assemble showed that Iron Man’s turning radius while in flight is very tight, but then he should be subject to large acclerations – “g-forces” if you will, that should splatter him against the inside of the suit.  I can only assume that a desire to avoid a “Hard R” rating limiting audiences to 17 and over keeps him whole and hearty!

James Kakalios, author of The Physics Of Superheroes, getting his Will Magnus on
James Kakalios, author of The Physics Of Superheroes, getting his Will Magnus on

How about the arc reactor? Obviously the health risks are a topic in themselves, but could a device like that really generate the required amount of energy to power the Iron Man armour, and keep his electromagnet going permanently?

Many aspects of Iron Man’s suit are technologically feasible today.  We have relatively light weight armor, we have exo-skeletons that amplify a person’s strength, we even have jet packs that can allow a person to fly (mounting them in one’s boots presents a stability problem, as shown in the first film, but as also illustrated in the movie, one that is solvable).

The only thing lacking, and it’s a big one, is the power supply. To run all of these devices requires an external source of energy, and one would either have to go into combat tethered to a thick extension cord, or dragging a power plant behind one.  In the film Tony Stark constructs an “arc reactor” that produces electrical power equivalent to three nuclear power plants, and is the size of a hockey puck.  If we knew how to create such an energy source, many of the world’s problems would be solved and we wouldn’t need superheroes!

Repulsor blasts, what do you think these bad boys actually are, and how could they work?

I never really understood what these were in the comics, but the films make it plain – repulsors are palm mounted thrusters – identical to those in his jet boots.

Initially he created these hand-based thrusters in order to provide stability during flight, but quickly realized that they could function as an offensive weapon. In this way they are no different than if Tony were to high kick and give the bad guy a face full of jet boots. Well, with one big distinction: If he were to blast a villain using his boot mounted jet thrusters, he would fly backwards at an awkward angle and high velocity. By putting the repulsor rays in the palm of his gloves, he can lock the servo-mechanisms in his arm and keep his body rigid and balanced while firing.

Once again – the superhero as engineer!

Rockets and miniguns etc, especially with War Machine, would all this hardware be effective shoulder mounted or wrist-mounted? Is it more trouble than it’s worth?

As discussed above, the big issue is the recoil. Mounting a machine gun on your shoulder certainly looks cool, but is not too practical from a stability point of view.  In addition, I must assume that those helmets have some amazing sound insulation, to keep Rhodey and Tony from going deaf following a machine gun and rocket launcher going off right next to their ears.

The wrist-mounted weaponry is not as impractical, following the consideration of palm-based repulsor rays.  But at the end of the day, even if I might question the engineering choices, I would never bet against Tony Stark finding a way to make it work.

He may not be an idol of millions like me (!) but even his brains have brains!

Iron Man 3 is in cinemas now. Pick up The Science Of Superheroes by James Kakalios for £6.47 from Amazon.co.uk.

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