I know everyone is excited about this weekend’s premiere (at least here in the U.S.) of Thor, the latest superhero extravaganza from Marvel studios. At least I am, for my usual selfish reasons: I helped do some consulting (through The Science and Entertainment Exchange) for the movie. Also, there is a mystical hammer that smashes things; what’s not to like?
Unlike TRON: Legacy, where we came in after the screenplay had been drafted, on Thor we came in near the beginning. Marvel had done a lot of work on the idea, but there wasn’t yet a script. The Exchange set up a consult meeting with director Kenneth Branagh, the screenwriter, and a few people on the design and production side of things, along with three scientists — Jim Hartle from UCSB, Kevin Hand from JPL, and myself.
We bandied around lots of issues relating to the Thor universe and how it fit in with Marvel’s bigger plans. Once there was a script, I came in to read it and offer some more comments. Since that time, the script was re-written by the dynamic duo of Ash Miller and Zack Stentz, and I haven’t actually seen the film yet, so I can’t speak to what kind of impact we had in the end. Let’s just say that there was one thing in particular that they were planning on doing in the movie that drove all the scientists batty — I think we convinced them to fix it, but we’ll have to see. And once filming started, they recruited Caltech student Kevin Hickerson to help with the tech-gadgetry end of things. So I have high hopes. (Early reviews are very positive. And of course, Agent Coulson returns, with a larger role than in the Iron Man films. Everyone loves Agent Coulson.)
You might be wondering, where is there room for any sort of science in a comic-book movie about a Norse god in a red cape who swings a magical hammer? Well I’m glad you asked. Actually there were a couple of different things where the movie people were very interested in our input. One was constructing a coherent framework for the Marvel universe — ultimately, this story about Thor the thunder god is going to have to be compatible with Tony Stark’s Iron Man world, since the two characters are both part of the Avengers. (I also got to read the script for that, and yes — it is as great as the rumors suggest.)
Kevin Feige, president of production at Marvel Studios, is a huge proponent of having the world of these films ultimately “make sense.” It’s not our world, obviously, but there needs to be a set of “natural laws” that keeps things in order — not just for Iron Man and Thor, but all the way up to Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme who will get his own movie before too long. The thinking here is very much based on Arthur C. Clarke’s “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the trailer above, Thor basically gives exactly this pitch to Jane Foster.
That’s the other area where we science consultants were able to help out: in shaping Natalie Portman’s character of Jane Foster. In the original comic books Foster was a nurse, but they wanted to update her considerably for the movie. So they hit on the idea that she could be a scientist, but what kind of scientist? (I argued that she be an experimental physicist.) What kind of position would she hold? Could there be tension with her academic supervisor? What kind of posters does a young physicist have on her apartment wall?
Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m very hopeful that Jane Foster ends up being a strong character and a good representation of scientists. Natalie Portman seems to think so — you can read here and here about how she feels this role was an opportunity to do something different and important.
“Ken and I talked a lot before we started about how to make Jane a realistic scientist on screen — (and) not just make her (like) Denise Richards in Bond who wears . . . glasses and so she’s a real scientist,” Portman said. “We talked about how real scientists are like artists: They are able to imagine things that aren’t there. And to give (Jane) this sense that she’s sort of frazzled and she’s often thinking in abstractions.”
I do know people like that, yes. And who knows what young person might see the movie and get some inspiration? Portman again:
“I got to read all of these biographies of female scientists like Rosalind Franklin who actually discovered the DNA double helix but didn’t get the credit for it,” she said. “The struggles they had and the way that they thought — I was like, ‘What a great opportunity, in a very big movie that is going to be seen by a lot of people, to have a woman as a scientist.’ She’s a very serious scientist. Because in the comic she’s a nurse and now they made her an astrophysicist. Really, I know it sounds silly, but it is those little things that makes girls think it’s possible. It doesn’t give them a [role] model of ‘Oh, I just have to dress cute in movies.’”
Right on. We all know that no amount of superhero blockbusters are going to suddenly create a science-literate public. But a positive portrayal here and there can help lower the barriers between scientists and everyone else. Any movie that can inspire young girls and feature a magical flying hammer that smashes things is okay in my book.
Update - 5/16/2011
Having finally seen Thor on screen, I’m happy to give it thumbs-up. It works well as a summer superhero movie, and the acting — especially Tom Hiddleston as Loki, but also Chris Hemsworth as Thor — was much better than average for this kind of fare. (See takes from Adam Frank and Kyle Munkittrick.)
Also, needless to say, it did a great job of advancing the secret atheist agenda.
And the science? I was pretty happy with how it turned out. It was made clear that all of the super-ness was ultimately based on (some hypothetical set of) laws of physics, not just magic pulled out of the air — without descending into a dreadful level of midichlorian-like overexplanation. There is one phrase used in the movie that I think is directly attributable to my input: “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” This came about from a conversation between producer Kevin Feige and me that went something like this:
KF: We need the Bifrost Bridge to provide a way for the characters to travel great distances in space in a very short period of time.
SC: Sure, you probably want to say that it makes use of wormholes.
KF: Well, we can’t call it a “wormhole.”
SC: Why not?
KF: Sounds too Nineties.
SC: I suppose … you could call it an “Einstein-Rosen bridge.” Means the same thing.
So naturally, in the finished film, Jane Foster calls it an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and someone says “what’s that?”, and she replies “it’s a wormhole.”
Jennifer pointed out afterward that, while Jane Foster’s scientist character was appealing and a good role model, they did miss a chance to make use of her love of science in the service of the story. While we see our Earth-based heroes zooming around the desert chasing atmospheric anomalies, the connection to astrophysics is never explained, nor do they really talk that much about science. In one scene Jane makes goo-goo eyes at Thor as he talks about all this apparent magic just being very advanced science. Goo-goo eyes are fine, but any real scientist in that situation would have started asking questions about spacetime and exotic matter and quantum stability and so on. It would have been great if we had seen Jane fall for Thor, not because of what he looked like without his shirt on, but because behind the gruff exterior he knew more deep physics than she did. Maybe in a sequel.
I hinted that there was one thing all the scientists warned the moviemakers not to do, and indeed they didn’t do it. In one conception, the planet of the Frost Giants was to be shaped like a disk. Not a ringworld-style band that used rotation to mimic gravity, but just a flat planet in the shape of a record (or a DVD, for you youngsters). Which is fine, if somewhat fanciful. The potential disaster was that they wanted to have a big fight scene where frost giants would fall off the edge of the planet. Pulled by … what, exactly? Total gravity Fail. Fortunately they ditched that idea, although the concept survived in less egregious form in the depiction of Asgard, which looks like a mountain that sits on top of a galaxy. That also makes no sense, but it’s so far from trying to make sense that the audience just sees it as poetic license, not a simple mistake.
For more information on the science of Thor, check out:
Thor Pays Tribute to Arthur C. Clarke's Rule About Magic and Technology, Discover Magazine's Science Not Fiction blog
Thor, Science, Magic and, Shameless Self-Promotion, About.com Physics
Read more Under the Microscope articles here.
Top image: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Thor from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment, Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios, © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Left image: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Thor from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment, Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios, © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Bottom right image: Movie poster for Thor from Paramount and Marvel Entertainment, © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.