The Marvel universe is heating up with Captain America: Civil War coming to screens on May 6. While it is undeniably going to be distressing to see my favorite band of superheroes become divided, I also can’t wait to see them battle it out while wearing 3D glasses and shoving popcorn in my face. In the spirit of true nerddom that accompanies all Marvel premeire weekends, Melody and I hashed out the science behind our favorite Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. -Alex
Iron Man: The Science Behind the Suit
by Melody Xu
With the upcoming release of Marvel’s Captain America 3: Civil War (tissues not included), it’s only right to talk about the genius behind the suit, Tony Stark. Discussing the science behind a superhero is not uncommon, but there’s certainly something special about Tony Stark in particular. As a man who prides himself as an inventor, engineer, and genius (billionaire, playboy, philanthropist), there’s something about his story, about his self-built superhero image, that stands out to me more than anything. And in my mind, the combination for a love of Iron Man and a love for science can only result in a series of questions: What’s the science behind the Iron Man suit? What from the comics and the movies is science and what is pure fiction?
The first part of understanding any sort of technology, in my opinion, is to know what it is composed of. My approach in studying Iron Man is no different. Contrary to popular belief, the possibility that Iron Man’s suit is made out of pure iron is highly unlikely. Lacking the strength of other materials such as steel, iron also tends to rust easily and is extremely heavy. So what is the suit composed of? According to Marvel’s official website, Iron Man’s suit is most likely made of a combination of elements: an alloy of titanium and nitinol, with a high heat resistance and can “heal” itself if deformed (once it hits a certain temperature, it can obtain its original shape again). There is a high chance that different parts of his suit would require different types of materials, such as a carbon-carbon composite in his boots. Every time he uses his rocket boots to launch himself into the air, there’s no doubt that the material’s ability to handle extreme temperatures comes in handy.
After the materials, comes the “super” power. The source of all of this power is none other than the arc reactor. Eventually, the arc reactor with the palladium core was switched out for one with vibranium (in the novelization of Iron Man, that is. See more about vibranium below). It’s this glowing power source in his chest that keeps him going. Working double-time to keep generating power for his suit and keeping a shrapnel from piercing his heart, the arc reactor conducts a magnetic field. The ingenuity behind the design of it shines through how powerful it is, while also being so incredibly well-contained.
There’s more to Iron Man than the composition and power of his suit, but it’s certainly a good place to start. With such an immense power source in his chest and the mind of a genius, Tony Stark is a force to be reckoned with. If there were to be a fight between the Avengers, it would be a poor decision to be on the side opposite of his. Not that I’m biased, of course. #TeamIronMan.
Captain America: The Facts and Fiction
by Alex Hanson
Hands down, Steve Rogers (Captain America, for those living under a vibranium rock until now) is my favorite Avenger. He’s got a strong moral compass and somehow manages to survive in our current day and age with barely any pop culture knowledge from the last 70 years (he’ll never understand #90skid nostalgia—but has no one to commiserate about #30skid nostalgia with).
While there’s no team captain jersey for the Avengers, Steve Rogers is definitely the leader of the group in my eyes. For a group that is meant to defend humanity, it makes sense that the leader’s super power is just being a human in peak physical form (and as peak of emotional form as you can be in when you’ve seen the things Steve Rogers has seen).
When I say peak physical form, I mean his level of physical strength is at the very border of what is humanly possible. So what is it that makes Captain America so strong? He was injected with a “Super-Soldier serum,” turning him from a physically small, thin man into the borderline-superhuman that is Captain America. There are two great videos that speculate on how the serum works—one by Stanford biologist Sebastian Alvarado, and one by Nerdist. They explain that, essentially, the serum probably entered Rogers’ DNA and altered it. By suppressing some genes and adding mutated versions of others, the serum told his DNA to increase muscle development and heighten his focus, agility, reflexes, etc. These qualities that would take athletes or soldiers years to develop, even if they are athletically built or genetically prone to them, were implemented into Steve Rogers with an unprecedented strength and quickness. The Super-Soldier serum was dispelled through Rogers’ body very quickly through “vita-ray” activation, meaning they blasted him with UV light waves that triggered the release of the serum.
These concepts, while mostly just speculation among Marvel fans, are not totally science fiction: the RNA in bacteria uses this technique on viruses, slicing their DNA to shut them down, and research is being done into light-activated drug deliveries inside the body. However, the possibility of creating a super soldier the way Captain America was made is far from current science’s capacity—looks like we have to keep going to the gym to build our not-quite superhuman muscles.
Captain America’s shield is also a science fiction innovation worth discussing. It’s made of vibranium, a fictional element invented for the purpose of Marvel comics. Melody mentioned it above in reference to Iron Man’s arc reactor, but it is also the material behind Black Panther’s bullet-proof suit and Captain America’s iconic shield. Vibranium is “stronger than steel and a third of the weight,” according to Howard Stark, and completely resistant to vibrations, but this material simply does not exist. I wish I could say that the shield was made out of some known metallic compound or was in actual scientific development, but unlike his Super-Soldier serum, vibranium is far from being a scientific work in progress.
Whether the strength of his shield or his muscles are scientifically accurate or not, what matters most, for the purposes of Captain America: Civil War, is that Captain America’s moral compass remains his biggest strength. I trust he can do that for us. #TeamCaptainAmerica forever.