Pacific Rim & Man of Steel

October 14th, 2013 by Potato

[Spoilers throughout]

Just watched both Pacific Rim and Man of Steel, and they both bothered the physicist part of me in a common way: a needless fuckton of punching.

In Pacific Rim they have these giant robots fighting giant monsters that swim up from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the ocean. Ok, a cool premise and consider my disbelief suspended — I’ve got my brain dialed all the way down to 1 for this, let’s have some fun.

Then they fight, and not only do the giant robots wade waist-deep into the ocean to fight (rather than staying on land where they might have an advantage), they fight with their fists. Millennia of human technological development have brought us a wealth of options better than a closed fist (even a robot fist) for damage. The whole time I was going “Get a sword! You idiots, stop punching, it’s doing next to nothing! Get a sword! There, that shipping container — stomp on it and get a make-shift giant shiv!” Go to the local comic book store and check out the giant robots and you are going to find that all of them have giant swords or giant guns: Gundam, Heavy Gear, Voltron, even some Transformers (who generally get giant guns). There’s a good reason for that: swords work. A cutting edge lets you do more damage than a punch, and the length lets you swing it for more leverage, speed, and attack range.

Then right near the end, the main characters are like “We’re totally boned.” “No, we have one option left — deploy sword!” And I just lost my cool. “You assholes had a sword the whole time? What the hell? The sword should be your first option, not your last one! Aaaaarrggghh!!”

On top of that were the scenes where the monsters pick up and throw the giant robots around like toys. Look, I hate to have to bring physics into it, but even if the monsters were totally strong aliens and all, they were still shown to be flesh and bone and roughly neutrally-bouyant in seawater. The robots on the other hand were metal. Heavy, dense metal. Trying to pick one up should have just resulted in the monster climbing up/hanging off. Though they were roughly the same size, the robots would have been something like 5X heavier.

Overall, Pacific Rim had some neat robot-fighting-monster visual action, but there were so many things so very wrong with it that I just couldn’t turn my brain down low enough to achieve the required level of suspended disbelief. And that’s not even talking about the mind meld/two-pilot neurointerface nonsense. I just accepted that the brain is hard and they were going to get a bunch of that wrong. But how did they not get that steel/titanium/unalloyed iron (???) is heavy or that “deploy sword” should be higher up on the Jaeger pilot checklist? This is basic late show “will it float” level science we’re talking here.

Man of Steel also featured a lot of punching. Ok, Superman movies are tough to do because he’s too powerful — it’s a challenge to create some credible suspense or danger around him. It usually boils down to trying to outsmart him, put someone he cares about in danger (but then Lois always ends up looking like a tool), or throwing another ultimate baddy at him (in this case, other Kryptonians).

So the Kryptonians show up, Superman starts to fight, and throws punches (and cars, and trucks, and a train, and then more punches). You’d think eventually he’d realize that the punching thing just isn’t working: neither of them are getting hurt. But he never does. Yes, the movie has cool destruction physics, blasting around punching each other and destroying all kinds of property and civilian lives in the process. But I got bored watching the whole thing; it was a stalemate that they just wouldn’t move away from.

There were even pockets of the world where the Kryptonians lost their powers (e.g., on the ship, near the world engine), yet the writers never came across the idea of taking advantage of that (smash Zod until he lands within a zone where he’s weak, then fly in with momentum to knock him out and break Superman’s hand, or zap him with heat vision from outside where powers do work, or something). Another oddity was that in this one there were no fragments of Kryptonite to weaken Superman (another incredibly common plot point because it’s really hard to make a story without weakening Superman somehow — he’s too powerful to be really interesting in a conventional superhero way), but instead his powers seemed to be due to a combination of “earth’s yellow sun” as well as the atmosphere, so reverting those inside the Kryptonian ship is what weakened him. But that atmosphere condition on his power should have suggested that flying to space was not going to be possible, yet he goes and does it a bunch anyway (and in ways that are not even relevant to the plot, just as a visual homage to the times he did it before).

I haven’t read the comics, so perhaps these elements are already out there, but I think a good Superman movie should:

  • Revise the canon so that Superman is tough but not invincible. Then the fight with Zod et al. could have some progress, and some point to continuing past the first ineffectual punch and thrown car, if they sported bloody noses or something.
  • Focus on the world Superman inhabits, but not necessarily him. At this point we can probably take as a given that for the really big, world-changing crises Superman is going to show up and save the day. But what about a run-of-the-mill mugging, will he show up, or will your screams go unanswered? Is there a cult that worships him?
  • Move away from the ultimate peril trope. The parts of Man of Steel that were interesting were where he was drifting around, trying to balance his desire to stay hidden and his temper with wanting to touch the world and not retreat entirely. Superman can still do neat things and maybe have some kind of story without a supervillain threatening the whole world.

I’m still kind of amazed at how much effort movie creators will go to in their CGI, with intense physics/particle modelling to create cool/realistic visuals, but they won’t spring a few hundred bucks to have a scientist (or someone with a modicum of common sense) check their plot devices for believability. Far too much time spent on questions like “how would it look if this building collapsed and fell into this building with a hole punched through it from an alien being thrown through?” and not enough on “should this fight really be happening here, like this?”

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