Mort Weisinger had a problem. The executive in charge of National Periodical Publications’ (aka DC Comics) most prized property, Superman, was being called out by Albert Einstein. An MIT class had sent Weisinger a letter from Einstein, who said that no one, not even Superman, could fly faster than the speed of light.
No problem, Weisinger though. He convinced science fiction legend Isaac Asimov to draft a reply. “Professor Einstein’s statement is based on theory,” Asimov said. “Superman’s speed is based on fact.”
Comic book fans are often accused of having a fragile understanding of reality, but the flip side is that, aside from their otherworldly powers, superheroes have always been grounded in the real world. Why else would Einstein feel the need to play cosmological traffic cop with Superman?
The superhero comic book genre is built on an important conceit. Just as people who enjoy Broadway musicals need to take for granted characters’ tendency to break out in song and dance, so readers of comic books need to assume that their favorite heroes live in the real world.
It all began with Superman. The first superhero may be from another planet, but he grew up in a typical American town and lives in a typical American city. The only difference between Superman’s world and our world is the man himself.
The existence of utterly fantastic beings in an otherwise realistic world creates many paradoxes, and comic book writers have been dealing with them since Superman first took flight in 1938.
When the United States entered World War II each hero (through his or her writers) had to decide whether to enlist. DC’s near-omnipotent pantheon could have ended the war in five minutes, which presented a problem. That’s why most of the DC heroes stayed stateside; Clark Kent feigned poor eyesight to give Superman an honorable way out, while the Justice Society of America feared the corrupting influence of the Spear of Destiny.
DC’s rival Marvel Comics, created a hero specifically for fighting the Nazis. In his debut issue, Captain America socked Hitler in the jaw, a moment of catharsis for his Jewish creators whether it ruined the illusion or not.
Since then, comic books have tried to address real-world political issues, from racism in Green Lantern-Green Arrow to privacy and national security in Marvel: Civil War. Just like World War II, the trick to getting these political comics to succeed is acknowledging the problems of the real world without having superheroes intervene in a totally unrealistic way.
Since he has no powers, Batman is a popular candidate for an ultra-realistic treatment. In Batman: Year One, Frank Miller had Bruce Wayne go on a practice mission in street clothes, driving a stock Porsche instead of the Batmobile.
This approach helped inspire Christopher Nolan’s series of Batman films. Particularly in the first two movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, plausible explanations are given for Batman’s methods and technologies, and those of this enemies. The Batmobile is a discarded military prototype, and the Batsuit is made of Kevlar body armor.
However, even Batman has his limits. No matter how realistic he appears to be, he’s still a vengeful billionaire skulking around in a cape and cowl, and that, unfortunately, does not exist outside of comics.
“Once a depiction veers toward realism,” Miller said, “each new detail releases a torrent of questions that exposes the absurdity at the heart of the genre.”
Giving a superhero a realistic environment and realistic equipment isn’t enough, which brings us back to the person under the mask, and on to the Marvel movie universe.
Marvel’s movies are not as focused on realism as Batman Begins, but they still strike fans as authentic. That’s because the characters themselves are realistic.
Wormholes may not be a convincing explanation for Thor’s arrival on Earth or his powers, but he reacts to everything the way a real person would. When confronted with the victorious Avengers, Thor’s brother, Loki, doesn’t shake his fist and twirl his nonexistent mustache, he just says, “I think I’ll have that drink now.”
That is the superhero conceit in action. The characters may be super soldiers, irradiated monsters, and gods, but they live in the same world as readers and viewers and thus act the same way.
That’s why the laws of physics don’t bother fans of Superman. His powers might be impossible, but he is not.