Iron Man's Suit - Realistic, or Wishful Thinking?

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Iron Man, flying high in the sky.

Iron Man, flying high in the sky. hide caption

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My infatuation with Robert Downey, Jr., has been a steady, borderline obsession since I was about 13 — first with Soapdish and Home for the Holidays, then with Chaplin and Only You, and rounded out with Ally McBeal (Season 4!) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. So you can imagine my delight when I heard that this summer has been dubbed "The Summer of Downey." He stars in three action-packed pics*, the first of which hit theaters this past weekend. Downey plays inventor and superhero Tony Stark in Hollywood's rendition of Marvel comic Iron Man.

It's easy to love superheros — they're always decked out with the coolest, gravity-defying gadgetry. And Tony Stark is no exception — he's got a mean suit, replete with jet boots, repulsor rays, and a cybernetic helmet. But how realistic are superhero suits, and can they ever be manufactured in real life? Physicist and author James Kakalios breaks it down in a piece for Wired, and he joins us today to give us the inside scoop.

If you've seen Iron Man already, give us your review. And what questions do you have about the physics of superhero gear?

* Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and The Incredible Hulk



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While supersonic flight is probably out of reach anytime soon, what is the likelihood of more modest exoskeletal achievements such as assistance for people who cannot stand or walk?

Sent by Andy | 3:54 PM | 5-5-2008

I've always preferred superhero parodies like The Tick, whose "nigh invulnerability" strikes me as a pretty useful superpower. The animated series featured one of the best superhero teams ever, the Civic-Minded Five: Captain Mucilage (glue-shooting suit), The Carpeted Man (can generate static electricity!), Feral Boy (well...he's feral), 4-Legged Man (again, speaks for itself), and Jungle Janet (the only competent member of the team, and hence fairly boring). The Tick also gave us the best supervillain name of all time: The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight.

Sent by marty | 4:14 PM | 5-5-2008

Unfortunately, it will probably take a billionaire playboy to develop this variety of technology. As a good friend once told me when I was talking about working on a similar project, it is a beautiful idea, but it isn't practical. Unmanned robots would be capable of doing anything that a manned suit could. The only thing that being in the suit would improve would be the sense of accomplishment in the wearer.

Sent by Nathan Neil Phillips | 5:33 PM | 5-5-2008

The movie had a great cast & Robert Downey Jr was the best. The story was faster than I liked. As we understand it now, the physics wouldn't work, the miniture fusion/arc reactor comes to mind, but is necessary to keep the story moving. The flying with no obvious fuel source and the falling from a great height to smack into the hard ground bothered me more. No matter what the suit was made of, the 1000G sudden stop at the end would still kill you dead.

Sent by bill clawson | 7:11 PM | 5-5-2008

I believe it was quite a thrilling and entertaining film. Robert Downey Jr. is an extremely talented actor. Although I must agree with Mister Clawson that the arc reactor seemed too good to be true. But I dont believe the exo skeleton could have been quite so powerful.

Sent by Lucas | 9:42 PM | 5-5-2008

It's a super hero movie for goodness sake! It seems silly to question the validity of the power source. But there are a couple of points I would like to make.
1. The crash landing in the first suit would, in fact, have killed our hero dead.
2. I think that Robert pulled it off pretty well because at this point I couldn't imagine another actor playing the part.
3. The development of the Iron Man suit and the whole testing process was way more interesting and entertaining than the same-ol'-same-ol' hero/villain cg fight at the end. I actually had to stop and ask my wife "Is this the big fight?"
4. The movie was a major set up for several more movies to come, not only about Iron Man, but Thor, Captain America, and The Hulk, all leading up to The Avengers.
Overall one of the best hero movies to date. I think that the success of the movie has everything to do with the great cast,not to mention a great character.

Sent by Brian | 11:08 PM | 5-7-2008

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