Scientist talks about creating realism and consistency in the Marvel films


A physicist has some interesting thoughts on the science of Marvel Studios’ films.

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken audiences to earthbound places like modern-day Washington D.C. and 1940’s Brooklyn as well as more “unconventional” locations like Asgard and the Astral Plane. With so many otherworldly elements in the MCU, Marvel Studios has tried to keep it grounded by consulting with scientists. And one of those scientists has opened up about working with them.

Dr. Clifford V. Johnson has consulted on many of Marvel’s films as well as a number of other movies and television shows. He began to do so following the formation of the Science and Entertainment Exchange, which brought together prominent scientists and the most talented creators in Hollywood.

Johnson, who is also a physics professor at the University of Southern California, recently spoke to the Houston Press about his work with Marvel Studios and talked about sometimes having to explain to his colleagues how he can work within a universe that has so many unrealistic elements:

"Even colleagues of mine go, “I heard you worked on some superhero thing, but how could you even be talking to them about scientific accuracy when they have spaceships going faster than light and people flying?” What I spend most of my time doing involves scientific believability and consistency. I study how our existing universe works, and my job is to study those rules so I can help [creators] build a different universe with its own rules, where all your crazy stuff can happen. But then they have to allow me to help make it consistent."

Johnson takes physics very seriously and even likens it to storytelling. He also understands the importance of not just conveying a broad concept but also showing the small details that make it up:

"I see physics as storytelling. To some extent, all of science is. Not just in communicating the idea but the whole business of finding out why a thing is the way it is and how that thing gets to be the way it is. These are the same sets of questions we ask when we’re telling stories. We just replace mechanism with motivation, and you’ve got the same structures and the same things you need to care about."

In addition to his sheer love for science, Johnson is also a passionate comic book fan, and sometimes takes the opportunity to reference classic concepts and material in his work:

"I grew up reading comic books as well, so I know a lot of the older material that a lot of the team might not know, especially with Thor. I was giving them some physics that would wink at some of the classic old stuff. Over the years, people threw around ideas for how these pieces of magical tech — like Thor’s hammer — worked. And they’ve changed over time, so it’s fun for me to wink at some of those older ideas."

As someone who enjoys the MCU and films and television in general, things like this just make movies and TV shows fun to watch. Not everyone looks for realism in what they’re viewing, but many people actively seek out more grounded elements in their fantasy or sci-fi entertainment.

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In terms of the MCU, the fact that Marvel Studios actually looks to experts for advice really does show just how committed they are to the making their world feasible. Other than science, they’ve also sought opinions on things like Wakanda’s exact location on the continent of Africa and the possibility of Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers being a colonel at such a young age.

This level of precision and detail is proving to be helpful for both movies and television, and if Hollywood continues to utilize academic opinions, then we could continue to see complex and engaging storytelling for the foreseeable future.