Writing Process, Justice Wing

The weirdness of superhero physics: realistic unrealism

I sent this out to Patreon subscribers yesterday. Seemed fair to send here today.
If nothing else, so people know I’m, you know, working on stuff

When writing superheroes, there’s a weird balancing act you need to do between actual physics and ‘superhero physics.’ It’s similar to the balancing act you need to do in science fiction, but amplified.

For example — let’s say Dynamo Girl can go from 0 to 50 MPH (her current ballpark fastest speed as of the story I’m working on) in ten seconds. Obviously there would be a lot of factors in this acceleration — probably a point where her muscles would provide diminishing returns, meaning she’s probably accelerating faster at the start than the finish and stuff like that, but this is all ballpark so we’ll pretend this means she accelerates at 5 MPH per second.

This means that, according to physics and ignoring everything from wind resistance to obstacles to how much coffee she’s had earlier that day, she needs roughly three hundred and sixty seven feet to hit her maximum. Or ‘not quite one and a third football fields.’ Which is pretty spiffy any way you look at it.

But let us assume that Deej doesn’t have three hundred and sixty seven feet. She has a hard limit of, oh, let’s say 200 feet and then needs to jump. She jumps well for the record. She does a lot of jumping in this story, really.

Well, again if we assume that Deej is a weirdly perfect set of uniform acceleration and conditions, that means she only has room to make it to roughly 37 MPH when she hits the jump point — which will take her just under seven and a half seconds.

Now, if she were just jumping off the ground, so long as I know how high she can jump I can pretty easily work out how far she can go before landing — not counting her tendency to spin, flip, turn over — you know, the whole acrobatics/gymnastics thing. Add to this jumping from an elevation — say six stories up — and add a trampoline or diving board to her actual takeoff… how far could she jump then?

The answer is “as far as the story requires her to jump, plus or minus how much she believes in herself and the people believe in her.”

There’s a recently kickstarted RPG called Masks which actually measures the effectness of powers based on how a hero sees themselves balanced against how the populace sees the hero — it’s a brilliant mechanic because that’s clearly how traditional superhero comics work.

So… why bother working out how fast she’ll be going when she takes off in the first place? Why even put a veneer of physics on this?

Because she doesn’t have enough room to hit her top speed, which means she’s going into this knowing she’ll be hampered. Which means the stakes of making the jump have ratcheted up. Being able to actually quote numbers where appropriate makes that tension real.

(It helps, of course, that I haven’t actually said anywhere how high she can jump.)

In such moments, Tuxedo Mask appearing from the shadows and telling Deej to believe in herself would be a force multiplier, but sadly Deej doesn’t actually know any magical formalwear life coaches.

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