Captain America vs. Thor: Science vs. Supernatural

Captain America vs. Thor: Science vs. Supernatural July 19, 2020

captain america thor

Have you wondered how Captain America’s shield always comes back to him? (Captain America is the Marvel superhero with the round shield with the American flag motif.) He uses his shield as a weapon, throwing it so that it bounces off a wall, takes out a bad guy, and returns so he can grab it and throw it again.

According to the story, the super soldier serum that turned him from a wimp into Captain America gave him, not only strength and agility, but also the mental acuity to judge how to ricochet the shield so that it comes back. In other words, it’s just ballistics plus superhuman marksmanship. What might look like remarkable luck when seen once is something he can do on demand.

Of course, willing suspension of disbelief is still required, but comics and movies usually come up with some kind of plausible explanation for things that are new to us.

Captain America vs. Thor

What about Thor? He throws his hammer (Mjölnir) and it also comes back. What’s its secret? This time, it’s magic. That’s it—magic, end of story. There’s no attempt to align Thor with reality.

Compare this with the logic behind Captain America’s shield. We already know of medicine that can improve the human body and mind. The science of nootropics (smart drugs) is in its infancy, but some products can improve concentration and memory. The Captain America story simply asks us to imagine this actual field of research extended further, which will certainly happen.

The shield itself has special properties. It’s made of a new metal, which again is plausible as science continues to create new manufacturing techniques or materials with new properties. Science continues to startle us with new developments.

Here’s an example. If you’re unaware of Vantablack and related products, this is a startling development from left field. It’s a coating that acts like black paint, except that it is so black that it makes things look like a hole in the universe (video).

I give this only as an example of a product, the lack of which didn’t cause you to lose any sleep, but which is pretty cool now that it’s presented to you. The story behind Captain America’s shield is arguably in this category of startling yet semi-plausible things.

Thor’s Mjölnir

Back to Thor’s hammer. Odin cast a spell, the hammer became magic, and there’s nothing more to it. Once the drawbridge of your mind lowers to accept the supernatural, a magic hammer can come in unchallenged.

Sometimes the supernatural claim needs to know the password. Maybe only Norse mythology gets to come in. Or dogma from some other religion. But once a category gets a pass, the BS detector is switched off for its claims. Walked on water? Cured disease? Virgin birth? Raised from the dead? Made of three parts while still being one? Creationism? C’mon in! It’s not like we’re going to demand that it be plausible.

We usually lump all these movie superheroes into the same “it’d be cool to be able to do that, but that ain’t gonna happen” bin. But look closer, and notice the difference. Some stories are built on plausible science and others on mythological make-believe. That distinction exists in real life, too.

After seeing half a country actively reject
wearing a mask during a pandemic,
I would like to apologize to the filmmakers
of every horror movie ever made
for calling their characters unbelievably dumb
for going into the murder basement.
— seen on the internet


Image from Wikipedia, public domain

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