Confessions of a Nerd

I am huge comic book nerd.

I don’t use the word in a pejorative sense here. To be a nerd or a dork is to be open about loving what you love so much you’ll let yourself drop full immersion into the details.

There are baseball nerds who know batting averages back to the 1950s. There are jazz nerds who can tell you who played bass on every important bebop album from 1947 to 1965. And then there are comic book—ahem, graphic novel—nerds who can recount all the details of every important story arc going back decades.

This week, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) brought its own decade-long arc to a close with Avengers: Endgame, so I thought it was a good time to reflect on the achievement and, most importantly, its relationship to science.

You’re probably saying, “Wait, what? What do the MCU and comics have to do with science?”

You might already know that comic books have long tackled social issues like racism, which Marvel has since at least 1966, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther. (And you may have read some of the think pieces published when that movie came out in early 2018.)

But comics and science have always been tightly woven together too. Let’s face it, if you need to get some superpowers into your superheroes, there’s no better way to do that than with a radioactive spider (Spider-Man), intense gamma rays (The Hulk), serious mutations (The X-Men), or at least a really cool piece of technology like an armored suit (Iron Man). So, it’s easy to see that science has to be an important component of comic book stories.

But using science for story plot devices is different from including thoughtful reflections on science’s social and philosophical implications in your stories. It’s the latter which has distinguished the MCU, which deserves particular attention because of the cultural juggernaut it’s become. The MCU’s creative choices are bound to resonate far beyond cineplexes.

MCU does good science

Most important for me is that in an era of science denial, the MCU has been a source of deeply positive images of science and scientists. Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Black Panther’s genius sister Shuri, Thor’s astrophysicist love interest Jane Foster, and even student Peter Parker are all shown to be in love with the possibilities of science. Their joy in research and exploration is shown in a genuinely positive light and, for the most part, they are presented as moral actors with a sense obligation to work for “the good” (even if Tony Stark takes a while to get there). And in Black Panther, we got a full-on vision of a nation (Wakanda) where science had been integral to the creation of a peaceful and prosperous society.

But the MCU was not afraid to give portrayals of science’s darker unintended consequences too.  The relationship between science and militarism was a theme in the movies from the very beginning (though it was sometimes handled in a kind of ham-fisted way). More thoughtful depictions came with questions about the rise of the surveillance state in Captain America: Winter Soldier or the inherent dangers of AI in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. These are, of course, superhero movies so I’m not saying the issue of AI in Age of Ultron compares to the depth of its treatment in, say, the brilliant film Ex Machina. But if you pay attention to the dialogue in the best of the MCU films, you’ll hear characters giving voice to questions that dive deeper than the usual “evil genius must be stopped” narratives.

My own experience with this comes from working as the science consultant on Doctor Strange. Director Scott Derrickson asked me to consult on the script because he was interested in exploring questions about the nature of the mind and the limits of reductionist views of the cosmos. In all our conversations, I was impressed with entire team’s efforts (writers Jon Spaihts and Robert Cargill, producers Stephan Broussard and Kevin Feige) to not only make a great superhero movie, but to also embed a thoughtful treatment of deeper themes about science within that movie.

Such dedication is, I think, the essence of nerdom. It’s the sense that this thing you love so much extends far beyond its details in meaning and importance. That’s why paying attention to the details matters so much—be they batting averages, bass players, or bacterial counts.

With Endgame, we see the completion of grand story spanning 22 separate films, where the details mattered because they are what held the vast sprawling fictional Universe together. In that sense, the nerdiness of comics (or comic-based moves) and the nerdiness of science are perfect companions.

In the end, it’s all about loving what you love so much you don’t care who else thinks it’s goofy or dorky or stupid. It’s yours, it’s a delight, and that’s all that matters.

[Image: Marvel Studios]
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Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.