Cinema Science: UNTANGLING THE WEBS OF SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING: How strong are Spider-Man's webs? How does he jump from one building to another? And is any of this even remotely plausible? Drawing upon the superhero's latest cinematic outing, DAVE CREWE looks at how the film can aid studies in junior and senior secondary Physics, Chemistry and Biology.
Over the last decade, the character's been portrayed by three different actors in big-budget blockbusters: Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films (2002-2007); Andrew Garfield in The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb, 2012) and its sequel (Webb, 2014); and, most recently, Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2016) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (1) (Jon Watts, 2017). While, as a high school teacher, you can't guarantee your students will have seen every one of these films, you can safely bet that they're fairly familiar with Peter Parker's radioactive talents.
Which is great, because among Spidey's superpowers is his ability to pull students into the web of science. While the superhero's abilities and backstory don't entirely align with scientific dogma--last I checked, the side effects of a bite from a radioactive spider wouldn't include super strength--there are plenty of juicy scientific concepts to explore in and around Spider-Man.
Given the sheer number of Spider-Man films to contend with in the twenty-first century, for this instalment of Cinema Science I've chosen to focus primarily on Homecoming simply because of its recency. But if you were planning on structuring an entire unit around Spider-Man, there's ample opportunity to touch on the earlier films, contrasting and comparing their depictions of this friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
'DOES WHATEVER A SPIDER CAN'
Does whatever a spider can
Spins a web, any size
Catches thieves, just like flies
Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man!
These lyrics are from the theme song to the late 1960s Spider-Man cartoon. But even if--like me--you've never seen that series, you'd be familiar with the tune. It features in each modern movie iteration of Spider-Man: it's performed by buskers in Raimi's films, it plays as Parker's ringtone in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and an orchestral version of the theme plays over the Marvel Studios logo in Homecoming.
'Does whatever a spider can': that line's become synonymous with Spider-Man. Spider-Man climbs up skyscrapers at a rapid rate, because that's what spiders do. Spider-Man also 'slings webs' to ensnare his enemies and launch between heights, because that's what spiders do. Even Spider-Man's preternatural strength and resilience is credited to his spider-like capabilities, though the link there has always seemed murky to me.
You don't have to think about it long to realise that Spider-Man doesn't necessarily do whatever a spider can. Spider-Man, for instance, doesn't have eight limbs. (2) The web fluid he shoots is fabricated by Parker to fire out of web-shooter devices strapped to his wrists (3) ... probably because a teenage superhero firing ropes of sticky stuff from his behind would have been a tough sell in the 1960s. And, despite the six Spider-Man films produced over the past fifteen years, I can't recall a single one of them in which he sinks his fangs into a baddie's chest to immobilise them with venom.
Herein lies the lesson stimulus: what, exactly, can a spider do? Specifically, what separates a spider from its brethren in the arachnid class, or the arthropod phylum? How are spiders different to scorpions, to insects--to humans? This is well suited to prompt an investigation or discussion in a unit on the biology of creepy crawlies, naturally, but it would also fit in well in a junior Science classroom being introduced to the importance of categorical distinctions across the animal kingdom.
Spider-Man is effective as a prompt here; students don't need to be intimately familiar with the machinations of any particular film as much as the core concept of a superhero with spidery skills. If you want to dig a little deeper, why not introduce a more substantial investigation? Science students could explore the question with more specificity. While there's not much room to move in a discussion about whether or not Parker can spray venom (he can't), there are other threads to follow. How does Spider-Man's strength compare, proportionally, to the strength of a spider? How about the way his web fluid works, compared to a spider web?
* What are the defining features of a spider? Which of these attributes does Spider-Man share?
* Investigate some interesting varieties of spiders. Do any of these spiders exhibit abilities that could be linked to Spider-Man's superpowers?''
* Compare the properties of Spider-Man's web fluid as seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming to the properties of a spider's web. List the similarities and differences based on your observations from the movie.
Let's unpack that last discussion point: how does Spider-Man's webbing compare to spider silk? Frankly, the web slinger's sticky stuff seems like pure science fiction, able to propel the superhero between skyscrapers, capture villains and carry a lot of weight--from catching a falling human to holding together an entire bisected ferry (well, almost (5) ). But, as your students may be surprised to learn, there's a great deal of scientific fact behind Spidey's webs.
Spider silk isn't, as your friends might have told you in the schoolyard, 'as strong as steel'. However, unlike stories about daddy-long-legs being super venomous but unable to pierce human skin, or that old chestnut about swallowing a half-dozen spiders in a year in your sleep, there's some truth to myths about the strength of spider silk.
To be clear, spider silk's strength--its tensile strength, which measures the force it can withstand before snapping--sits somewhere around the 'mid-range value for steel', (6) which is nonetheless impressive. There are other properties to marvel at, however; steel it may not be, but spider silk can rival the metal alloy when it comes to elasticity and density (it's far, far less dense, as you'd expect). Per The Economist, there's also categories of spider silk to consider, like 'flagelliform silk, which spiders use to catch flying insects. This type of silk reverts to its original shape, even after being expanded to more than twice its initial length.' (7)
Unravelling the amazing properties of spider silk is a lesson in and of itself, but you could also investigate as a class why spider silk isn't commercially produced if it boasts such capabilities. Unlike conventional silk, which can be farmed from silkworms, it's nigh impossible to farm spider silk 'due to the territorial and cannibalistic nature of spiders'. (8) There are artificial analogues under development, with plans to apply them to anything from bandages to body armour, and researching this burgeoning field is a great way for your students to explore the future possibilities of scientific engineering.
This is all fascinating, but what about our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man? His web fluid--a Parker concoction that he surreptitiously tweaks during his Chemistry classes (while also paying attention to the lesson about Niels Bohr's quantum theory, hopefully)--outstrips the potential of ordinary spider silk. Spider-Man: Homecoming sees its titular superhero hold up elevators, hold down criminals and hold together huge ferries with a few judiciously applied ropes of webbing. Examining an example from an earlier Spider-Man film, Wired's Rhett Allain estimates that the necessary tension of Spider-Man's webbing to hold up a falling car is 39,200 newtons. Allain concludes that, while this surpasses the maximum tension of steel or spider silk, it is within the realistic limits of carbon nanotube rope. (9)
You could take this opportunity to explore the fascinating properties of carbon nanotubes and similar synthetic materials in a Chemistry classroom. Or you could follow in Allain's footsteps from a Physics perspective, applying concepts of projectile motion, force and momentum to approximate the webbing's necessary tensile strength from film footage. Of course, calculations of this complexity require students who are comfortable with concepts and mathematical grounding at the upper end of secondary schooling, but such investigations could be substantially scaffolded to suit younger students.
* Approximate the tensile strength of Spider-Man's webbing and compare it to the tensile strength of steel and spider silk.
* Could Spider-Man's webbing exist? Identify at least three realistic and unrealistic properties.
* Explore the elasticity of Spider-Man's webbing; try to approximate the spring constant by applying Hooke's law to footage from a Spider-Man film.
An early scene in Homecoming occurs in a Physics classroom. With a pendulum diagram drawn on the whiteboard beyond her, Parker's teacher (Selenis Leyva) asks the class for the linear acceleration between points A and B. After an incorrect answer from school bully Flash (Tony Revolori), Parker correctly notes that 'mass cancels out, so it's just gravity times sine [of the angle].'
Since this is a mainstream movie, no prizes for guessing that pendulums play an important role in the rest of the film. Pendulum motion is, of course, crucial to Spider-Man's mobility through the neighbourhoods of New York: for the web slinger to swiftly get from point A to B, he fires a rope of webbing at the apex of a nearby building, then arcs through the air much like a pendulum. Exploring precisely how this works opens a window into a plethora of Physics concepts.
Allain again has a great resource on the subject, investigating if this pendulum motion would actually move Spidey through the air with the ease and speed promised on screen. (10) While Allain's investigation is probably pitched above your average Science classroom--unless your students happen to already be familiar with Python coding--a simplified and/or scaffolded activity modelled around the same question is an excellent way to introduce and explore concepts of periodic motion, projectile motion and optimisation.
Such a broad investigation of Spider-Man's motion could be applied to any one of the half-dozen Spider-Man movies from the past decade; indeed, Allain's article predates Homecoming by three years. (Though it does tie very neatly into that film; there's a great gag early in the film where Spidey is forced to progress on foot because he hits a golf course, which is, naturally, short on convenient skyscrapers.)
There is one scene in Homecoming that opens up further avenues for exploration into pendulum motion. I'm referring specifically to the scene in which Spider-Man must break through 4-inch ballistic glass to save his friends from a failing elevator in the Washington Monument. Despite his super strength, he's initially unable to create enough momentum when swinging into the window to break it open, so he has to improvise. He does so by launching himself over a nearby police helicopter, before attaching his web to it and swinging from that vantage point into the window, successfully smashing it open.
Unpacking why, exactly, this is necessary, is well suited to a senior Physics classroom. A class discussion would hopefully allow students to understand that, without increasing the length of his pendulum motion or his own mass, Parker is unable to create more momentum in order to break the window. By increasing the length of the pendulum using the police helicopter, he's creating a longer pendulum--and also generating more gravitational potential (and therefore kinetic) energy to increase his force upon impact. There's enough evidence in the scene to approximate the kind of force that Spider-Man would be hitting the window with, and--with a bit of research--quantitatively compare this to the force that would be required to breach 4-inch ballistic glass.
More broadly, Spider-Man: Homecoming could simply be used to introduce Newton's second law of motion and/or mechanical energy. Without getting too deep into the mathematics, Science students could still discuss why 'mass cancels out' when calculating the acceleration in a pendulum, or consider why Spider-Man is unable to create more energy without the assistance of the helicopter in the Washington Monument scene.
* Approximate the force required to break through the Washington Monument's ballistic glass. Is it realistic that Spider-Man could create this much force?
* In one sequence in Homecoming, Spider-Man launches between suburban houses rather than skyscrapers. Would this affect his speed? Support your conclusion with appropriate research and calculations.
ODDS AND ENDS
One superpower notably absent in Homecoming is Spidey's trademark 'spider sense'--a kind of hyper-intuition that lets the web slinger know when something's about to go bad. If rumours are to be believed, the ability will make a comeback in 20l8's Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo), (11) but it's on display enough times in earlier Spidey iterations to be able to provide examples to your students. While the specifics of spider sense are clearly beyond the boundaries of nature, it's a great way to introduce a discussion around learned versus instinctual behaviour (in animals, particularly) along with the psychological basis of intuition.
Speaking of trademarks, Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't just suited to the Science classroom! Legal Studies teachers could set their students the task of unpicking the tangled web of copyright law that led Spider-Man back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) after being relegated to Sony's standalone films for years. Many of Marvel's iconic characters are owned or partly owned by other studios--the Hulk by Universal; the Fantastic Four and X-Men by 20th Century Fox--but it's not as simple as that. (12)
The Hulk can appear in Marvel Studios' movies, but Universal would need to distribute a standalone film, which goes some way towards explaining the character's prominence in Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi, 2017). Some ambiguity over what, exactly, qualifies a character to be an X-Man is what led both the X-Men and MCU franchises to incorporate Quicksilver (played by Evan Peters and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, respectively). Then there's the contractual requirement for studios to actually exercise their rights to these characters; for instance, the rights to Daredevil reverted to Marvel Studios from Fox after the latter studio chose not to make another film with the character in time. This is only scraping the surface--any Legal Studies teacher touching on copyright could spend weeks on the subject.
If you're familiar with Spider-Man's origin story (and, at this point, who isn't?), you'll know he gained his powers from a radioactive spider bite. While that's pure science fiction, unpacking exactly why radioactivity doesn't work like that offers a fun way to spice up a lesson on the subject--whether in a junior Science classroom or a senior nuclear physics unit. Though, I should note that the radioactive spider is only mentioned in passing in Homecoming, which thankfully skims past the whole origin-story thing.
There are a couple of technological innovations that could tie into a secondary classroom from Spider-Man: Homecoming as well. For example, an optics unit could incorporate the principles of chameleonic camouflage--as demonstrated by Tony Stark's (Robert Downey Jr) stealth plane in the airborne climax. Or a Mathematics class studying cryptography could examine the likelihood of Spidey breaking out of 'the most secure facility on the Eastern Seaboard' with just a graphics calculator (and 247 trials).
Dave Crewe is a secondary school teacher and film critic based in Brisbane, Queensland. His writing can be found at SBS Movies. Junkee and Metro magazine, or his own website <https://ccpopculture.com>.
(1) The title is both a reference to the high school setting and a clever play on the film returning Spider-Man to the Marvel fold; Spider-Man: Homecoming is a partnership between Sony and Marvel Studios, and the first Spider-Man film to take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
(2) Outside of a brief comic-strip story arc in the 1970s, 'The Six Arms Saga', in which a homemade potion results in Spider-Man sprouting two extra pairs of arms.
(3) Granted, Raimi's Spider-Man films eschew the conventional web shooters for an organic explanation. Still, Maguire's web-slinging talents are linked to orifices in his wrists, not anywhere else.
(4) Good example here: jumping spiders.
(5) The ferry I'm referring to, from Homecoming, can't quite be held together by Spider-Man, and requires the assistance of Iron Man (aka Tony Stark) to avert catastrophe. The following article includes a section unpacking the physics and realism of that scene: Michael Milford & Juxi Leitner, 'Spider-Man: Homecoming Spins a Web of Fact and Fantasy', The Conversation, 5 July 2017, <https://theconversation.com/spider-man-homecoming-spins-a-web-of-fact-and-fantasy-79900>, accessed 26 October 2017
(6) Michelle Oyen, 'Spider Silk Is a Wonder of Nature, but It's Not Stronger than Steel', The Conversation, 5 June 2013, <https://theconversation.com/spider-silk-is-a-wonder-of-nature-but-its-not-stronger-than-steel-14879>, accessed 26 October 2017.
(7) 'Soft as Silk, Strong as Steel', The Economist, 14 March 2002, <http://www.economist.com/node/1020663>, accessed 26 October 2017.
(8) Mikael Angelo Francisco, 'Spider-Man's Web Shooters Almost a Reality: Artificial Spider Silk Invented', GMA News Online, 10 March 2014, <http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/scitech/science/351921/spider-man-s-web-shooters-almost-a-reality-artificial-spider-silk-invented/story/>, accessed 26 October 2017.
(9) Rhett Allain, 'The Physics of Spider-Man's Webs', Wired, 29 April 2014, <https://www.wired.com/2014/04/the-physics-of-spider-mans-webs/>, accessed 26 October 2017.
(10) Rhett Allain, 'Should Spider-Man Swing or Run?', Wired, 1 May 2014, <https://www.wired.com/2014/05/should-spider-man-swing-or-run/>, accessed 29 October 2017.
(11) Cameron Bonomolo, 'Avengers: Infinity War Trailer Reveals New Take on Classic Spider-Man Power', ComicBook.com, 29 November 2017, <http://comicbook.com/marvel/2017/11/29/avengers-infmity-war-spider-man-powers>, accessed 18 January 2018.
(12) See Tyson Wils, 'Marvel and the Storytelling Industry: Characters in an Age of Media Convergence', Screen Education, no. 86, 2017, pp. 72-81.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2018|
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