Superheroes Round 5: Batman
Holy Plot Holes, Batman!
Since I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises (on a plane!) I’ll be hitting the full Christopher Nolan trilogy for this one. Naturally… here be many epic spoilers.
Super Medical Bills
I hope Bruce Wayne has good health insurance. As we’ve discussed before, being a superhero is hard on the flesh and bones. This is emphasized to at least some degree in all the films. We see Bruce Wayne stitching up his own dog bites in the second film. In the third, he starts out walking around on a cane, and has a doctor advise him against heliskiing due to the fact that he’s got basically no cartilage left in his knees. Of course, he gets a powered exoskeleton to compensate for that and add to his strength…
The part in the Dark Knight Rises where this doesn’t work well happens after Bane breaks Batman’s back. In the absence of medical care, one character hauls Wayne up into a standing position, and kicks him to “push the vertebra back into place.” And then Wayne gets better. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, KIDS. Or anywhere. Even if you’re not kids. Spines don’t grow back like that — if a vertebra is so far out of place that you’re paralyzed, and you don’t get immediate medical care, you’re going to be paralyzed for life. And probably even with good medical care, depending on just how bad the nerve damage is. Plus, kicking the vertebra back into place would probably just cause more damage.
Maybe Batman is related to Wolverine, who has super-healing powers… and they do have similar on-the-job voices. Interesting.
On a more positive note, Alfred expresses honest concern about not wanting to bury another Wayne, and dreaming about his charge settling down to a nice, safe, happy life where crazy people aren’t going after him.
He was the well-intentioned extremist, the hero gone wrong. All he really wanted to do was save the life of his wife… and what made him a villain was his use of any means to reach his ends, and not his ends themselves. The audience empathizes with his singular goal, even while being horrified by his methods.
The villains of Nolan’s Batman films? Ra’s Al Ghul. Destroying the city in order to save it? Wiping it out like a modern Sodom or Gomorrah? Talia and Bane’s motivations in the third film are similar. The Joker, of course, just wants chaos everywhere because he thinks its funny, which doesn’t seem that different in effect from the Al Ghul plots.
These villains are very difficult to see as sympathetic. Ra’s Al Ghul is probably the closest, being consistently portrayed as concerned about Gotham’s corruption. Removing the cancer by destroying Gotham by drugging everyone with panic-inducing toxin… is a bit much. Perhaps understandable from a very warped perspective. Talia Al Ghul and company have similar motivations, but they’re not as well explained. Plus, they evidently don’t mind going down when the city burns.
And the Joker… well. He may not make much sense, but he is very effectively scary.
I would have loved to see a Mr. Freeze-like villain. The fact that the destruction he causes is merely collateral damage, rather than his actual goal, makes him more interesting in my mind. For instance, there actually exists a possibility of negotiation. The villains we actually get just don’t really work.
In terms of physics, I feel the urge to rant about one serious science problem in the Dark Knight Rises specifically.
Nuclear reactors don’t work that way. And, for bonus points, the best fusion we can do these days doesn’t work that way, either.
Problem 1: Nuclear fission reactors that can power a city are not really portable. They’ll be sitting in a nice big building, with lots of coolant and shielding. There will also be a moderator, which slows the neutrons released by radioactive decay so that they can hit more nuclei and trigger more decays, and control rods made from a neutron poison (or absorber), which catch loose neutrons. These two things are used to control the chain reaction and the amount of power. The control rods in particular are important for shutting the reaction down if stuff goes wrong. These all take space.
Reactors used to make medical isotopes may be smaller, and the reactors that power submarines and some larger vessels such as air carriers are obviously portable. But those are big ships. Anything that makes a Gotham City-sized quantity of power (Gigawatts) is going to be too big to fit in a truck. And there will be some issues if you disconnect it from its sources of coolant. And I didn’t see anything that looked like control rods. But then, it sounds like this isn’t a nuclear fission reactor…
Problem 2: Fusion? Really? The current state of nuclear fusion is something like what’s done at the National Ignition Facility. The basics setup is to use a bunch of really big lasers to compress a very small target until the target atoms fuse. It’s a huge, non-portable facility, with a target smaller than your fingertip. It definitely consumes power, rather than producing it. And, for bonus points, as of September 2012 (according to Wikipedia), it hasn’t been able to confirm “ignition” — the start of a fusion chain reaction. There are other designs that involve magnetic confinement to force nuclei together (such as ITER) which at least break even in terms of energy. ITER itself should produce power on the net, but it won’t be finished until 2020 and costs €10 billion for only 500 megawatts of power. (A typical nuclear fission plant that produces 1 GW will take a few billion dollars to build, and is probably less expensive to operate.) As yet there’s nothing really suitable for power generation, particularly relative to the nuclear fission plants we already have.
Problem 3: Plus, if it’s really fusion, there’s another thing… why will the core randomly explode a few months later even if not triggered? For NIF and other fusion ideas, the fuel in the typical teeny-tiny target consists of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two different isotopes of hydrogen. Deuterium is stable, and won’t undergo radioactive decay. Tritium is unstable, but has a half-life of about twelve years. After five months, only about 3% of the tritium will have decayed into helium. The decay is very low energy, so the radiation isn’t dangerous unless you’ve actually eaten the tritium. So it won’t go off just by sitting there.
To make a fusion bomb (better described as a thermonuclear weapon or H-bomb) out of this anyway, you need a fission bomb to set it off. Otherwise, you can’t get high enough temperature and pressure for fusion. Plus, it requires other engineering specifications to get the fusion to happen (detailed at that second link), such as lithium deuteride rather just a mix of deuterium and tritium. Regardless of those details — who would build a fusion reactor with a fission bomb right next to it?? And let’s not even get into the regulatory aspects that apply to nuclear reactors, or how Wayne is keeping the success of the project and the reactor’s existence secret.
Problem 4: Okay fine, it exploded. Where’s the fricking fallout?
The largest bomb detonated by the US was the Castle Bravo test, a thermonuclear device set off at Bikini Atoll in 1954. It was equivalent to 15 megatons of TNT, more than twice the expected yield, and resulted in an impressively nasty case of fallout contamination. The crater alone was over a mile in diameter, and the fireball was larger by a factor of a few. Some sailors on a nearby US carrier received burns from the radiation alone; a few nearby Japanese sailors received significant doses as well from the fallout. More seriously, islanders living in the area received doses from the fallout moved around by wind and water. And that’s not even the biggest bomb ever set off.
Gotham should have similar issues with fallout, depending on the prevailing wind patterns. Maybe they got lucky, and the fallout was all blown out to sea. That said… assuming the explosion is roughly the same size as Bravo, to avoid both the fireball and the prompt radiation exposure to Gotham, Batman must have taken the reactor-bomb more than a few miles out over the ocean. In the few seconds left on the clock.
Then again, it was on autopilot, so for once we don’t have to worry about the g-forces on Batman while the day is getting saved.