Everyone loves a good power-armored dust-up. There is something deeply satisfying about watching a billionaire in an indestructible suit punch their way to victory.
As I watch Iron Man and Batman do battle with bombs, gods, and motor vehicles, though, I can’t help but wonder about their long-term health. Even if we grant that their superpowered armor is effectively indestructible, they’re still inside of it and they’re getting smacked around pretty hard.
A brief montage for your consideration:
In most impact injuries, the majority of the damage comes from our soft, squishy bodies coming into contact with something much less compliant. Power-armor protects the body from blows and keeps it the right shape. That would keep the person inside from getting splattered from the impact but there are still limits to what the body can handle.
These heroes are getting hit hard enough to send them flying. I wondered just how much a human body could handle if the threat of blunt force trauma was removed. Would Iron Man be in fine form after his battles, or would he just be a metal suit filled with Starkberry jam?
What we’re looking at here is called “acceleration injuries,” injuries caused by the various fluids and organs inside our bodies sloshing around as we speed up or stop. The injuries incurred from acceleration can vary from mild headaches to liquefaction.
Let’s do some case studies to see how our heroes would fare…
Case 1 – A Gentle Nudge from Superman
Acceleration in these cases is usually measured in “G-force” (Gs), the force of acceleration relative to earth’s gravity, which is 1G at sea level. By counting frames and estimating distances, we can calculate that Batman in the above scene was accelerated to about 13m/s in around 1/8th of a second. That’s in the ballpark of 11Gs, or eleven times the regular force of gravity.
11Gs sustained for a minute would be fatal. The heart would not be able to pump blood around the body and you would effectively suffocate even if you could get your lungs to work, which you probably couldn’t.
The major risks from a brief impulse like Superman’s friendly nudge wouldn’t be so bad. Bats would mostly have to worry about joint and spine injuries like whiplash. However, I think it’s safe to assume Batman’s power armor would have been built to prevent those rapid over-extensions of the joints. He’d probably be fine. Likely has the wind knocked out of him, though, and Alfred would be washing mud out of his cape for weeks.
Case 2 – A Day at the Beach
Crashing at terminal velocity into a pile of sand is typically pretty fatal. Based on time it takes to form the plume of sand, Mr. Stark is experiencing about 26 Gs for around 1/5th of a second.
Ejector seats in jet fighters cap out at around 16Gs. At that rate, pilots are expected to suffer some injuries from the ejection. Spinal compression is going to be a big concern, particularly if you land head first, as Mr. Stark does above.
There’s a good chance that he’d survive, but the cartilage in his vertebrae could probably be spread on toast afterwards. There are also other exciting risk factors like popped blood vessels and detached retinas. Blurry vision and a bloody nose seem like the least of his worries after a landing like that, though.
Case 3 – Seeing the Sights
If Bruce Banner ever offers to take you on an impromptu tour of the Johannesburg City Hall, politely decline.
That backhand swing with a lamp-post launched Iron Man at around 70 Gs. That’s the sort of G-force you would experience in a high speed car crash. At that point your organs are going to be smashing into each other hard enough to worry about bruising, and concussions start to become likely just from your brain sloshing around inside your skull. It’s still very survivable, though.
Case 4 – I Wonder if there’s Candy Inside
Getting power bombed by a ten-foot robot is bad for your health. That slam brings Iron Man from 100 km/h (65 mph) to 0 at a brief but probably very fatal 170Gs.
People have survived crashes of 100Gs or more, but the body slam above is nearly double that, and he’s landing head-first. That’s a severe concussion at best. At worst, his heart would be impinging on his sinuses and his vertebrae would be exploring the remains of his other innards.
I would not recommend this ride to a friend.
A good suit of indestructible armor will go a long way to protecting your body from massive traumatic injury. If it’s well fitted and strong enough to keep your body in the right shape, you can safely endure impacts that would render you two-dimensional in other circumstances. It really would see our heroes safely through most of their battles.
However, if you feel the urge to start superheroing around in mechanized body armor, I’d recommend keeping your impacts below the “Hulk Smash” level if at all possible.