The Marvel Cinematic Universe may feature mind-bending alternate realities, dimensions, space travel, and powers, but you can bet Marvel isn’t just winging it when it comes to the science behind their films. In fact, they regularly consult Dr. Clifford V. Johnson, a physics professor at the University of Southern California, and rely on his expertise to develop scientific rules and principles for their universe that are at least believable and consistent.
Having worked on the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as TV series Agent Carter and non-Marvel properties Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Trek: Discovery, Johnson has had his knowledge applied across a broad spectrum of blockbusters. However, being a physicist consulting for superhero films raises eyebrows from time to time, something Johnson spoke with the Houston Press about.
“Even colleagues of mine go, ‘I heard you worked on some superhero thing, but how could you even be talking to them about scientific accuracy when they have spaceships going faster than light and people flying?’” Johnson said. “What I spend most of my time doing involves scientific believability and consistency,” Johnson says. “I study how our existing universe works, and my job is to study those rules so I can help [creators] build a different universe with its own rules, where all your crazy stuff can happen. But then they have to allow me to help make it consistent.”
As hard as it may be to believe, Johnson doesn’t really see that much separation between science and and what Marvel’s doing on the big screen.
“I see physics as storytelling,” Johnson says. “To some extent, all of science is. Not just in communicating the idea but the whole business of finding out why a thing is the way it is and how that thing gets to be the way it is. These are the same sets of questions we ask when we’re telling stories. We just replace mechanism with motivation, and you’ve got the same structures and the same things you need to care about.”
Beyond this storytelling approach, it also helps that Johnson is a lifelong comic fan himself. This special blend of scientific and comic knowledge allows him to have a little extra fun and make small nods to classic storylines and events.
“I grew up reading comic books as well, so I know a lot of the older material that a lot of the team might not know, especially with Thor,” Johnson said. “I was giving them some physics that would wink at some of the classic old stuff. Over the years, people threw around ideas for how these pieces of magical tech — like Thor’s hammer — worked. And they’ve changed over time, so it’s fun for me to wink at some of those older ideas.”
The other thing Johnson believes his work with Marvel does is provide another avenue for budding science-lovers to discover their passion for the field.
“It’s hard to say ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ and ‘It’s good for society’ in the same sentence,” Johnson says with a laugh. “But I actually do believe that.”
Thor: Ragnarok hits theaters November 3, 2017.