incredibles 2 action shot

Science Behind the Fiction: The Incredible physics that power The Incredibles' superpowers

Contributed by
Jun 13, 2018

Who among us hasn't wished to live in the Pixar-verse? There you can find talking toys, friendly monsters, lovable robots, and down-to-earth superheroes. Not to mention the fully realized self-driving cars, if you can get around the horror of sitting inside Lightning McQueen's brain case. You can attach store-bought balloons to your house and abandon this life for greener pastures and talking dogs. Anything is possible.

Of course, life in the Pixar-verse requires a certain suspension of disbelief. One must be willing to accept the inner lives of toys and cars despite a complete lack of any measurable biological processes. You have to be willing to ignore the undeniable fact that Nemo's dad, Marlin, would have begun transitioning into his mom almost the moment that barracuda finished licking its lips. And you have to ignore the knowledge that Carl was more than nine-million balloons short of actually achieving lift for his house.

Most of this is forgivable as the story in question takes place in a world that is clearly not our own, with the notable exception of Up. There may be human characters but they, more often than not, take a back seat to the central story. But when it comes to The Incredibles, we're playing in a more familiar ballpark. It's a very human story that plays out in a familiar world — if it's not our own, then very close to it. You can imagine yourself in the cubicle next to Bob, wondering at his mysterious past while you calculate insurance payouts. Wouldn't it be nice, if not to be incredible yourself, to at least be incredible-adjacent?

With the looming release of Pixar's long-awaited superpowered sequel, Incredibles 2, we're taking a look at the superpowers of our favorite computer-animated heroes to find out just how close that world is to our own.

FROZONE

He just wanted to go bowling. But being friends with Bob Parr comes at a cost and that cost sometimes means donning an old suit to cool things down. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) has the unique ability to render ice from moisture in the environment, including moisture from within his own body.

There are a couple of major hurdles Frozone would have to overcome in order to use his ability in a worthwhile way. First is the amount of usable moisture present in a given environment. This is variable based on location, air temperature, and other factors. Absolute humidity — the total mass of water vapor present in the air — can range from almost nothing to 30 grams per cubic meter.

We want to give Frozone the best possible chance to win the day, so let's assume when the going gets tough, the air is fully saturated. At 30 grams per cubic meter, Frozone would need to pull all of the moisture from roughly eight cubic meters of air to collect a single cup of water. We don't have concrete numbers on the size of the ice bridges he skates around on, but it seems clear he'd have to pull water from a whole lot of area to build even a small structure. Depending on his range, he might be able to pull from clouds, which would offer considerably more material to work with, ranging upward of two-billion pounds of water.

Having acquired the requisite material to work with, the next hurdle is organizing the water in a usable way. Simply freezing the moisture present in the air at its current location would result in so much diamond dust, the result of moisture in the air freezing directly into ice crystals. This phenomenon happens in very cold temperatures and casts a sort of glitter over the sky, which can result in solar halos.

There's no good explanation for Frozone being able to move water or ice from one location to another to actually build something outside of some sort of telekinesis, so we'll have to let that slide. What's more important is how he could so drastically alter the temperature of matter to begin with.

Despite what your body might tell you on chilly winter nights, there's really no such thing as cold. In the same way that darkness is merely the absences of light, cold is just the absence of heat. There are a few ways to cool things down but all of them involve moving energy away from the thing you want cooled. When you touch something cold, you aren't sensing the cold seeping into you, you're sensing heat wicking out of you, toward the cold thing.

That isn't to say humans haven't found ways to influence temperature. Refrigerators and air conditioning are just two of the common ways we've found to manipulate the temperature within a closed system. Neither of these, though, is capable of drastically and immediately reducing the temperature so as to induce flash freezing. In fact, in terms of absolute temperature, our common technologies barely move the needle.

Luckily, scientists are never satisfied with good enough.

Researchers at Yale have used lasers to super cool matter to within a fraction of a degree of absolute zero. This may seem counter-intuitive; adding energy via the laser to the system should increase the temperature, not decrease it. But, here, we're working with very small objects, atoms, and molecules. The laser emits photos that directly interact with the electrons of the atom in question, neutralizing its motion in the same way that pressing against a moving object will slow it down. Since heat is really a reaction of atomic motion you can achieve the desired result.

More recently, a team at MIT used a similar technique to cool a macro object the size of a coin to incredibly low temperatures in hopes of observing quantum behaviors on the macro scale.

Frozone's wife might be the only good he's ever going to get, but telekinesis and invisible super-cooling laser powers is a pretty close second.

ELASTIGIRL

Elastigirl takes center stage in the sequel to 2004's Incredibles, but even in the first film, she was pretty fantastic. Her myriad abilities stem from her capacity to alter her body's shape into any form necessary.

There have been a number of superheroes with this particular ability on both sides of the great Marvel-DC comics divide. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four and Plastic Man are the most well known. Jake the dog of Adventure Time, Dhalsim of Street Fighter, and Ms. Marvel all have similar powers. In the real world, stretchy skin is less… incredible, but still very cool. And a little bit dangerous.

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is a condition that affects various connective tissues in the body. In rare cases, it can result in incredibly stretchy skin. The skin, however, is thinner than is typical and prone to bruising and trauma. And while the stretch-ability of the skin is well beyond what might be considered ordinary boundaries, it is only skin deep and insufficient for turning oneself into a boat or a parachute, sadly.

Likewise, EDS affects the connective tissues of joints and can result in relatively regular fractures and dislocations. The human body is capable of wonderful variation but, unfortunately, lacks the balances that would make such variations into convenient, usable superpowers. We can only hope that the future will wield effective treatments for EDS patients or allow them to become the heroes they deserve to be.

We get a little closer to superhero status if we enter the animal kingdom. The mimic octopus is capable of changing not just its color but its shape. A human without bones would be in a heap of trouble but in the watery atmosphere of the ocean, a lack of bones becomes a serious advantage.

Octopuses are able to alter their body's shape and their own behavior to mimic different animals in an effort to ward off predators or lie in wait for prey. These alterations also give them the ability to get into places from which animals of a similar size would be barred.

Having only their hard beaks to contend with, octopuses are capable of squeezing into any place large enough for their one bony structure. In case camouflage and shape-shifting powers weren't enough, octopuses are also capable of shrouding themselves in a cloud of ink to escape like a smoke pellet from Batman's utility belt.

If we were only willing to give up our bones and take to the sea, we might inherit a wealth of wonderful abilities.

JACK-JACK

We didn't see much of Jack-Jack's powers in the first film outside of a babysitter-traumatizing post-credit scene, but the trailers for Incredibles 2 promise a lot more from the pint-sized hero. Laser vision, electrical outbursts, and bursts of fire are all within the toddler's repertoire.

While, at first glance, there seems to be unbelievable variation in Jack-Jack's abilities, they all appear to have a common source, namely energy conversion. We know that energy cannot be created so the only reasonable explanation for Jack-Jack's many outbursts is the transformation of matter or energy within his body into the concentrated forms we see on the outside.

While Jack-Jack's powers might seem the most outlandish, they are actually the most seated in reality. Electric Eels, actually a type of knifefish, are full of specialized cells called electrocytes. These cells make up roughly eighty percent of the fish's body and act like an array of small batteries. When activated, the cells trigger their neighbors into a cascade of energy, releasing the equivalent of a 500-volt battery, enough to stun or kill prey animals.

These fish have the added benefit of living in water, which assists in carrying the current in a way that air wouldn't. While there is some basis in reality for Jack-Jack's ability to generate external energy outbursts, assuming he had a similar cellular structure to electric eels, his body would need to work at a much higher level than seen in nature and in multiple different ways.

Even still, an uncontrollable and emotionally volatile toddler wielding a powerful battery is something to be feared and respected. Here's hoping he steers all that energy toward the true villains when Incredibles 2 hits theaters June 13.