Superheroes do amazing feats. Their larger-than-life adventures and firm moral compasses are what keep us so fascinated with telling their stories. They jump higher, run faster, and push themselves to do whatever it takes to save people. Often we don't stop to consider the physics and math of these powers, but if we really start to break down how fast some of our favorite heroes can move, their powers become even more mind-boggling.
Before we dive too deep into some of the more insanely fast superheroes, let’s look at someone more manageable – Captain America. The world’s biggest boy scout is at the peak of human perfection thanks to a super-soldier serum that gets tossed around in the Marvel Universe. With his perfect physique, Cap can run somewhere between 60 and 80 mph with ease and probably more under stress.
To put this into perspective, the fastest known man in the world is Usain Bolt, who can run 27.8 mph. The 100 m race in which Bolt reached that speed took him 9.58 seconds. Cap is easily two to three times faster than the fastest person we know and would run a sub-five-second 100 m if we look at his bottom speed of 60 mph.
When we dive into some of the fastest superheroes, things get ridiculous quickly. The phrase “Faster than a speeding bullet!” is most often applied to Superman, but he’s not the one most frequently shown to be deflecting bullets. That iconography rests with Wonder Woman.
Many of Wonder Woman’s most iconic images are of her deflecting bullets with her bracelets. The average speed of a bullet is somewhere around 1,700 mph, and Diana is easily able to dodge or deflect them. She’s even faster than Superman in some instances, much to his objections. While Superman has greater raw speed, Wonder Woman’s reaction time speed is ingrained in her from years of being a warrior. It’s like comparing whether Usain Bolt or Bruce Lee is faster. The answer is both.
Wonder Woman can also run and fly incredibly fast with speeds reaching hypersonic levels around 3,806-7,680 mph or more, but even she starts to pale in comparison when we look at the previously mentioned raw speed of Superman. One of the most iconic things that Superman has ever done happened in the 1978 movie Superman – he flew fast enough around the Earth to reverse its spin.
Mind-blowing, right? Well, the crew at Nerdist wrote an entire article about this feat. One of their key sources was a group of dedicated physics students from the University of Leicester who took it upon themselves to do the math on this – you know, to verify if this could actually occur and all. But here’s the deal: Nerdist also points out if Superman actually did stop the Earth from spinning and reverse it, we and the planet as we know it would be doomed. So, we’re going to need to suspend conventional reality and agree to take the liberty of imagination that only comic books can. Keep in mind the calculations of the physics are real, the results . . . probably not in this universe.
So back to the Leicester students’ math skills. They calculated that Supes “would have had to fly at an angular velocity of 46.296 radians per second, or 660,000,000 miles per hour – 98% the speed of light (!) – to reverse the spin of the Pale Blue Dot. But that’s not all: compared to the Earth, Superman is a very small blob. In order to have a measurable effect on the massive celestial body then, he would also have to increase his own mass 13.7 million times over” (Nerdist.com). To put that in perspe ctive, the fastest jet we’ve created as humans, the SR-71 Blackbird, can fly at only 2,193 mph. Wonder Woman can fly at least three times faster than that. And here Superman is flying almost 82,500 times faster than Wonder Woman at hypersonic speeds.
That’s bananas. Superman isn’t hefty enough to have that kind of impact on the planet that is seriously greater in stature than he is. Our U of L friends indicated Kal-El would actually “have to increase his mass over 13.7 million times over” (Nerdist). With that in mind, they postured that the only plausible explanation for this means we hearken to the famed Einstein and examine E = mc2. This equation explains the relationship between energy and mass, specifically in a resting state. Clearly, Superman isn’t resting, so we need to do something about mass in relation to speed. The writers at Nerdist sought out Caltech applied mathematician Dr. Spyridon Michalakis, who explained that if you flip the equation to m = E/c2, you can calculate relativistic mass, “or the mass of an object that is moving very, very fast.”
With Superman flying at close to 98% of the speed of light, it’s safe to say he would be putting out a massive amount of energy. That huge amount of energy would also output a similarly humongous relativistic mass that would allow him to affect earth like he does in that Superman movie. But remember what we said at the beginning of this section; this is comic book physics, and he’d really wreck the planet (Nerdist).
For all of Superman’s speed, nothing he’s done speed wise can compare to Wally West, better known as the Flash. Flash moves so fast he can speed up the atoms in his body to phase through objects and, in some cases, travel through time. The simple answer to how fast the Flash can move is infinitely fast. But one of his more impressive comic book moments had him save half a million people from a nuclear blast in JLA Vol. 1 No. 89.
If you’re familiar with Reddit, there’s a sub-Reddit called “theydidthemath.” The users in that thread did indeed do the math on this feat too. Here’s what they came up with:
When the missile detonated, the Flash ran into the city and carried about half a million people 35 miles away to safety in .00001 microseconds. If you think about the fact that he had to carry them one or two at a time away from the city, and then return to grab more people, things become even more incredible
Flash had to travel 70 miles combined to transport someone or two people and head back. Let’s say he averaged 1.5 people per trip. That means he traveled a distance of 70 miles 354,667 times. That equals out to 24,826,690 miles. He travels that far in .00001 microseconds, which is 10-11 seconds. So he was traveling at 2,482,669,000,000,000,000 miles per second, or approximately 2.5 quintillion miles per second. That is close to 13.5 trillion times the speed of light! *mind explosion*
Our favorite superheroes pack some serious speed. When you get down to the numbers of how fast some of them can move, it is truly incomprehensible. Technology will never reach those kind of numbers. That is probably for the best though. In real-world physics, the Flash and Superman would destroy us all anytime they raced. It’s best to leave their incredible speeds to comic book physics. Things are much more pleasant there.