In the world of comic books, New York City is swarming with crime-fighters. Dozens of superheroes, including perennial favorite Spider-Man, call the Big Apple home. But what about the rest of the cities around the country?
It’s a question that occurred to Sean Smith, a business analyst from Westerville. While working in downtown Columbus, he looked up at the buildings and wondered if someone with Spider-Man's powers could be effective here.
With that in mind, Smith asked WOSU's Curious Cbus project: “Are there enough tall buildings in Columbus to support our own web-slinging, crime-fighting superhero?”
Sure, Columbus doesn’t have a skyline to match Manhattan, but it does have its fair share of skyscrapers and other tall buildings. Maybe Spider-Man could get around fairly well without having to jog or take the bus.
One person who is optimistic on the subject is local comic book creator Michael Watson. When it comes to Spider-Man, Watson is a serious fan. He loves the comics, has 28 Spider-Man figurines on display around his studio, and even named his son after Peter Parker and Miles Morales, two of the secret identities behind the Spider-Man mask.
“I absolutely adore Spider-Man,” Watson said. “He is a big inspiration for my Hotshot comic book.”
Watson, who is originally from Cleveland and now lives in Columbus, created a superhero that battles villains in both of those cities. Watson said his hero Hotshot was inspired by the Spider-Man story.
Hotshot is a young African American college student struggling to balance the pressures of school, relationships and crime-fighting with his fire-wielding superpowers.
“I think Spider-Man’s success can happen in any city,” Watson said. “His options would definitely be limited, but I think the crime level would be zero if he was in the downtown area.”
Assuming a Spider-Man type hero was patrolling downtown Columbus, there would be enough crime to keep him busy. Crime statistics for downtown during 2019 show about 50 robberies, 35 burglaries, 20 aggravated assaults and several sexual assaults in the vicinity.
As fun as it might be to imagine, the feasibility of web-slinging through the city is really a matter of physics. Ohio State University physicist Michael Lisa used his analytical powers to solve that problem.
In addition to studying quark and gluon plasma in particle colliders, Lisa also teaches a “Physics of Sports” course at Ohio State, where students learn physics concepts by studying how athletes perform.
To answer the question, "Could Spider-Man travel significant distances by web given our skyline?", Lisa first had to decide just how strong an athlete like Spider-Man would be in real life.
After looking at how Spider-Man’s abilities are portrayed in comics books and films, Lisa decided to give this hypothetical athlete the ability to lift about 2,500 pounds and to jump about 10 feet vertically.
Comic book aficionados might quibble with these estimates, but if Spider-Man is too powerful, the question isn’t very interesting. One comic book Lisa found showed Spider-Man traveling two miles in five seconds, for example. At that speed, he could get to the airport from downtown in 2.5 seconds.
"But there would be no reason to go to the airport because he can already bounce three times faster than a commercial jet,” Lisa said. “I’m thinking of a strong Spider-Man, but not absurd."
For a more comprehensive look at the physics of Spider-Man, watch Prof. Michael Lisa discuss his analysis below:
With the Spidey-strength approximated, Lisa's next step was to figure out how his web-swinging technique would work. Lisa used mathematical computer modeling to estimate how different variables might play out.
“There’s probably 10,000 ways to swing between buildings,” Lisa said. “That means endless possibilities.”
Lisa worked to find a reasonable technique that broadly describes the kind of motion we’re looking to understand. After setting up some rules – such as having Spidey launch himself horizontally off the side of buildings and shooting each new web with complete precision to the top of the next building – Lisa determined that under ideal conditions, the physics of Spider-Man could yield a nice web-swinging journey.
On a street perfectly lined with 10-storey buildings, Lisa's model shows Spider-Man traveling 1,000 feet with 12 swings in about 20 seconds.
After running the model several different ways, Lisa reached a number of other conclusions, too.
Even more than arm strength, jumping ability matters. Lisa created a model of someone with the athletic abilities of an average NBA player and found that they actually might be able to pull off a big swing. However, his model of someone with the leg strength of an unnamed physics professor showed a fairly quick descent, and crash into the side of a building.
Initial conditions are also critical. Launching the first swing at the top of a building lent itself to a much more pleasant trip, with nice long swings.
“Starting lower on a building created a trip that, though possible, would not be fun or practical,” Lisa said, adding that each swing would be less than two seconds long.
With all that in mind, would the Columbus skyline provide the right conditions to allow Spider-Man to roam reasonably?
Lisa said what a city needs are narrow streets and a high density of tall buildings. Columbus does have some of those, and Lisa found that Spider-Man could make at least one significant trip from the Vern Riffe Center at State and High Streets to the AT&T building at Long and 4th Street without touching the ground.
That jaunt might look good in a movie trailer, but when Lisa looked at Columbus’s main thoroughfares like High Street and Broad Street, it was clear that Spider-Man wouldn’t get far. Getting from downtown to adjacent neighborhoods such as the Short North, King-Lincoln, German Village or Franklinton is simply not possible by web swinging alone.
On secondary corridors like Gay Street, Front Street and Wall Street, there are two- or three-block sections that work well, but that’s about it.
Lisa is quick to admit that a real-life Spider-Man would likely be able to do a much better job than his model, but the constraints of our city mean web-swinging is not a very useful mode of travel.
“As of now, we really don’t have the density,” Lisa said. “We don’t have buildings that are tall enough or that are close enough together... to accommodate Spider-Man in the same sort of way that we would recognize from a movie.”
A Spider-Man-esque hero patrolling the streets of Columbus would spend more time on foot than in the air. Perhaps a fellow hero like Hotshot could help pick up the slack.