- - Wednesday, June 1, 2011

When “X-Men: First Class,” a prequel to the popular series of comic-book adaptations, hits theaters this weekend, moviegoers will find themselves immersed in yet another superhero origin story, the fourth opening this summer, along with “Thor,” “Green Lantern,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Superhero stories have come to rule in Hollywood since the late ‘90s, when the first “X-Men” film drew high praise and box office. Since then, big-screen visions of classic comic-book heroes Spider-Man, Batman and Iron Man and their sequels have all racked up big bucks at the box office. The current wave, expected to dominate this summer’s box office, represents the biggest hero glut yet.

Our deepening fascination with the genre occurs as we’re witnessing the beginnings of real world superhero emergence - growing numbers of technologically and biologically modified humans who have become stronger, smarter, and more powerful thanks to consumer technology and widely accessible scientific advances.

You might even say we are all part superhero now.

True to genre form, “X-Men: First Class” tells a tale of how lowly individuals with all-too-familiar personal problems became larger-than-life heroes with abilities far beyond their normal human peers. Taking viewers back to the height of the Cold War, “First Class” adds a wrinkle of its own, tracing the social emergence of an entire class of super-powered individuals: mutants - humans born with genetic abnormalities that give them extraordinary powers.

Compared to humans of the past, most Americans are blessed with remarkable, previously unthinkable abilities. We live longer, access information faster and in greater volume, and can transform our minds and our bodies in ways that prior generations never imagined.

Take life expectancy. In the early part of the 20th century, it hovered in the low to mid 40s. Now, thanks to advances in medicine and public health, people across the world live to an average age of a little over 67. In developed countries, it’s even higher.

The Internet, the rise of personal computing, and the recent explosion of mobile data technology, from smart phones to tablet computers, have given billions of individuals access to grand libraries worth of information at the touch of a button, anywhere and everywhere. In the Middle Ages, scholars prided themselves on their memories, their ability to perfectly recall volumes of detail; those with the sharpest memories had a unique advantage. Now, anyone with Google access can beat the factual recall of the most committed bookworm.

Meanwhile, medical technology and biological enhancement are allowing humans to transform their bodies into faster, stronger versions of themselves - even, in some cases, after severe disablement. When double-amputee and paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius wanted to compete in the 2008 Olympics, he was initially ruled ineligible: The synthetic legs he’d been given to replace his human limbs were deemed to give him too much of an advantage over unaltered humans. It was in many ways a classic superhero story, with an accident followed by a transformation from being one of the weakest among us to one of the strongest.

Increasingly, people are exposed to technological advances that make superhumanity seem at least plausible. Until recently, R.U. Sirius was the editor of H+ (short for Humanity Plus), a magazine devoted to “transhumanism” - the ways in which science, medicine, and technology have created opportunities for human adaptation and enhancement.

“There’s a certain alertness to the science fictional nature of current reality,” Mr. Sirius says, “as we start to see artificial intelligences compete in chess and then on ‘Jeopardy,’ and we see the manipulation of biology becoming a leading industry, and we see people being regularly ‘cyborged’ with replacement parts.”

Over time, that sort of exposure may help normalize and popularize the idea that humans don’t have to be merely human. The recent wave of superhero films - most of which are tailored to a tech-obsessed younger demographic - may be an early sign that it’s already happening. Indeed, stories inobtrusively integrating what we now think of as superheroes could become the new norm: Mr. Sirius says he can imagine that eventually “having an enhanced or mutated human plot, or subplot, may be the rule rather than the exception.”

Of course, there’s nothing new about telling popular stories in which characters have incredible powers. Mr. Sirius offers the reminder that “these sorts of imaginings - of humans gaining powers - have existed through all of human storytelling history.” Indeed, it’s often said that superheroes are merely updates on Greek mythology.

Yet there’s a crucial difference. Superhero stories aren’t about gods; they’re about men. It used to be that when we dreamed of powerful people, we understood them to be made of something more than us. But built into the core of superhero mythology is the idea that these sorts of ultra-powerful people are us.

Superhero movies have long transported us, serving as fantasies of escape from who we are. Perhaps that’s changing, as little by little they become intimations of who we can become.

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