So I saw the new movie “X-Men: Days of Future Past” this last weekend, and was struck by how odd and useless most of their superpowers are. They look great, but what would you do with them? The ability to shoot ice blasts from one’s palms? Cool! But you’d use it for, ah, re-surfacing skating rinks? The ability to phase through walls? Handy for escaping from prison, but that’s something I’ve never actually needed to do. Have 10″ claws come out of your knuckles? Then how could you bend your wrists when they were inside your hands? Heal quickly from bullet wounds? Can’t say I’ve been shot recently. If the fast cellular growth needed for quick healing also meant a constant risk of cancer, then I’ll pass.
But even within the fantastical world of comic-dom, the writers of the X-Men knew who had the greatest power – the telepath Professor X. Being able to read minds is more important than being able to lift heavy metal objects. If you want to lift something heavy, rent a crane. If you want to do serious work, read people’s minds to figure out what they want and then get them to direct their efforts towards your goals.
After all, if you were ten times stronger than an ordinary person, and could kill with a single blow, you’d have the superpowers of a tiger. Yet people have been hunting down tigers for hundreds of thousands of years. Five people with spears can take down a tiger, if they work together. A person who can understand four others enough to convince them to go on a hunt is effectively stronger than a tiger.
That must have been the scary thing about hominids when they first appeared. They were so weak and slow, but they moved with eerie coordination. They had these secret communication powers. They could act in concert even when widely separated. They could specialize on tasks. Wolves could cooperate too, but you wouldn’t have one wolf making extra sharp teeth while another lay in wait for prey, and a third drove the prey towards the ambush.
Soon they were able to project their thoughts into their children’s brains, and pass them on even after their own deaths. They got slowly better at that until about 50,000 years ago, when a Great Leap Forward happened. They were suddenly able to project their thoughts onto inanimate objects, creating art. Now they could cooperate in groups of hundreds. Agriculture needs groups of thousands, and industrialization needs millions. Keeping that many people from dissolving into vicious factions needs vast networks of persuasion and coordination.
In fact, intuiting what millions of people will pay money to watch is exactly what movie people do. They use the Cerebros of market research and focus audience testing to carefully tune every word and image to match people’s desires. Thousands of people work on a movie like X-Men, and tens of millions will see it. Strange mental powers must be at work! If Professor Xavier ever got tired of teaching wild and dangerous children, he would make a hell of a producer.