The knock on superheroes is that they’re unrealistic. This isn’t fair. Many superheroes have powers that we are close to or will be capable of engineering for ourselves. What’s unrealistic is the way those powers are doled out. Radioactive spiders aren’t going to make anyone strong any time soon.
Throw away those old origin stories and replace them with new scientific narratives and you’ve got something closer to the truth, which is this: We’re all going to have superpowers. Here’s the order in which we’re going to get them.
Superheroic Precedent: Hawkeye
Timeline: 5 years
Origin Story: Known for shooting people dead from long distances, Hawkeye is the least impressive of the Avengers until you consider this: He doesn’t get tired and start missing. There are plenty of truly impressive marksmen on the planet, but very few who can exert themselves and shoot consistently at the same time (this is why Olympic biathletes tend to be full time competitors and Olympic shooters tend to be ex-military). DARPA is looking to change all that with TALOS exosuits. The idea behind the suits is that they will stabilize soldiers in such a way that fatigue won’t affect their shooting and technology might even augment their ability to follow targets.
Superheroic Precedent: Charles Xavier
Timeline: Expect the consumer tech version to hit in 10 years.
Origin Story: Scientists have already made telepathy possible on a small scale using brain-computer interfaces that allow people to maneuver artificial limbs and virtual drones. In a 2014 study, international researchers achieved what they described as “brain-to-brain communication.” When electrical signals generated by the cortex were captured from the messenger through an electroencephalography. Researchers say that this test was more a proof of concept than anything, but it does point toward the logical conclusion of UI design.
Superheroic Precedent: The Hulk
Timeline: 15 years
Origin Story: Being belted by gamma rays will turn you into a puddle of flesh, not the Hulk, but acquiring the green giant’s super strength will probably be possible soon, thanks to advances in genetic engineering and robotic exoskeletons. Last year, Chinese scientists engineered swole AF beagles with twice the muscle mass of normal dogs, and Panasonic is testing an exoskeleton that allows humans to carry 220 pounds in extra weight. A little of column A and a little of column B and you’ve got a super strong super-soldier. You better believe the Pentagon is all over it.
Superheroic Precedent: Vixen
Timeline: Becoming an animal? Not gonna happen. Growing back a toe like a salamander? Between 10 and 30 years.
Origin Story: While no human has successfully morphed into an animal, we do have the ability to make ourselves decidedly more animal-ish. Through biomimicry, engineering inspired by the natural world, we’ve given ourselves shark-like swimsuits and ice-picks designed after woodpecker beaks. We will no doubt take this as far as it can go. But in terms of changing our actual bodies, the closest we’re going to come to shape shifting is regenerating limbs, like sea cucumbers and lizards. As of now the biological process that would kick off the process for humans remains mostly elusive, according to researcher James Monaghan, so putting a timeframe on it is difficult, but other scientists, including Ken Poss from Duke University, think we may be able to pop out small digits like a finger or a toe in 10 to 15 years.
Superheroic Precedent: Superman
Timeline: 20 years
Origin Story: On Smallville, young creep Clark Kent used his newfound X-ray vision to spy on a toweled Lana Lang in the girls’ locker room. The Pentagon wants the ability to do pretty much the same thing in order to spy on drug cartels. Physicists have developed a laser-based X-ray device that can detect uranium through steel, but we’re probably still decades off from having personal X-ray goggles. (This is probably for the best.)
Superheroic Precedent: Flash
Timeline: 30 years
Origin Story: The power of super speed — when you get to the point of breaking the sound barrier — is actually equivalent to super strength, but let’s talk about being fast. The human body can take the forces associated with running 30 to 40 MPH and prosthetics can potentially make that possible. Because this is not a critically important or pressing issue in the study of prosthetics, we don’t have these alternative limbs just yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t develop them.
Superheroic Precedent: Iceman
Timeline: Whenever the government experiment goes horribly wrong.
Origin Story: Through a process called supercooling, water can make the jump from liquid to ice in seconds. To trigger this reaction, one just needs to take a very pure liquid — like bottled water —and chill it to about negative 11 degrees. When a ice-cube enters the mix and touches the water, it will kick off a crystallization chain-reaction and cause the liquid to rapidly freeze. That’s the party trick version of Iceman’s power.
The military version is much more intimidating. The Sandia National Nuclear Laboratory, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, is home to the largest X-ray generator in the world — called the Z machine. When it’s not gathering data for the simulation of nuclear weapons, it can be used to create extreme temperatures via high magnetic fields. The Z machine can create ice hotter than the boiling point of water in a matter of nanoseconds.
Superheroic Precedent: Sue Storm
Timeline: Sometime around 2076
Origin Story: Cosmic rays won’t render our bodies invisible like Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm, but it’s possible that donning a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak could do the trick. Cloaking tech relies on “metamaterials,” substances that reflect light all the way around an object, as though the object weren’t there. Scientists have been refining such materials since the turn of this century. Today, the material sheets are getting thinner, though hiding moving objects remains difficult and scale complicates the matter. University of Rochester optics expert Joseph Choi predicts that something able to cover a human body will take decades more work.
Superheroic Precedent: Wonder Woman
Timeline: 100 years
Origin Story: Let’s talk about jetpacks. The closest we have to a functional personal flying machine right now is produced by Dubai-based company Jetman Dubai, which last year tested out the JB-9 over by the Statue of Liberty. The technology is powered by engines running on kerosene, providing upward thrust that purportedly spit out ambient air with exhaust. And the whole thing reaches speeds up to 63 miles per hour.
We’re never going to fly by ourselves, but miniaturized jetpacks are conceivable, if very very odd indeed.
Superheroic Precedent: Nightcrawler
Timeline: Physical teleportation isn’t going to happen, but the ability to project one’s senses isn’t that far off.
Origin Story: Experiments indicate that our brains could handle teleportation, but that doesn’t mean our bodies could. We are able to quantum teleport information through 100 kilometers of fiber optic cable, but only 1 percent of the photons actually make it. Given that Captain Kirk is made of something like 4.5 x 10^42 bits, the data transfer would end with a fingernail and a wake. This is simply not conceivable.
Superheroic Precedent: Hiro Nakamura
Origin Story: On Heroes, Hiro Nakamura blasted himself back to ancient Japan. Thanks to properties of time dilation, as you approach speeds of light, traveling forward in time compared to an outside observer becomes possible. But traveling back in time is a different ball game. It might work, in theory, were you to travel through an artificial wormhole — with the caveat you could only go back as long ago as the wormhole’s creation. Lunch dates with samurai, we’re sorry to say, are off the table.