Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is Superman an Ubermensch?

The Superhero as a Nietzschean Construct

The concept of the superhero is often attributed to mythology. However, the idea owes at least as much to Nietzsche as to the ancient Greeks. In many ways, the idea of the superhero is similar to the idea of the Ubermensch. The superhero is someone who is stronger and generally better than the average man. A superhero typically operates above or outside the law. Like the Ubermensch, the superhero is someone who imposes his will to change the world to fit his desire.

Is Superman an example of Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch? Denotatively, the words “Superman” and “Ubermensch” are the same. “Super” is Latin for “over”. “Uber” is the German equivalent. “Mensch” is simply “man”. Clearly, there was a Nietzschean influence on the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The influence extends beyond just the character’s name. Before they had refined their idea in 1938, the two young men had created a character whom they called Superman who was not a super-powered do-gooder, but instead a mad scientist type who sought to rule the world with his great mental strength. While beings with powers beyond those of the average man have been featured in stories since the original tales of gods and goddesses, the creation of Superman in 1938 was the birth of the comic book superhero.

There are various examples that can be used to illustrate the connection between the comic book superhero and the Ubermensch. One that can be rather obvious and deliberate at times is Alan Moore’s 1980s take on the British superhero Miracleman (Marvelman, in England). There are numerous references throughout the Miracleman series to Nietzsche’s works. In the first issue, there is a quote from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The secret military experiment that led to Miracleman’s creation is even called “Project Zarathustra”. Several characters even refer to Miracleman as the “overman”. Miracleman, like many superheroes, at first has a strong sense of morality and acts accordingly, but he gradually becomes amoral, going beyond such foolish, human ideas as “good” and “evil”, and rules (really just watches and occasionally grants wishes) over a world of neutrality and Perspectivism.

Even the quintessential human superhero Batman can be seen as an example of the Ubermensch idea. Batman is a self-made man, a perfect example of Will to Power. He violently imposes his will, and will even fight against governing bodies or law enforcement in order to achieve his personal goal of justice.

Though perhaps not immediately obvious, the popular Marvel Comics character Wolverine can be considered an Ubermensch. Wolverine is typically portrayed as an outsider with physical and tactical superiority over many of the people around him. He has little to no respect for law or even society in general. Still, like Batman and most other superheroes, he will violently impose his will at a moment’s notice.

Of course, some good arguments can be made against the idea that superheroes are a Nietzschean construct. A rather obvious argument is that superheroes are based on archetypal hero characters that have been present since ancient mythology. One could also point out that many superheroes often work in conjunction with law enforcement agencies. Also, superheroes typically uphold societal standards of morality, whereas Nietzsche wrote against such ideas as “standards” and “morality”.

While it is true that modern comic book superheroes do owe a great deal to the mythologies that came before them, the same can be said of most fictional characters. Archetypes are considered archetypes for a reason, and they will most likely continue to pop up in works of fiction for as long as people tell stories. While most superheroes do seem to be agents of a societal order, it’s important to note that they are considered heroic because they act in ways that are typically not allowable in a lawful civilization. Superheroes are generally violent and operate without license. While they do act according to what they think are the proper set of morals, it must be noted that Nietzsche’s preferred philosophy of Perspectivism is inherently flawed. Perspectivism is logically self-refuting, as you could easily stump a Perspectivist with the question, “Is it absolutely true that there are no absolute truths?”. So, surely superheroes can be forgiven for being imperfect examples of the Ubermensch concept.

While some good arguments can be made to the contrary, it is apparent that superheroes are generally examples of Nietzsche’s idea of the Ubermensch. Though they are imperfect constructs, they are Nietzschean constructs nevertheless.

(For my "Marx and Nietzsche" course this semester, I had to write a paper. I proposed writing a paper on the influence of Nietzsche on comic book superheroes, but my teacher said that comic books had nothing to do with philosophy. Before he denied my proposal, I had already written this short, rough draft. )

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