Superman and the Ubermensch

Posted: June 15, 2009 in Braak, comic books, poetics

I have been wanting to talk about this, especially in relation to my previous argument about the nature of Superman and his assorted disguises–this is a discussion of Superman as a moral figure, and his relationship to Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch.”  (I know it’s supposed to have an umlaut, but that’s kind of a pain in the ass to type.  Maybe I’ll add it in later.)

So, anyway, some background.  The Ubermensch as a moral-philosophical concept was introduced in Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is a drag of a book if you ever have to read it.  It was translated by some people (Thomas Common, George Bernard Shaw) as “Superman,” though that translation has fallen out of favor.  Partly because “super” in the Latin is equivalent to “uber” in the German, but in English “super” lacks the same nuances.  Primarily, I think philosophers are just mad about the associations with Superman.

Nowadays, most folks leave it untranslated, or translate it as “Overman”–ironic for two reasons:  1) this is also a glib and largely useless translation.  2)  Grant Morrison, in one of the parallel realities that make up the new, reorganized DC Universe, has made a Nazi version of Superman called “Overman,” so philosophers are never going to escape the association.

So, Jerry Siegel’s character of Superman was originally a villain based on Nietzsche’s idea–or rather, more accurately based on the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s idea.  The Nazis viewed the Ubermensch as a kind of a superior physical entity, rather than a morally transcendent entity, that by right of its mechanical superiority should rule over lesser men.  Anyway, Joe Shuster redesigns him, he becomes a hero, and eventually a paragon of morality.  A super-moral character.

This is, in fact, purely ironic.  I don’t know if Superman’s writers intended for it to be ironic, but with every passing issue, Superman’s relationship to the Ubermensch gets more and more ironic.

See, here’s the thing:  Nietzsche believed that human beings suffered from “humanity”–a socially-inculcated sense of personal inferioty, propagated by things like Christianity and Nationalism, that subsumed the individual will and ultimately eroded even an ordinary man’s potential.  He posited a new principle of mankind, an Ubermensch, unencumbered by this inferiority complex, one focused on the present physical world (rather than the preoccupied with the “other-worldly” rewards that Christianity offered), and one that ought to be the goal for all of humanity.

A figure like this would be transcendent of pre-existing moral codes–because “morality” is a pre-existing codex created and promulgated by other philosophies, and the Ubermensch has discarded what those philosophies attempt to instill, the Ubermensch is neither interested in, nor subject to, any kind of moral order espoused by Nietzsche’s contemporaries.

And this is where we get the irony of Superman.  Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, for all his moral and philosophical advancement, could still be shot (insofar as he was real, and not really just a kind of thought-experiment).  Superman actually can do anything he wants.  But he doesn’t.  He actually is a physically superior specimen in every conceivable way–and yet he lives his life according to a moral code instilled in him by physically and intellectually inferior beings.

Obviously, it depends on who’s writing him, and I’m given to understand that he was a more morally ambiguous figure early on.  And there are, moreover, plenty of circumstances–especially in the 60s–where Superman just acted like a big cock.

But…virtually all of those stories have some really good reason for why Superman has to act like a dick.  Some peculiar arrangement of plot elements demands that Superman has to stop Lois Lane and Pat Boone from singing a song, or that he insist that Jimmy Olsen marry a monkey.  Maybe it’s a trick that he’s playing on some evil alien observer, or he’s been affected by some kind of weird kryptonite, I don’t god-damn know.

The point is, ultimately, that those situations have to be exceptions.  Because a character that can do anything he wants and is willing to is actually horrifying.  Of course, I’m saying this from my own position within the pre-established moral order, so obviously I would say that.

Anyway, I don’t think those are great exemplars of what Superman is, because I’m not interested in Superman as a figure for whom every word attributed is canonical.  I am interested in the idea of Superman that is contained within a morass of often contradictory material and, in particular, the idea of Superman that extends from the comic books themselves.

There are some other examples that are interesting, I think.  Consider The Dark Knight Returns, in which Superman has literally become the exact antithesis of the Ubermensch:  he is willingly working for a government that he knows is corrupt.  He is willingly working to preserve a status quo that he knows is wrong, and risks the destruction of the world.  He has compromised his own physical abilities so that he can obey the law.  Laws made by lesser men, laws that, in Nietzsche’s mind, would have served nothing except to make slaves of them.

This is the dark side of the classical interpretation:  Superman, as an invincible force for good.  But what is good?  The modern man’s idea of good?  An entity of inestimable physical and mental ability voluntarily shackling itself to the crippled perspective of an inferior species?  I imagine that Nietzsche would find the idea abhorrent.

Consider The Dark Knight Strikes Again–or don’t, really, it actually doesn’t have that much to recommend it.  The comic is basically a long, drawn-out argument in which Batman tries to convince Superman to become the Ubermensch–to discard the laws and the moral history that have been chaining him.  In the end he does and, for all practical purposes, becomes a god.  It’s not a great book, but the point is clear.

This irony–of a superior man voluntarily becoming a slave to inferior morals–is compounded by Superman’s number one adversary:  Lex Luthor.  Lex Luthor is a regular man (though super duper smart–I’m not sure if that counts as a power, because it’s never been clearly explained whether or not Luthor’s intellect falls within the natural compass of human capacity) with no moral code except for one:  the (…..wait for it…..) WILL to POWER.

The Will to Power is another Nietzsche concept:  basically, replacing standard interpretations of “compassion” or “goodness” or “piety” as a guiding principle of life.  What is it that makes you better?  Stronger, smarter, richer, more important?  Do those things and become better.  That’s the Will to Power, and that’s the principle that Lex Luthor lives by.

Mostly.  I mean, in a world of jet-powered apes and nuclear space lasers, a lot of the things that Luthor does are actually personally risky, even if he’s not directly risking his own life (I’m mostly thinking of arms dealing).  And, sometimes, Luthor’s obsession with destroying Superman occludes what should be a morally pure position.

In fact, Grant Morrison, in All-Star Superman, expresses this dichotomy neatly:  Lex Luthor really is the ultimate man–a man who can and has achieved all and more that a man is capable of.  And yet he is always going to be seen as inferior to Superman, whose power is not an expression of will, but a simple accident of birth.  Luthor’s hatred is born of resentment; if the alien had never come to earth, Lex Luthor would be the greatest man who’d ever lived.

The other perspective on the Ubermensch I want to look at (briefly–this thing is getting kind of long) is, obviously, Batman.  There’s a huge and fascinating difference between Superman and Batman’s moral codes, and I think a lot of it has to do with the setting.  Superman doesn’t break the law, ever.  Even when the police want to arrest him for a crime he knows he didn’t commit, he allows them to arrest him, because he believes that obeying the law is important.

Batman doesn’t give a shit about the law.  His entire life is an extended exercise in finding ways to break it.

And yet, we can view both of these characters are heroes.  Why?  Well, because one lives in Metropolis, and one lives in Gotham City.  Metropolis is a nice place–the people are happy, there’s a thriving tourist industry, it looks a lot like a clean, sparkly Toronto.  Obeying the law in a city like Metropolis is actually a good thing because Metropolis has a status quo that should be preserved.

Gotham City, on the other hand, is a cartoon of corruption–no political figure is anything but corrupt and selfish, the police (except for Jim Gordon) are all on the take, organized crime runs rampant.  Obeying the law in a place like Gotham City is bad, because it only preserves the (extremely horrible) status quo.

I wonder if, in Nietzche’s mind, Gotham City is what the rest of the world must look like to a morally-transcendent Ubermensch; just an utter, poisonous, systemic failure.  Why should you obey the laws of a place like that?  Why would you want to uphold the values of Gotham City?  Yeuch.

I’m not sure that it’d be right to qualify Batman as an Ubermensch as, rather than transcending laws and morality, he’s just living in a lawless place and has decided to kick the fuck out of it until it shapes up.  I think his relationship to Gotham is almost analogous, especially if you view Gotham City as a microcosm of the world–why, after all, if you were really an Ubermensch, would you spend your time punching the wicked people of Gotham City, when you could just go to Metropolis and become Lex Luthor?

The Batman’s preoccupation with bringing moral order (rather than Superman’s task of maintaining moral order) is what makes him a hero, but it also distinguishes him from the moral-philosophical entity that Nietzsche posited, who would ultimately leave the rest of humanity behind.

  1. This is a great little analysis. Thanks for it.

    Alan Moore’s ‘Miracleman’ featured a scene in which Miracleman was held captive (in human form) by a bunch of ex-Nazis. These guys have absorbed the Hitler doctrine of the neo-human who will replace them. When they finally get a load of Miracleman in all his glory, one of them says, “Overman … you have come at last!”

    And Miracleman says, “Yes. You can go now.”

    And he pokes a hole in the guy’s heart with his index finger.

    That always stuck with me.

  2. threatqualitypress says:

    I have always wanted to read Miracleman, but I don’t know where to find it!

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    “…because I’m not interested in Superman as a figure for whom every word attributed is canonical.”

    Grant Morrison would be SO disappointed in you.

  4. V.I.P. Referee says:

    Braak, you’re my hero. It’s fantastic how such a classically good character as Superman, challanges the significance of goodness—or, at least, socially agreed upon manifestations of it. This could only have been better if I’d known you were wearing tights while typing it. That’s said from a purely moral perspective.

  5. threatqualitypress says:

    @VIP: I actually have a special cape I wear when I do this.

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …three glasses of merlot later and that’s as distasteful as I can get—some misspellings and a dopey line about tights? Where’s the enduring shame in that?

  7. Erin says:

    Good recount of Superman’s Nietzschean origins. You’re headed in the right direction with Luthor, but you stopped an inch short of driving the point home: in a world without Kal-El, Luthor would be the Man of Tomorrow; he would literally have a claim to the title, “Superman”. He resents Superman for his power – as you said – and he resents Metropolis (and the world) for the respect and admiration they shower upon him. This motivation goes back to the very beginning, when Luthor first showed up and challenged Superman to a contest to prove who was the better man (then cheated, of course). Luthor is the “superman” as foreseen by Nietzsche; Kal-El is a pseudo religious savior who co-opted the title.

    I agree that, while there’s a case to be made for Batman, it more or less leads to a dead end. The connections become even more flimsy before 1986. For Batman’s first few years, he was far less “super” and far more “man.” He then got camped up and spent three or four decades as a licensed peace-officer (so much for acting outside the law). I believe that he was even acting officially through the 70’s, which contained several of his best stories.

    After Crisis, they made him darker and upped his abilities to the point a case could be made that he’s sort of Ubermenschy. But, unlike Superman, there’s no historical grounding, and that line doesn’t really go anywhere: as you point out, he’s far too moral to rise “above” good and evil.

    One aspect I love from the animated Justice League stories, is that Superman has the capacity of embracing the Nietzschean ideal; Batman doesn’t. This was established in the “Justice Lords” episode, then reiterated in “The Doomsday Sanction”. Deep down, Superman is a far darker character than Batman.

    And I think that strongly backs up what I’ve been saying all along: the core question that makes Superman fascinating is: is he one of us or is he above us?

  8. braak says:

    @Erin: I did say that: Luthor’s hatred is born of resentment; if the alien had never come to earth, Lex Luthor would be the greatest man who’d ever lived.

    But, in fact, I’m not sure it’s true. The fact is that Luthor’s descent into what is ultimately a completely harebrained rivalry is representative of the fact that, limitless human capacity or not, he was not a character of moral transcendence–one that had necessarily left “good and evil” behind. Rather, he is a character of limited psychological development; his resemblance to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is the product of his narcissism–an inaccurate evaluation of the real world that puts him at the center, NOT an act of will that recenters the world around himself.

    Also, I don’t think your argument about Superman is what makes him fascinating. Without question, there is never any doubt that Superman’s deviation from socially-established moral norms is an exception and not the rule. The nature and industry of comics is such that Superman as a morally superior being can never be fully explored. I think that, in fact, the reason that Superman is the oldest hero in the funny pages is that he plays on a very basic combination of wish-fulfillment and class-based injustice. This is why about 95% of Superman stories are completely retarded.

  9. Erin says:

    @Braak: Your reply… is quite dizzying. Lets start at the beginning. In my earlier response, I said you stopped an inch short of driving the point home. That inch, in my opinion, was the distinction between “greatest man” and “superman”.

    Feel free to accuse me of splitting hairs, but I think it’s significant. Here’s why: I’m of the opinion that while Clark Kent probably hasn’t spent much time thinking about the name, “Superman,” Luthor probably has. In your original post, you said Luthor’s moral code was the “Will to Power”. I think this was right on the money. I think Luthor has read Nietzsche and literally sees himself as the ubermench made real. Superman’s power, like you say, is an “accident of birth,” and this pisses off Luthor to no end.

    Of course, your reply quickly abandons all of this, when you seem to imply that BOTH our assessments of Luthor’s ubermench-credentials may be overstated. You provide an interesting analysis of Luthor as being morally and psychologically undeveloped, but I think that’s somewhat peripheral, at least to the character’s motivation and the authors’ intention. Whether the character is an imperfect representation or not strikes me as somewhat academic.

    As a side note, I can’t shake the suspicion that Luthor may be based on the evil “Superman” character created by Siegel and Shuster in the early 30’s. I find it interesting that while Luthor originally had a head of hair, the character was almost immediately redesigned to look like the psychic villain… but I may be reading too much into that.

    As to your final paragraph… actually, I have a few things to say. Let’s begin with this:
    “I think that, in fact, the reason that Superman is the oldest hero in the funny pages is that he plays on a very basic combination of wish-fulfillment and class-based injustice.”
    I think there’s some truth to this, but the exact same thing could be said about Batman… or most Golden Age superheroes, for that matter. Sure, these thrived in the forties and fifties because of wish fulfillment. I think the reason Superman was elevated in importance is even more simple: because he’s perceived as being the first modern superhero. But that only tells us why HE was the character who was developed, while guys like the Whizz and Green Lama vanished. The question isn’t, “Why was Superman developed?” It’s, “What was he developed into and why does that CONTINUE to work?”

    When I talk about great Superman stories, I’m referring to Kingdom Come, where Superman came a hair’s breath from taking out the UN in a fit of rage, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, where Superman faced the consequences of violating his deepest oath, and The Doomsday Sanction (from the animated JLU), where Superman’s ethics began unraveling. To me, these stories have dealt with a more complex version of Superman I find truly fascinating. That doesn’t mean I dislike the “boyscout” version: I love Superman For All Seasons, for instance.

    Well, lets have it, Braak. You’ve said for a while that you consider Clark Kent to be the truth; that this represents the quintessential version of the character. I disagree, but there are stories (such as “For All Seasons”) that make me hesitate. What stories, in your opinion, drive your point home? What are the most interesting Superman stories ever told?

  10. threatqualitypress says:

    In the first place, I should be clear that even the least insinuation of condescension is likely to make me disinclined to continue this conversation. It would probably serve us both well to remember that neither participant here has any claim to authority or superiority either by virtue of opinion or credential.

    In the second place, you are not splitting hairs. You are making an important distinction, but I believe it’s one that I was clear about. There is a difference between “world’s greatest man” and “Ubermensch.” They are not, at all, the same thing. “Ubermensch” is a condition of moral transcendence, which I argued, originally, is the case with Lex Luthor. “World’s greatest man” is a separate condition, independent of the quality of Ubermensch. It is this difference which caused me to abandon my original position: the Ubermensch could not be resentful for not being seen as The World’s Greatest Man, because the Ubermensch does not look to popular opinion for self-assessment. This is what it means that Lex Luthor is an amoral narcissist, rather than a morally-transcendent entity.

    Is this distinction academic? In the sense that you and I don’t write Superman, and therefore we are engaging in interpretation that is, from a practical standpoint, pointless, of course it is. As is this entire conversation, and probably virtually all of the conversations we’ve had, ever. Is it academic in the sense that the distinction, from a purely interpretive standpoint, is trivial? I don’t think so. I’d suggest that the difference is a potentially valuable one for establishing consistency in the character of Lex Luthor, one that is, in many ways, commensurate with Mark Waid’s position on Dr. Doom–that there is no nobility to either character, only the seeming of nobility as a result of self-obsessed egotism.

    I would agree that Batman’s position is identical, after a fashion, to Superman’s, but I don’t think this obviates my point. Batman, after all, is fairly popular as well. The difference, as I suggested in the original post, is a vast dissimilarity of context; Batman was not eclipsed by Superman because he fulfills the same function in a different respect (that is, wish-fulfillment by bringing moral order to the immoral world). The Green Llama WAS so eclipsed, because he fulfills the same function as Superman, just not as thoroughly (that is, wish-fulfillment by preserving moral order in a functionally moral world).

    I actually also agree with your favorite Superman stories: Kingdom Come and Whatever Happened, I believe, illustrate my point precisely. No matter how far Superman deviates from his moral code in Kingdom Come–no matter how close he comes to destroying the UN–in the end he pointlessly, and perhaps foolishly, gives up his moral position to someone else. It is Billy Batson (who the narration helpfully reminds us is a mortal, regular human being) who decides the fate of the superheroes. Whatever Superman thinks about himself, his final conclusion is that he doesn’t get to decide what the right thing to do is. He only gets to do the right thing when it’s decided for him.

    And then, to drive the point home, he decides to have his magic super-powered wonder child raised by Batman. Not instilled with Superman’s (the superior being’s) moral code, but with the regular old human one, that the superior child will be expected to serve. Again, I think the relevant aspect is not the fact that Superman deviates from his received morality, but that whatever happens, he eventually returns to it, and we are told that this return is correct.

    The same is true with Whatever Happened. What, exactly, are the consequences of violating his deepest oath? That he doesn’t get to be super any more. Alan Moore gives us a clear dichotomy: if you’re super-powerful, you don’t get to decide what’s right and wrong. If you DO get to decide, then you have to be a regular person. The state of moral transcendence can NOT exist simultaneously with the state of physical superiority. Superman choosing to kill Mxyzptlk is a failure of the condition that he strives for, which is not moral transcendence at all, but what Nietzsche would have described as a kind of moral slavery.

    I think the Dark Knight Returns is also a pretty good example of what Superman is, and the difference between Superman and Batman’s moral context, though I’ve already discussed that at length.

    I’d further agree with you about the JLU episode, and would add to it the one with the Justice Lords, as I think these further validate my position: Superman deviating from his received ethics isn’t heroic–it’s frightening and dangerous.

    Which is all why I talk about “Clark Kent” as being the true Superman. Or rather, to be more precise, I am using the name “Clark Kent” to refer to the aspects of the Clark Kent/Superman Entity that are human, humble, and specifically, purposefully, and necessarily not superior. The entity is not an expression of the goodness of limitless power, but an expression of how goodness limits that power.

  11. Erin says:

    @Braak: “This is what it means that Lex Luthor is an amoral narcissist, rather than a morally-transcendent entity.”

    I think we’re talking at cross purposes on this point. You seem to be saying that Luthor fails to live up to Nietzsche’s ideal. I’m saying that, whether or not he’s right, Luthor believes he is (or should be seen as) “The Superman.”

    Lets move on to Kingdom Come:
    “Whatever Superman thinks about himself, his final conclusion is that he doesn’t get to decide what the right thing to do is. He only gets to do the right thing when it’s decided for him.”

    True, but the logic behind that decision is significant: he can’t decide the fate of the world, because he’s not human. As such, he determines he has no right to pass judgment on humanity. Of course, the book doesn’t close on that point: Superman does realize that the choice between human and super-human is a false dichotomy. I interpret this as saying he needs to balance both identities; not simply replace Superman with Kent… but I’d be lying if I claimed to be sure of this interpretation.

    “I’d further agree with you about the JLU episode, and would add to it the one with the Justice Lords, as I think these further validate my position: Superman deviating from his received ethics isn’t heroic–it’s frightening and dangerous.”

    See, I agree that Superman deviating is “frightening and dangerous,” but the threat of that occurring is what I find fascinating. I’m not so much talking about a murdering, sociopathic Superman; more the possibility that some of the cracks and contradictions in his moral code could be exposed. The similarities between Superman in the Justice Lord episodes and the subsequent Cadmus arc of JLU, I think, drives this home (the alternate universe in Superman TAS also delivers a similar point): that it’s not hard to imagine Superman disassociating with humanity.

    Some recent versions of Lex Luthor – including the Superman animated series – have toyed with using this as part of Lex’s motivation. It’s also an idea that has crossed Batman’s mind on occasion. While a case could be made that they’re just being paranoid, I prefer having this as a potential risk.

  12. braak says:

    Okay, fair enough. My point is just that Luthor getting his knickers in a twist about not being seen as the Superman is precisely what proves he was never the Ubermensch in the first place. I think it’s a non-trivial distinction to state that Lex Luthor believes he is the Ubermensch, but consistently proves to not actually be the Ubermensch.

    As for Kingdom Come, the “I can’t decide humanity’s fate because I’m not human argument” seems flimsy to me. Why, after all, isn’t he human? We don’t measure humanity in terms of biological capacity–a parapalegic is just as human as someone with full use of their arms and legs. Why shouldn’t an entity vastly superior to an ordinary human also be considered such? It might be fair to say that Superman is aware that he doesn’t think like a human, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen any evidence that he doesn’t–except for his persistent humility in the face of his limitless power, and this is part of the issue that’s in question.

    Don’t we generally afford something the quality of “humanity” by remarking on its capacity for sympathy, compassion, and forethought? Under those qualifiers, Superman is really the most human of human beings, despite not being biologically human at all (in fact, though I can’t point to the stories at the moment, I am sure that it has repeatedly been brought up that Earth’s “adopted son” is generally a better example of her children than the biological ones). If that’s the case, then, “I can’t decide the fate of humanity because I am not human” is specifically a moral cop-out. Superman is fully capable, according to all possible measures, of deciding what’s best for humanity, and is moreover fully capable of ensuring his will is enacted. He has instead found an excuse to not decide a question of morality–because of his pathological humility, which I am suggesting is a Clark Kent quality. That is, “not challenging the moral status quo” is a characteristic that he learned in his humble beginnings in Smallville, Kansas, the most humble place in the world (I assume).

    So, ultimately, I think we’re arguing two sides of the same idea here. You think the idea of Superman violating his moral code, or challenges to Superman’s ethics, are an interesting story element, and that’s fine. My point is just that those repeated challenges always have and most likely always will reinforce the proposition that Superman isn’t permitted to make moral decisions outside the framework of his received morality. Consequently, Superman can never be the Ubermensch, and his name is always going to be fundamentally ironic.

  13. […] surreal magicalism.  We like both fiction and non-fiction–articles, for example, dealing the philosophical underpinnings of Superman, reviews of movies or books or comic books that are pretty cool (or hilariously bad), […]

  14. […] that may be to him or her. Superman’s later developments, to say nothing of his connection with Nietzche’s Nazi-beloved Übermensch—and much reflection on the implications of a “closeted” superbeing—exposed the darker side […]

  15. […] naive and open to philosophical perversion. His answer is  : Der Ubermensch, the OverMan, the Superman. Nietzsche tells us that Men are capable of something more than they have been. That we can evolve […]

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