Since young, I have always been fascinated with comics, superheroes and anything out of this world because they provided me with a healthy dose of escapism and a good role model worth looking up to. (Plus who doesn’t like to see explosions, people flying and running at the speed of light.)
Obviously, it does not take a genius to figure out that I am one of those nerds who love superhero movies/comics (I am such a nerd that I watch the cutscenes compilation of games just to learn the storyline).
Recently, I watched the entire Injustice 1 and 2 cutscenes movie which is adapted heavily from the critically acclaimed Injustice series of DC and watching the character development of Superman, I cannot help but feel that Superman has transcended the constructed image of him being the paragon of virtue image and absolutely blameless saviour of the world. (Not to say he is a one-dimensional character, his struggles differ greatly from his fellow Leaguers)
A crashcourse on Superman!
Well, this is a classical representation of the master-slave morality that Nietzsche criticises. Superman is born strong, superior to every single human being. Yet he becomes Clark Kent, a hero hiding in plain sight, conforming to normalcy.
Given his near god-like powers and invincibility, he is not afraid of physical threats but the social threats. Superman is triune, he is Kal-El, the son of Jor-El, Clark Kent and Superman(all at the same time). Kal-El is mainly dormant and suppressed, he is almost forgotten; a stark reminder of the pressure aliens face in (a metaphor for immigrants in our societies) having to conform to societal norms, regardless of the power they possess. Clark Kent, on the other hand, is the archetypal middle-aged man, boring and dull. In his day job, he is a news reporter (ironically), where he reports on the latest buzz yet Kent is not newsworthy himself. Kent traverses between fame and anonymity, because he may be the medium in which the story is conveyed, but he is never the centre of attention.
Finally, Superman the headline and the messianic figure whose invincibility not only serves to highlight his near omnipotence but at the same time, represent the ultimate good. ( a deeper dig into Superman history would show us the rich Christian allusions in his character and some suggest a striking parallel to Jesus)
No matter how atrocious the crime committed against humanity and despite his near infinite powers, Superman never kills any of his enemies from Darkseid, Lex Luthor-Brainiac, Metallo etc.
Talking about his enemies, the villains serves as his foil presenting to us a coherent moral interpretation of a good and evil.
For example, looking at Darkseid, the ruler of Apokolips is megalomaniac and warmonger who can literally obliterate any belligerent individual with his Omega Beam. He is a fascist conqueror who enslaves his citizens to himself. His society is a militant extension of himself and his children are indoctrinated by him to be ruthless loyalists to his cause of conquering worlds. (Before I go all fanboy mode on this, the political rendering to the history of these characters are really interesting as well. I am not going to go into that because this would make up the word count to be 12k.) As such, the audience (us) are presented with a clear dichotomy of good and evil, a battle between the righteous and benevolent Superman against the evil conquering fascist Darkseid.
(But on a side note, consider the villains of Batman such as Mr Freeze, who commits crimes to revive his dying wife, Nora whom he cryopreserved. He commits crimes not out of pure selfish intent instead he is motivated by a more sympathetic cause of love. Furthermore, he is painted more sympathetically through his trapping in a freeze suit where his survival is predicated on the sub-zero conditions necessary to prevent him from dehydration. Yet, his continued imprisonment in Arkham Asylum as criminally insane further perpetuates his isolation which makes him ironically more human that one would imagine. Thus, in other comic book series, a murkier line between the idea of good and evil is drawn as compared to Superman and his villains. )
Superman’s no-kill rule
I want to delve deeper into Superman’s no-kill belief he held. His powers have always been used defensively. He has not imposed his power aggressively and only used it to neutralise any threat. Superman is constantly restricting himself and always inhibits the manifestation of his power. This is because despite being super, he has become a man. His actions are dictated by the overwhelming amount of empathy/sympathy (not sure of either) he has for humans.
Think in the mind of a normal civilian in this fictional universe:
A God with limitless power lives among them and at any point in time if he desires he could destroy them. Or, if someone like him arrives and is rogue, this supervillain could destroy them effortlessly.
This necessitates an existential question for the normal people
What are we here for?
(the movie Batman vs Superman is centred around this conflict between humanity embodied by Batman against aliens in the figure of Superman)
To quell the insecurities of humans, he purposely restricts himself. This highlights a message to people that he lives by the human(or American) code of morals that though he is superior to them in power, he is subject to their systems and values. Hence, serving as a reminder that Superman is as human as everyone else.
This is perfectly encapsulated in this scene where in the face of rejection and misunderstanding, his answer was not retaliation or justification, but dejected silence. His muted response was the loudest scream of his humanity.
As such, Superman was never seen to be an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Of all the readings, I will just choose one quote to explain Superman as the American Ubermensch to a grave misunderstanding of Nietzsche.
The Übermensch creates his own values, as opposed to just accepting the moral teachings of others.
While Superman is a specimen of physical prowess and superpower, his entire values system is completely moulded by his environment. He accepts the moral teaching of his family, culture and country without deciding his own moral code. Born of another planet, he is raised and educated by the Kents, with his entire education in America and his reporter work based in Metropolis, a literal metropolis that is supposed to embody American values of freedom, liberty, individualism and diversity.
These are the assumptions Superman holds to be true:
Killing is not the right thing to do
The state has the right to decide what to do with criminals and he does not despite him being more powerful. (He sees himself as an enforcer of the law but never the judge or jury. )
He must assimilate into society as a normal human being to be accepted
Democracy is the best form of governance
He must be subservient to the government as its citizen.
Superman’s acceptance of these values dictates his moral compass, thus there is never a question of what is right or wrong, because, in his mind, the line between right and wrong has already been clearly demarcated. This is why the struggles of Superman is often an existential conflict among his triune nature in which he is torn between conformity and his individuality.
With the introduction of Injustice, Superman is forced to confront his reality and decide on his own what values, he should live by.
The Joker capitalised on Superman’s humanity and manipulated him. Despite his invincibility, his empathy has become his Achilles heel. And what the Joker did was push him off into the far end, by poisoning Superman with hallucinogens making Lois appear as Doomsday to Superman which caused him to kill her and destroy Metropolis by his own power.
And finally, he snaps.
It was like Superman was awakened from his slumber. (Note that the creative has been deliberate in not portraying Superman to be a torn lover by coupling Wonder Woman to be his lover and fellow ruler of the regime)
Superman, for once did not assume the morals he championed to be absolute truth. He saw the destruction that he himself has inflicted on Earth and this forced him to objectively evaluate these “truths”. He saw the quagmire Earth was entrenched in and then it dawned on him that it was the heroes who were perpetuating this vicious cycle of violence.
He saw that for all the powers they had, their soft-hearted measures (his previous philosophy of heroism) have allowed villains like Joker to thrive and inflict chaos in the planet as they pleased (as soon as they were released).
The Ubermensch emerges
As Nietzsche spoke of the ubermensch in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
You look up when you wish to be exalted. And I look down because I am exalted.”
As such, Superman has transfigured into the embodiment of the ubermensch. He forsakes his alter-ego of Clark Kent, completely casting aside his pretence of mediocrity and fully embraces his identity of being a superior man, in power and intellect.
Superman, the Nazi?
While the Nazi’s intent was selfish that sought to establish themselves as Aryan race, creating a pure world, “untainted” by Jewish blood. Conversely, Superman like the ubermensch is motivated by his love for himself and the world. The Nazis wanted world domination and thus establish its superiority, Supes on the other hand because he was superior, dominates the world.
The Übermensch loves life and the world to the ultimate degree: he wills the eternal recurrence of all things, including his own life, and even the lives of those he despises. That is, regardless of whether the doctrine of eternal recurrence is actually true, he wishes it to be true
Through the episode involving the death of Lois Lane and the destruction of Metropolis his ultimate love for “life and the world” has been uncovered, where he would preserve the world from crime by creating a totalitarian regime that places security and peace over the typical “American ideals”. Since he has already chosen for himself the values he chooses to uphold, there is no proverbial line he would not cross, no person he would not conquer if it meant that there was peace in the world he governed. This includes the lives he despises which cannot be mistaken for the lives of these criminals, instead it is the human population whom he despises for their physical inferiority and self-destructing tendencies. (which is why he establishes himself as the de-facto leader of the world because might is right and whoever has the most power to protect Earth should lead it)
Eternal Recurrence or Eternal Life?
Eternal Recurrence says Nietzsche, would be the ultimate expression of a life-affirming attitude: to want this life, with all its pain and boredom and frustration, again and again. This is meant to serve as a juxtaposition against the Christian belief of an otherworldly heaven that is superior to the current world we inhabit.
This is why in the Injustice series we do not see Superman show any conflict in his beliefs anymore. The idea of regret no longer exists in his mind. His lucid sense of morality is unwavering as he displays his hell-bent desire to mould the world in accordance with his beliefs. (which is why no matter what Batman attempts, he fails to convince Superman that what he is doing is wrong and why Superman has no qualms fighting Batman)
This problematic interpretation of Ubermensch by Nietzsche saw through the lens of this “injustice Superman” is serves as a critique of the suppressive Ubermensch and the damage he ravages on Earth.
Inadvertently, Superman has become the very threat he sought to protect Earth from.
Yet, given the chaotic world,
where we live in where we pollute the airs we breathe for the sake of money,
where people among us would kill others in the name of hate,
where we discriminate others based on the colour of their skin,
where people eat their kit kat like this
Maybe what Injustice and Nietzsche show us through the character of “Injustice Superman” is an equally relevant criticism of the self-destructive tendencies of us human (and that perhaps we do need an Ubermensch to govern us)