A Defense of Superman

I understand that some people think Superman is creepy and he makes them a little uncomfortable – he does wear his underwear on the outside of his pants after all. But I want to address this idea of Superman as the Nietzchean ubermensch, when in fact, the character hasn’t ever really represented that ideal.

The identification of Superman with Nietzsche’s ubermensch started in the 50s with the famous book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. Wertham in fact disregarded the notion of ubermensch as “Superman” specifically because the character was not the epitome of the ideal. There are a few important differences in both origin and application of the Superman character.

1) Superman comes from Jewish and Greek roots. Siegel and Schuster were both Jews with a classical education. Their rendition of Superman in the 30s and 40s was meant to evoke Hercules and Samson. The costume came from circus strongman acts popular at the time. It is important to note that both Hercules and Samson derived their strength from a divine source outside of themselves, and so Superman was given an extraworldly origin. Which leads to:

2) Superman is not human. He comes from another planet, and it is due to this non-human status that he has great power, not due to his own efforts or his own virtue.

Though more than 70 years old, and handled by hundreds of creators in that time, these two qualities have been consistent.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche specifically created the concept of the ubermensch as a way to constrast with an supersede metaphysics in general and Christianity in specific. The ubermensch is a self-created being, using his own strength of will or body to transcend the limits of society and religion. The concept of Will to Power was never fleshed out by Nietzsche, and his modern students can come to no consensus on what he meant by the term, although personally, I agree with you that he meant it as the act of imposing one’s will on another. Unfortunately, without a unifying treatment of the character over the years, I don’t see the “will to power” concept as applying to Superman (or any other superhero) as a defining factor, although it has certainly been used as such in individual stories.

There is a literary device called transposition, where one character seems to uphold a certain value while projecting its opposite on another. In his post-millenial series “Luthor”, Brian Azzarello makes exactly your argument against Superman – that we are dependent solely upon his good will for our safety. This argument is placed in the mouths of self-made men Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne (Batman), and serves to highlight the virtue of Superman as an external savior whose presence reveals the failings of the best of men (Luthor and Wayne).

Surely, we are far better off looking to Superman as a point of identification when drawing men’s attention to the need for an external savior? Superman is the best of all things, he is everything to which we aspire, and he comes literally from the heavens. This is a fundamental literary device designed to draw one’s attention to the need for an external savior, and I think that serves as an excellent introduction to the one, true savior of humanity.

By the way, if it helps at all, in DC Comic’s “New 52” reboot, Superman will no longer be wearing the red shorts over his pants.

Last 5 posts by Winston Crutchfield

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *