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Twilight of the Idols

Imran Siddiquee

When Nietzsche conceived of the superman, he didn't have a musclebound alien in red tights in mind. Rather, the hero of Superman Returns is an affront to human potential.

“But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, then you become something else entirely…” – Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul, Batman Begins (2005)

When Nietzsche invented the concept of superman, or übermensch, he imagined one who decides for himself what is right and wrong, moving beyond the religious and social standards of good and evil to create new ideals, ones that inspire all of humanity to participate in their own constant process of self-overcoming. By rejecting self-doubt, guilt, and all the pain of standard morality, human beings can reach a state of “great healthiness”, in which they are free to give life their own meaning.

What's inspiring about Nietzsche’s seeming disregard for human morality is that we are all capable of becoming supermen (and women), able to overcome the doubt and nihilism that plagues modern life. Yet in modern American entertainment, from comic books to films, the word superman has come to represent something else entirely. Rather than the inspiring elements of the übermensch, we are presented with an alien creature whois not human and whose supernatural abilities are thoroughly unattainable: the hero of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. This latest incarnation of the Superman comic myth has nothing to do with Nietzsche's notions, instead, through its Christianity iconography it reinforces the very ideals Nietzsche rejected.

The superhero genre is filled with such awe-inspiring characters, unreal Christ-like beings that use their powers for the good of all people, sacrificing their own happiness in the process. Superman is the epitome: Though he learns to love humanity and recognize human potential, he remains forever above us, which taints his attitude with condescension. Superman is a kind of martyr, sacrificing himself for an alien race; in this he mirrors the ideas behind Jesus and other eternal figures. But a martyr hero runs directly against Nietzsche’s vision of the superman, which hinges on the ability to surpass pity and embrace inspiration. To take Superman, Nietzsche’s vision of the antichrist, this far, to actually reinterpret him as Christ himself, is the ultimate act of appropriation, negating what Superman actually could be.

Though Superman seems the paradigm for every other comic-book creation, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) features a hero much closer to the Nietzschean ideal. Disgusted by the corruption around him, Bruce Wayne (Batman) decides to create from inside himself a beacon for his fellow humans. Batman fights crime and corruption in his city not because he hates criminals, but because he believes that people will do good, if shown good. The film inverts religious iconography, placing the hero in shadows and darkness. His cave is beneath the ground, in the traditional realm of the devil, separated from the heavens above. Yet this is not Paradise Lost, and Batman has no satanic desire to spite God or humanity. Instead, his initial vengeful instincts are turned into a desire to rid the world of the fear that limits it and encourage people to reach for inspiration.

While Batman Returns echoes our disgust with society's limitations and our collective intuition of our own possibilities, Superman Returns reflects a culture of pity and guilt. The villains in each film highlight this stark ideological contrast. Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor is a jealous animal, one who aims for control but seems motivated mainly by the destruction of Superman himself. His inability to equal Superman fuels his hatred. Luthor is trapped in a hopeless competition against an infinitely superior being, and we are invited to despise him for it, which makes him a nearer approximation of Milton's Satan. In contrast Ras Al Gul of Batman Begins aspires to create a perfect world, like Batman himself, only with more drastic and impatient methods: He has no interest in showing anyone the way to a better society and has no compunction about killing all those that oppose or sicken him. Al Gul and fellow villain Dr. Crane operate on fear, and fear is what Bruce Wayne struggles constantly to overcome (his use of the bat image symbolizes his intention to face his own fears). Batman works toward a community where all are capable of achieving something even in the face of great fear rather than be crippled by self-doubt at every moment. When explaining his theatric methods Batman tells his trusted friend Alfred, "People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy." Indeed, the actions of Batman lead the rather unassuming police commissioner Gordon to slowly believe in himself and the Dark Knight's cause, leading him to take the reins of the Batmobile and become a hero in his own right.

Superman, on the other hand, simply works to keep people safe. Because of Superman's indomitable superiority, Lex Luthors will always exist in Metropolis as long as there is a Superman to envy. Celebrating a hero who invokes feelings of pity and envy in us is not a way to motivate people to believe in themselves, but rather it increases our doubt in humanity's strength. Though we are shown images of a younger more relatable Clark Kent realizing his potential, as he grows older he changes from an unlikely hero into a messiah, a chosen one with no options himself but to help us. Take the scene where Superman floats above the earth, listening to the millions of voices calling for help in his ear. His resulting decision to help us, because we cannot help ourselves, is associated with enormous pity. At the same time Singer invites us to pity Superman himself because of his burden. Thus when he is injured and forced into the hospital, Lois Lane and others feel as though they took him for granted and that they owe Superman for all the times he has saved them. This reinforces humanity's self-pity and self-doubt instead of showing a path toward its own greatness.

The differences between what each type of hero offers also plays out in how each relates with his father. Superman’s father appears as either a huge floating head or simply as a booming voice assigning responsibilities and duties involving humanity, whereas in Batman Returns Bruce Wayne is inspired by his father's optimism, forming the foundation of Bruce's faith in the human race. His father provides an example which directs us toward our own capabilities. Superman only shows us how happy we might be under his protection.

But comparing the two love stories reveals the greatest difference between Batman Begins and Superman Returns. The romance in Singer’s film supplies its heart and soul -- it's the reason we are supposed to stay compelled. In the unrequited love between Lois and Superman, we once again are invited to embrace the condescending pity of self-sacrifice. Superman decides not to reveal himself to Lois, sacrificing his own love for the greater love of all mankind. Superman saves the life of Lois Lane many times, and she returns the favor as well, but does his presence really improve her in any way? Yes, he can save her from burning buildings and fly her around town, but in the end his otherworldly power pushes her into dependency rather than inspiring her to be the best person she can be.

But in Batman Returns Rachel Dawes is only initially transfixed by the mystery and awe-inspiring qualities of the Dark Knight. When Bruce Wayne, who has passed for a lazy sybarite, finally reveals his identity to her, the inspirational quality of the Nietzschean superman takes root. By learning that Batman is simply a man, her love for Bruce is renewed, as is her faith in limitless human potential. That’s the effect a superhero movie should aim to have: Pushing people to reach for their own greatness, rather than worship someone else’s. As an audience member we want to be like Rachel Dawes, inspired to pursue our own ideals of overcoming man's limitations as we watch the hero create his own myth from the ground up. We certainly need no encouragement to be in dumbstruck awe of another’s power and reduced to servitude of an incomprehensible alien force.

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