Thursday, July 06, 2006

Superman Returns but what about Nietzsche?

I've now seen two movies this year. As per my usual practice, both of them are comic book superhero movies. I don't know what is going on with film in general, but I nothing short of shocked by the latent conservative ideology both of these films have presented. I blogged a few weeks back about the conservatism I saw in X-Men 3, which was a departure from the essentially liberal ideology of the first two films in that franchise. It doesn't necessarily come as a big surprise that the third film had a departure, since the writing team and director of the first two X-Men films moved on to another project. What was that project? Two words: Superman Returns. And that just so happened to be the movie that I saw last week which espoused a shockingly conservative ideology.

The name "Superman" to philosophy geeks doesn't conjure up the image of a dude with a spit curl wearing underwear on the outside. Rather, it makes such people think of the writings of the 19th Century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was famous for saying "God is dead" and espousing the concept of the ubermensch (German for "Superman"). To Nietzche, a humanist, mankind would one day solve their own problems by becoming transcendental beings of their own accord. They would not need to look to the skies for a savior. For Nietzsche, the era of messianic longing was past.

This was pretty much the philosophy of Lois Lane in "Superman Returns." Fairly early in the film, Lois tells Superman "The world doesn't need a savior. And neither do I." Harsh. Of course, in our lexicon, the word "savior" comes packed with a heavy context. It is hardly the type of word that one uses casually, since it evokes a strong religous association. The writers of "Superman Returns" didn't have Lois utter that word casually. There was an obvious intent behind the phrase.

Spoilers follow:

Predictably, by the end of the movie Lois has changed her mind about the need for a savior. She had previously won a Pulitzer for an article entitled "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman." Toward the end of the film, she sits down at her computer and starts writing an article called "Why the World Does Need Superman."

I don't think she is talking about the Nietzschian Superman. The Superman portrayed in this film is much less akin to a humanistic ubermensch than an outright messiah from the skies. Here are some almost blatant parallels between Christian iconography and the film's mis-en-scene.

1) The line about the "father becoming the son and the son becoming the father" echoes John 14:11
2) Jor-El's line about sending his "only son" to show them the "light" echoes John 3:16 and John 9:5
3) The scene with Lex and his cronies beating the crap out of Superman was straight out of Mel Gibson.
4) Superman's immersion in water with the Jor-El voice-over is a bit like Christ's baptism
5) When Superman falls to the Earth he has an almost distractingly blatant crucifixtion pose
6) Upon crashing to the Earth he ended up in a pit. The theater was completely quiet and I almost said out loud "He descended into Hell."
7) Lois plays a Mary Magdalane role by visiting the hospital room
8) The guards outside of his hospital room were like sentries, and they were oblivious to what a woman discovered-- an empty tomb.
9) The movie ended with Superman literally ascending to the heavens

Of course, objections about Superman's supposed divinity are raised by the paternity of Lois's kid. This Superman certainly has a human element, and works better as a Christ-figure than as Christ himself. Still, I'm intrigued by the picture of the future Superman being raised by an adopted human father while the actual father hovers above.

On another note, though this Superman is not Nietzsche's Superman, the ubermensch is very much alive and well in this film in the form of...Lex Luthor. Lex's first full scene with Kitty is incredibly telling. He sees himself as Prometheus, and convinces himself that he is as benevolent as Promotheus. In reality he is motivated by nothing more than an intense jealosy of a being more powerful than him. His megalomania makes little sense as a get-rich-quick scheme, but makes sense given his hubris. As he states, land is the one commodity not being made anymore. He wants to be God, and therefore the opportunity to make land and re-make the world in his image is irresistible. Yet instead of making Eden, Lex's creation is a desolate wasteland, not unlike some of the people who were arguably influenced by a Nietzchian worldview--real life Lex Luthors such as Adolf Hitler.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never heard Superman and Nietzche in the same sentence.
Do you like Dashboard Confessional?

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think people are inherently good and society makes them bad, or they are inherently bad and society makes them good?

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have egregious errors in your account of Nietzsche's thought that I cannot, in good conscience, permit unchecked. You write, "[T]he ubermensch is very much alive and well in this film in the form of...Lex Luthor. Lex's first full scene with Kitty is incredibly telling. He sees himself as Prometheus, and convinces himself that he is as benevolent as Promotheus. In reality he is motivated by nothing more than an intense jealosy of a being more powerful than him." Intense jealousy describes the "lower people" in Nietzsche's account, not the "higher people". You may have heard of the term ressentiment, an intense spite or jealousy that motivates the "lower people" to project guilt on the "higher people". That is exactly what Nietzsche was railing against. I have not seen Superman Returns, but if your account of Lex Luthor is correct, than he could not be farther from the ubermensch.

--Steve McFarlane

P.S. Hitler endorsed the warped and manipulated philosophy of Nietzsche's sister, who was a Nazi, and who had all of Nietzsche's notes and unfinished writings after his death. It is not fair to blame him for what Hitler did. We do not blame the Bible for all the atrocities committed in its name. Similarly, it is unfair to blame Nietzsche for the Nazi's.

12:03 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

Wow, quite the diversity of feedback. Here are some responses:

1) I am not a huge Dashboard fan, but I tend to leave the station on if they come on.

2) I don't think either is entirely accurate, but I'd lean toward the second

3) Steve-O, thanks for dropping by. You are absolutely right. Let me attempt to clarify. I think Lex is unaware of his jealousy (though it is patently obvious to us). He truly thinks of himself as the ubermensch. I'm suggesting that his actual motivation and his stated motivation are at variance. Similarly, I think anyone with the hubris to think of oneself as an ubermensch would also be unconscioulsy unaware that they are actually driven by a jealousy...of God. (And here I am making an interpetive leap that a Nietzschian would obviously disagree with). I think of the Miltonic Satan as illustrative here. Many modern critics have come to see him as essentially an ubermensch, while to me it seems that he is nothing but a jealous sore loser.

Regarding your P.S., I did use the word "arguably" as a qualifier. I wouldn't put Nietzsche (or Heidigger or any of the other German philosophers) on trial for war crimes. However, I do think there is enough of a correlation between Hitler's worldview and Nietzsche's to warrant discussion, regardless of whether there was any actual influence.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Superman as Christ figure is nothing really new, especially when he died and rose again in the comics. Plus, when you forced me (almost at gunpoint) to watch the trailer I noted that it sounded very Biblical. I'm giving myself credit for that one.

As a sidepoint, do you find it ironic that the "shockingly conservative ideology" of this film was directed by a homosexual?

5:09 PM  
Blogger Azor said...


4:28 PM  

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