Superman is one of the world’s most recognisable cultural icons. A symbol of human idealism, he has been subject to a range of political and philosophical agendas over the last 80 years. This week I analyse the ideas behind Superman, and how they have manifested and changed throughout the course of the films. From Nietzsche to the Nazis, from the postmodern condition to the Pentagon rewriting Man of Steel, this is an epic exploration of the philosophy and politics of the world’s most recognisable superhero.
The term ‘superman’ was coined not by comic book artists but instead is a translation into English of the German word ‘ubermensch’. In the 19th century the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made the notion of the ubermensch a cornerstone of his philosophy, and his outlook on the world and humans’ role in it.
Let me explain.
Nietzsche is what we might call a post-enlightenment philosopher. While the European period called the Enlightenment was still largely religious in nature – focused on notions of revelation, human freedom and other Christian values and ideas – Nietzsche identified the world around him as post-Christian. His famous assertion ‘God is dead’ was designed to be the announcement of the end of the Christianity-dominated era in European thought.
However, Nietzsche saw the immediate post-Christian world as one that was subject to nihilism, to belief in nothing. In the absence of God, what was left to believe in? We see a similar recognition in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, his epic poem.
In order to resist this nihilism, Nietzsche posited the re-evaluation of all values, in which humans themselves would take the place of God as the thing that chooses what to value, indeed as the thing that values. This is where the ubermensch comes in – literally it means something approximating ‘above man’ or ‘beyond man’ – and this, Nietzsche said, is the answer to nihilism.
In his analysis, Christianity devalued this world and life within it, making it subservient to the eternal afterlife. This life is merely a try-out for getting into heaven, and thus in some respects Christianity is anti-life, according to Nietzsche. Whereas the Ubermensch is a person (or people) who value this life and this world to the point of love, and all new values to replace the old, life-denying values of Christianity would be rooted in this love.
However, Nietzsche also describes the ubermensch as never existing in one settled state, but always seeking its own overcoming. So as soon as one ascribes value to something, one begins the process of overcoming it. He contrasts the superman concept with the notion of the last man, who seeks only the continuation of his present existence and never to overcome it and become something new or different or greater. The last man’s will to power is perpetuation and continuation, the ubermensch’s will to power is self-overcoming.
I bring this up partly because after he went mad (Nietzsche spent the last decade of his life in an asylum) Nietzsche’s sister and her husband – a proto-fascist – bastardised and manipulated his work. They published a selection of passages and aphorisms from his notebooks under the title The Will to Power, twisting the meaning of his ideas to support a fascistic view of the world and people in it.
Later scholars would discover this intellectual fraud but of course by that point it was too late – the Nazis had co-opted Nietzsche as one of their own, positing fascism as the answer to nihilism. In the post-Christian world where man’s will was the new means of determining values, it is easy to slip into the notion that this justifies any exercise of power including destructive, genocidal exercises of power. While Nietzsche was largely an anarchist, and a critic of anti-semitism, his philosophy did help bring about the birth of fascism.
But the Nazi concept of the ubermenschen and the untermenschen is quite some distance from the way Nietzsche conceived it. For one thing, I don’t recall Nietzsche ever using the phrase untermensch – sub-human – at all. He did not conceive of the superman or overman and the underman or lesser-than-man, he conceived of humans and something beyond humans – the ‘something beyond’ being the pure expression of human will to power, rather than God.
Whereas the Nazis did not seek their own overcoming, they sought to establish themselves as the ubermenschen who ruled over or destroyed the untermenschen. To them, they were born into superiority by virtue of race, they were superior whether they liked it or not, whether they sought to be superior, or not. Nietzsche would have despised the Nazis for their abject failure to recognise that what makes one ‘beyond human’ is not asserting ones inherent superiority, but embracing the ability to overcome oneself and ones values.
There is a lot of dispute about how to translate Nietzsche’s concept of the ubermensch into English – some prefer overman, some prefer beyond man, some prefer superman. I quite like ‘meta-man’ though I wholly admit that this isn’t a perfect translation and that the greek prefix ‘meta’ doesn’t mean the same as the german prefix ‘uber’. Nonetheless, the term ‘superman’ originates in early 20th century translations of Nietzsche’s work, and it would be another three decades before the comic book superhero was created.
Indeed, Superman the comic first appeared in anthologies in 1938, and became its own standalone comic in 1939, at the exact time the Nazis’ will to power and belief in their own superiority went into ultra-violent overdrive.
So with that preamble out of the way my first question is: What kind of ubermensch is Superman? Is he the Nietzschean kind or the Nazi kind? In truth he is neither, but he is closer to the Nazi kind than to the Nietzschean kind. As I’m sure you’re all aware, Superman’s origin story is that he’s an extraterrestrial from the planet Krypton, sent to earth by his father, Marlon Brando, to escape Krypton’s imminent demise. So he is inherently superior – it is not his will to power or his ability to embrace self-overcoming that grants him his superpowers, it is his genes, his racial background.
So I put it to you that the original comic-book Superman character is the first co-opting of this part of Nazi philosophy by Western culture, before WW2 had begun.
Nonetheless, the Nazi concept of the ubermenschen is plural – that Aryans are the superior beings and therefore their might makes absolute right, whereas Superman is an individual, in some ways THE individual. Plus he is benevolent, and doesn’t seek to demonstrate his superiority through violence and oppression. He is not merely a superior version of a human, he is an alien, a messianic figure that arrives from the great beyond. In this sense Superman represents what Nietzsche dreaded – a return to Christian values, to Platonic idealism, to denying this life in favour of the metaphysical realm.
The Original Superman Movies
Just as the comic-book Superman appeared at a philosophically and politically ironic time – which may or may not be a coincidence – so did the films. In the 1970s the temptation of nihilism found its manifestation in popular culture – most notably in Punk music. The assassinations of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, the Church Committee revelations – all of these had eroded public faith in the US government, and across the Western world people were asking whether the optimism of the post-war period was misplaced. What Lyotard referred to as the Postmodern Condition arose, where the great stories we told ourselves about society evolving to a place of greater truth or freedom or equality, like the Christian grand narrative before them – no longer seemed satisfactory, or accurate.
One aspect to this is the realization of the horrors of WW2, and in particular the Nazi holocaust. The 1970s saw an uptick in holocaust-themed mass entertainment, a trend satirised in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in 1978. That same year, the first Superman movie came out.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Towards the end of a decade dominated by political pessimism (and as Nietzsche says, pessimism is an early form of nihilism) we got the big-screen emergence of the most clean-cut, whiter than white superhero ever invented, perhaps the most identifiable cultural symbol of Western idealism since Jesus.
This was in a cultural context dominated by horror and thriller films – it’s not like Faye Dunaway was spending her time making romcoms, she was starring in films like Network, Three Days of the Condor and Chinatown. Superman was a cinematic hero for the post-Watergate period, which contrasted sharply with where Hollywood cinema was headed at the time. Put simply, the Superman movies are fun and don’t take themselves very seriously, the opposite of most big 1970s movies.
Indeed, Richard Donner – who was hired to direct the first two movies back-to-back – amped up the Christian symbolism in the movie. Jor-El banishing General Zod from Krypton is essentially the devil being cast out of heaven by God. Kal-El’s relationship with his father is very like God and Jesus, and later God and Moses. Martha Kent, Superman’s mother on earth, has had no children so his arrival is much like the virgin birth. Superman arrives in a craft that looks just like the star of Bethlehem – this is all quite deliberate.
So just as the comic book emergence of Superman in the 1930s was an attempt to restore Christian idealism, so was the emergence of the cinematic Superman in the 1970s. One could argue this functioned as a kind of pre-conditioning for the rise of Reagan and the ‘moral majority’ in the early 1980s, but I’m not especially interested in making that argument.
What does interest me is that the Superman films may have been misinterpreted and miscategorised as mere superhero stories. I think they’re actually political satires disguised as superhero films. In the first two movies the government is consistently shown to be totally inept, especially the security state – the police, the prisons, the military are all utterly incompetent. Whereas Superman is shown to be incorruptable, noble and benevolent and is also a very nice guy, both in his Superman mode and in his alter-ego Clarke Kent.
This is another element that makes the films so enjoyable – Clarke Kent is a very likeable character. When he’s on screen we’re not just sitting around waiting for him to turn into Superman, he’s actually quite funny, has an old-fashioned view of the world compared to the Metropolis urbanites he works with, and is something of a fish out of water having grown up in the countryside. These are all very endearing traits, and he spends more of the movies as Clarke than he does as Superman, which makes the Superman sequences stand out. Keep all this in mind for later in this episode when we’re going to look at Man of Steel.
If you don’t believe me that Superman was successful because he’s presented as an answer to the postmodern condition, an antidote to the failure of politics and science to create the better world we thought it would, then just watch the movies. There’s one clip in particular where this really shines through, when Lois Lane first interviews Superman.
When Superman delivers the corny line about believing in truth, justice and the American way Lois laughs at him and says he’ll have to take on every elected official in the country. If you watch the films closely you’ll notice numerous little wry remarks mocking the political establishment and expressing this kind of cynicism.
On top of that we are shown no end of ineffective and incompetent officials, especially the police and the military, who are helpless to stop criminal mastermind Lex Luthor in the first film, and a trio of Kryptonians who team up with Lex in the second film. As a quick aside I adore Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, he’s just as good as Jack Nicholson playing The Joker. Note to Marvel and DC – this is how you construct a fun villain who people will enjoy watching and will enjoy seeing get his comeuppance.
In the first movie Lex hatches his diabolical scheme to hijack two nuclear missiles during a test launch and use them to nuke the San Andreas fault. His intention is to make California fall off into the Pacific Ocean – like in the movie 2012 – having bought up a load of land on the other side of the fault line that will now become lucrative sea-front property. We see Lex and his bumbling sidekick Otis carry out the hijacking by interdicting a nuclear convoy by having Miss Teschmacher pretend to be injured. The convoy stops, Otis sneaks aboard and changes the target coordinates on the missile.
This whole sequence was clearly designed to mock the US military. For some reason the truck carrying the missile says US Navy, but the uniforms of the men all say they’re from the Army. Meanwhile, when the missile launches the Air Force try to abort it when it goes off course, but can’t. All three are shown to be totally stupid and incompetent.
This caused a bit of a problem when they asked the military for help – they wanted to purchase some stock footage of missiles launching. They wrote to the DOD claiming that the scenes were meant to be ‘humorous and in no way derogatory’ so the request was forwarded to Strategic Air Command and the Air Force. The Air Force’s assessment is that the script didn’t paint them in a ‘favorable, appropriate light’ so they said any support should be limited to stock footage and nothing more. Meanwhile Strategic Air Command disagreed, saying the film shouldn’t be supported at all.
One exchange between Don Baruch and Norman Hatch – the two most senior people in the DOD’s entertainment liaison office – is particularly interesting. Hatch said that in formulating the DOD position they took into account the ‘utter implausibility’ of the script, and concluded that the criteria for support were irrelevant. He suggested they restrict assistance to a few limited bits of stock footage.
However, it seems Baruch overruled him and said they could buy missile launch footage from NASA, which it seems is what they did because NASA are credited at the end of Superman II, but the DOD is not. Baruch added that if the producers ‘make an FOI case of the request’ that they could ‘reverse their position’ and grant the use of military footage in order to avoid having to release documents.
This is a hangover from Tora! Tora! Tora! Where there was some controversy over the amount of support provided to the film, so 60 Minutes filed a FOIA request for records relating to military assistance on the movie. Despite the DOD’s best attempts to avoid the FOIA request, they had to give up the documents which then appeared in a 60 Minutes special.
Nuclear war and dual personalities in Superman
Superman III isn’t as good as the first two, but unlike audiences at the time I’m a big fan of Richard Pryor’s performance as the computer hacker, Gus. While in the first two films the antagonists are Lex Luthor, General Zod and his two sidekicks, and general government incompetence, the third film takes a slightly different angle. This time it’s a megalomaniacal corporate chief who is the criminal mastermind and so it is 80s-style capitalism and advanced technology that make up the antagonists. The films moved with the times, in terms of the enemy images they used.
Indeed, one could see megalomaniacal corporatism and advanced technology as manifestations of fascism, the bastardisation of Nietzsche’s ubermensch. Superman III is in some ways a critique of Heidegger’s philosophy, whereby technology is an extension of human power, one which facilitates greater projection of that power. Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, so to have Superman face off against manifestations of his ideas is quite profound – pitting the American Jesus against a technologised white Christian supremacism. Given that the first major black character in the series starts off working for the bad guys, before realising their brutality and switching sides to help Superman overcome them, I think there is a strong thread in the third movie despite its more slapstick style of comedy.
There is also the interesting twist that Gus and his corporate overlord try to manufacture some Kryptonite in order to defeat Superman, but due to getting the composition wrong they end up with a substance that turns Superman into a depressed, selfish version of himself. This leads to a pretty spectacular fight between the good Superman – Clarke Kent – and the bad Superman – complete with five o’clock shadow – in a junkyard. Naturally, the good Superman wins.
This identity crisis and conflict is quite Nietzschean, in that Nietzsche embraced the multitudinous aspects of human nature, how even an individual can be in conflict with themselves. Admittedly, the depiction in Superman III is quite superficial but if you read Thus Spake Zarathustra, perhaps Nietzsche’s most famous book you will find endless references to self-transformation and self-overcoming, even to being at war with oneself. I’ve no idea if this is what the screenwriters behind Superman III were getting at, or if they’d read any Nietzsche, but it’s interesting to me that the third film abandons the Christian symbolism of the first two movies and adopted this more Nietzschean perspective.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace probably never should have been made because the story is fairly weak and treads over a lot of old ground. But Christopher Reeve signed on to continue playing Superman because he was interested in its take on nuclear weapons – a recurring theme in the franchise and another manifestation of technologised megalomania. The film features Superman attending a meeting at the United Nations where he announces he will help rid the world of nuclear weapons. All the missiles are fired off into space, where Superman collects them all in a giant net and throws them into the sun.
Some context: In the first Superman film Lex Luthor nukes the San Andreas fault, showing that nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands or getting out of control are incredibly dangerous. At the start of the second film some terrorists plant a nuclear bomb at the top of the Eiffel Tower, so Superman flies it off into space to let it explode there. But the explosion breaks General Zod free from the prison where he was incarcerated at the start of the first film, leaving he and his sidekicks to wreak havoc on Earth. In the fourth Superman film his main antagonist is Nuclear Man, a fairly crude representation of the nuclear weapons industry.
So you could say that the Superman films were some of the most anti-nuke movies ever made, consistently showing the dangers inherent in nuclear weapons. Indeed, in the 80s we got Threads and The Day After, along with the beginning of the Terminator franchise, which is also very anti-nuke in the first two instalments. But none of them show a world that gives up its nuclear weapons – to my knowledge it is only Superman IV that actually depicts that, albeit in a highly unrealistic fashion.
So despite the lower budget and resulting poor production values, there is something to be praised about the fourth Superman film. Nonetheless, weak box office returns and audience dissatisfaction killed the franchise.
Then, in the 1990s, we did get the TV show The New Adventures of Superman, starring Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher, which I really enjoyed as a kid. There’s nothing politically or philosophically interesting about this incarnation of the Superman character, aside from the fact it portrays Lois Lane constantly uncovering corruption and conspiracy and getting into trouble from which Superman then rescues her. One could get into an interesting debate about whether this is a pro-feminist or anti-feminist trope, but I’m not going to.
But I will point you to an oddity – Dean Cain has been to CIA headquarters. In October 2000 Cain made a trip to Langley alongside TV producer Craig Piligian, the man behind False Flag Productions and the creator of the reality TV show Survivor. Piligian had bought the rights to adapt Tony Mendez’ book Masters of Disguise, and as a CIA document notes he had already produced a series called Inside the CIA for the Discovery channel. The pair met with the Deputy Director for Operations Jim Pavitt along with other senior officials, for research purposes. Cain was due to play a CIA operative in the proposed series, but as far as I can tell it was never made.
Superman Returns and Man of Steel
In 2006 Superman was soft rebooted and we got Superman Returns – a continuation of the story in the first two films, which pretends the third and fourth films never happened. It includes digitally remastered footage of Marlon Brando as Superman’s father, along with other nods and allusions to the original movies. The title is wonderfully postmodern, in that the plot is about Superman returning to earth after spending years searching for survivors from his home planet of Krypton, but is also about Superman returning to cinema screens for the first time in over 20 years.
Sadly, the film is thoroughly mediocre. I don’t think it’s poor, but it certainly isn’t great either. It looks great and is plot-centred rather than action centred, but the casting is a bit weak, Lois Lane spends too much of her time messing around with her son and not enough time being the kick-ass reporter of the original movies and the TV offshoot. Brandon Routh isn’t bad, but he’s no Christopher Reeve, and Kevin Spacey is disappointing as Lex Luthor. It pulled in pretty good revenues at the box office and they did plan to make a sequel, but audience responses seem to have discouraged the studio from committing to that.
Which is shame, because that’s how we ended up with Man of Steel, perhaps the worst film made in the 2010s. I know some of you will take issue with that and say what about Hot Tub Time Machine 2 or Office Christmas Party or Independence Day: Regurgitation or Die Hard 5: I can’t believe Bruce Willis is Still Doing this Shit. And they are all terrible movies, no argument from me. But no one expected them to be good, whereas Man of Steel had an excellent trailer, it centred on a much-beloved superhero at a time when superhero movies are the biggest things in Hollywood, and the story was written by Christopher Nolan, who most people think is a very talented film-maker.
In short, expectations were pretty high, which made the come-down of actually watching the movie that much harder to bear. The problems with Man of Steel are too many to list but here’s a few of my biggest problems with it:
(1) We never meet Clarke Kent. This is a Superman film where Superman’s alter-ego plays no role, has no significance, either during his youth in Smallville or in his adult life in Metropolis. Given how affable the original Clarke Kent was, this was either an oversight or a creative decision that backfired horribly.
(2) We spend far too much time on Krypton at the start of the film, simply to lay down some kind of backstory for General Zod. In the original film it’s simple – Zod and his cohorts are imprisoned, the planet is about to blow up so Marlon Brando sends Kal-El to earth. That’s it. None of these overly complicated CGI battle sequences with Russell Crowe swimming around dodgy lazer beams because something’s happening that we don’t care about. No time wasted on having Zod’s men blast away at the door to the chamber where Kal-El’s spaceship is being launched, when we know they won’t get through the door and stop the launch because without that Superman doesn’t get to Earth and there’s no movie. This entire opening sequence lacks pathos, tension and urgency.
(3) The ‘dark’ tone which has Superman spend most of the time wandering around brooding and looking a bit pissed off, when he should be saving people from burning buildings and getting cats out of trees. This is clearly the Nolan effect, and while it worked well in Batman because that’s always been a more morally ambiguous world and a morally ambiguous hero, it doesn’t work with Superman. Superman is supposed to represent human idealism, not grinding depression. A mentally ill superhero isn’t the hero we need.
And (4) the overbearing presence of the US military.
Naturally, it’s this last element that pissed me off the most, because there’s no need for it. Superman can fly, he can fight, he can shoot lasers out of his eyes – he is so far beyond the military’s capabilities that there’s no role for them in the story. But for reasons I don’t fully understand the producers went and asked for massive scale military support.
Now, obviously there are lots of big military movies, particularly in the superhero genre, so Man of Steel was simply picking up where Iron Man left off. Indeed, I suspect that they were using Iron Man as a template which is partly why they went to the Pentagon in the first place.
What really aggravates me about Man of Steel is that the Pentagon made the movie worse, and undermined the very essence of what makes Superman great. The original movies mocked the government, partly because of the political context in which they were made but also to contrast the Superman character with conventional authority. And they could have done the same thing with Man of Steel, what with the torture program, the drone program, the total failure to change our relationship with the natural world, the endless surveillance, neverending police violence – there’s a lot of material to work with in our present political context.
Instead we got a movie where a depressed alien fights a sociopathic alien with the military’s help, and Amy Adams is present in some scenes necessary for expository dialogue. It’s more of an alien invasion movie than a superhero movie, and no one came out of the cinema feeling more optimistic about the world.
The military were not the only reason this happened but they were a significant factor. The script was rewritten multiple times to try to win military approval, and while I was only able to get one set of script notes out of the Pentagon they do show that earlier versions of the script were much more critical and mocking of the government than the finished film was. That is to say, the film started out much more like the originals, but was de-fanged by the entertainment liaison offices.
For example, in the scene where the military discover Zod’s ship buried in the ice the original script had Lois Lane accusing the officials of working for the NSA. This was removed and replaced with a ‘legitimate military command’, NORTHCOM. The NSA are not mentioned in the finished film. An email from Phil Strub says that they would only provide the actual name of NORTHCOM’s ops center and other technical details if the script was rewritten to meet the military’s demands.
When it emerges that Lois was right to pursue the idea that this is some kind of extraterrestrial story the original script had the FBI raiding the Daily Planet, alongside Tier 1 Special Forces operators. The script notes say ‘There must be no ”Tier 1 Operatives” or any other special operators/SWAT police, etc. Only a few (no ”army of”) FBI agents in suits. And they must not be “storming through the cubicles” as if they’re conducting a drug bust in a thuggish way.’ In the finished film we never even see the raid, it’s merely referred to in a conversation between Lois and her editor.
The original script also had Lois being interrogated by the military, with dialogue referring to the FBI having her hard drive as well as a ‘quartet of Airmen’ threatening her. The military said this all had to be toned down, and in the end the scene does not appear in the finished movie.
There were also references to ‘dropping the big one’ and to ‘the unthinkable one’ as Zod’s forces start to wreak havoc, which can only mean using nuclear weapons to stop them. These references – which tie back to a recurring theme of the original films – do not appear in Man of Steel.
When Zod starts to use his ship to alter Earth’s gravity and atmosphere in order to terraform it for Kryptonian colonisation there’s a discussion about using the ship that brought Superman to earth to create a blackhole or singularity to suck them back into space. The Pentagon insisted that the dialogue be shared out between a scientist working with the military and the General Swanwick character because ‘We don’t want Hamilton to be the only one with some knowledge of astrophysics.’
About halfway through the overly-long, obnoxiously violent action sequence that I assume is supposed to be the climax of the film, the military are flying in Superman’s ship on a C-17, headed for Zod’s giant ship which is destroying Metropolis. A squad of fighter jets go in ahead of the cargo plane and are easily repelled and destroyed. The Pentagon weren’t entirely happy with this, saying ‘We assume that the point of this and Sc 235 on Pg 118 is to portray (via CGI) the heroic sacrifices of fighter pilots to divert the Kryptonians from the C-17, because the destructive capability of the Kryptonians has already amply been demonstrated.’ Again, this is a superhero alien invasion movie and the Pentagon are worried about a scene depicting their fighters being destroyed, and had to be reassured that this is all about heroic self-sacrifice rather than just an excuse to fit in a few more explosions.
Then there’s the final scene in the film, where Superman deliberately crashes a military drone at SETI, the New Mexico installation with the giant satellite dishes. The military’s note says, ‘While we’re not thrilled with the portrayal of the US military relentlessly spying on Superman, we can live with this scene, provided that: – Superman describes the drone as “one of your spy camera drones,” to make it clear that it is not armed; – Superman left it somewhere in the U.S., not the Maldives, to maintain the “violating U.S. airspace” concept;’.
There was also some dialogue in this scene that mocked the general, something to do with his hat, which the Pentagon also didn’t like. So after the entire scene had been rewritten to suit the Pentagon’s demands, we ended up with this:
So you can see that the original script was somewhat mocking and critical of the military, the FBI, even the NSA but thanks to the entertainment liaison offices absolutely none of that made it into the finished film. Thus, one of the key elements to the Superman story – where our hero is above and beyond the government both in terms of power and in terms of morality – was ruined by the Pentagon. The philosophical dimensions of the film were reduced to some vague notion of fate, that Superman is somehow destined to save the world. All the Nietzschean and postmodern aspects were ripped out, because they involved portraying the government in a negative light, and we’re left with a depressing, overly complicated generic alien invasion movie that has little, if anything, to do with the original Superman.