Nietzsche and the Superhero

Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of Übermensch and its relation to the modern superhero.

Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher, once introduced a concept of Übermensch. What exactly he meant by that is not 100% certain, but people throughout the decades have translated it as “overman” “overhuman” and more commonly “superman”. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, one of his written works, also includes an appearance of “God is Dead”, eternal recurrence and the Übermensch.

What Nietzsche exactly meant is unknown, but a rough translation of what he said “All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the Übermensch: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment…”

It is commonly seen as a greater being; over the average human, this concept has been attributed to ideas of power superiority. It’s the difference between the average man and the superman. Eugenics and Racial Superiority aside, this idea is powerful, after his “God is Dead and We Killed Him” deal, meaning the idea of "God" (religion and spirituality) is no longer able to act as a source of any moral code or teleology (doctrine explaining their phenomena by their purposes).

The Übermensch can be seen as a goal or limit for humanity to reach. To create something beyond ourselves, to be stronger, smarter, faster, etc – simply better. This ultimate achievement for mankind has been interpreted different ways, and for this, its attribution to the superhero. Hitler’s superior race could be seen as his interpretation for the Übermensch, plus he really admired Nietzsche. Nietzsche stated that there is no specific race or individual that is the Übermensch, but some have been close, like Shakespeare and Julius Caesar.

DC’s Superman is the most common parallel between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and a modern superman. In his first pre-Action Comics appearance, Reign of the Super-Man, his conception was built on this Übermensch idea. In fact, some say that’s where the name originated from. Personally, I don’t see Superman as this Übermensch. First, he is not human and should not be considered above mankind. He could be seen as an alien invader trying to conquer humanity, but he is moral. Second, he was born as an overman; he didn’t choose to become powerful. Lastly, in his first pre-Action Comics appearance he was evil, morally deprived and searching to conquer the world, if that was Siegel’s first intention.

The modern superhero is starting to be considered as a modern retelling of the Übermensch. I see other characters such as Batman, Daredevil, even Lex Luthor as better models for Nietzsche’s idea. They are all humans, and have pushed themselves above human capacity. Batman trained to the peak of human perfection. Daredevil’s blindness didn’t “disable” him, rather allowed him to master and heighten other human skills. Lex Luthor intelligence has made him fearless of Superman, a being capable to destroy him.

These characters reach beyond a good and evil morality, they struggle with moral choices and human limits. Unlike Superman, who is a moral saint, invisible yet an obedient boy scout. As comic book characters evolve, and our society is more tolerable, the superhero genre mirrors serious issues.

Nietzsche would have never imagined that his Übermensch concept would have been compared to Superman, but then again he might have never though of someone like Hitler doing the same. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Superman is the perfect example of the “Superman” theory, I disagree. What do you guys think? Does he have to be a human? What about the growing comparison to the superhero? Could all comic book heroes have been founded on this idea? Who is the perfect candidate for the Übermensch?

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