Superman, or Detour on the Way to the Last Man?

While searching Top Documentary Films the other day I came across this documentary about the life and times of Superman. Generally, I’m not that much of a fan of Superman myself; Batman has always struck me as the more rewarding character. After seeing this film I found another reason why:

In 1932 the young and as-yet unknown creators Jerry Segal and Joe Shuster distributed the story “Reign of the Superman” about a villainous telepathic madman called “Superman” with plans for world domination. This superman comes directly from a translation, common at the time (for example in “Man and Superman” by George Bernard Shaw), for the concept of the Übermensch, coined by the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Later, the creators re-framed the character, moving from the earlier Superman’s mental abilities to the buff and burly hero we know today. In the dual character of Superman and Clark Kent, the man of steel now presented an uncomplicated moral compass playing itself out under the crafty combination of the everyman and exceptional man who satisfies our own fantasies of power at the same time as he appeals to our common weaknesses.

The description given in this documentary about Clark Kent by Gene Simmonds was also quite striking, contrasting Nietzsche’s superman with the “greatness of the meek, the mild” exemplified by the mild mannered reporter, he inadvertently makes the man of steel into the champion of slave mortality, which needs to constantly look outside of itself to the “powerful few” to designate its own contrariety as “Good”.  The morality of those who are oppressed is in constant danger of being simply a reaction, or resentful reflection of the oppressors system of morals. This is why Nietzsche designates it a slave morality, because it always needs to follow, as opposed to master morality, that constantly looks nowhere but itself. He calls the driving force of slave morality “ressentiment”, and as depicted by this documentary, superman becomes a kind of embodiment of this understanding of the world.

If superman is an icon of one of the ways that the modern world understands itself mythological, then it does not bode well for popular culture’s future insights into the human condition, for it is, in essence, merely running over old ground once again.

In other words: Be careful what you myth for.

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