The Superman

Take a good look at this man:

This is my model for discussing the superhero. As I have mentioned in passing, I believe that Superman and his ilk actually represent neither the Christian nor democratic* idea of a hero. Let us consider Superman’s traits: strength, x-ray vision, ability to fly etc. all due what amount to be genetic superiority. He is the last of a super race of people from a planet called Krypton. Now, while he uses his powers for ‘Truth, Justice, and the American way’ the mentality of his creators, of his archetype, and also that of Superman/Clark Kent himself is distinctly Nietzschean.

Nietzsche taught ideas like the will to power, that actions are justified by the power of the one committing them. However, the most obvious connection is the Übermensch (Superman). This is the man whose will, whose power is so much above all others that he has the natural right to rule mankind. Well, I really do not intend to discuss Nietzsche more. Suffice it to point out that the combination of Nietzsche and Darwin was horrifying and terrifying in Hitler.

However, Superman, and all other superhero’s of this category, fall easily into the category with Achilles, Siegfried, Aeneas and every pagan hero of legend, and many modern superheros. These characters are strong and powerful by nature of their birth, their parentage, and being ultra-powerful, they are exempt from the moral codes of the normal people around them. Sure Superman fights off villains of super (if odd) villainy, but he also: lies, stalks Lois Lane, turns back time for his own reasons and so forth. These are little compared to what Achilles got away with, but it proves the point that the two fall into the same category.

So, what is the Christian hero like? Well, keeping with comic books so as to limit doctrinal discussion, let us look at Batman.

Ok, now that we have looked at Batman, the us consider his traits. He is human, flawed and does many things wrong. This is a key difference already with Superman. When Superman acts it is assumed to be the right thing, when Batman acts we hold him to human standards. (Which standards we should hold Superman too as well.)  He gets his ‘power’ through determination, training, and his dad’s money. No matter how good of a thing he has done, he avoids the accolades that would come his way. In the most recent movies, (thanks to Christopher Nolen, batman is awesome) Batman is an individual trying to do the right thing. He is an individual with an inordinate amount of training and vast amounts of money, but he acts in such a way as to do the role that he can do, the sacrificial role. In The Dark Knight, while Batman is the one who wins the physical battle against the Joker, Gotham (and specifically Gotham’s criminals) win the moral battle.

So, Superman is a good model of the pagan superhero, and Batman (at least in his recent incarnation) embodies fairly well the Christian hero. As for the others, of course they may fit one place or the other. I have compiled a list that I think might help categorize the heroes of any story into one of these two categories. (Or at least to find which category is the best fit)

 Pagan/ Nietzschean/elitist:

  • Has powers, or abilities based solely on pedigree (genetics)
  • Is less responsible to moral judgment in relation to the increase of his power
  • Disrespect of ‘normal’ people (disregard of laws etc)
  • Whether or not he does the right thing, there is little personal cost
  • Not expected to sacrifice much or anything

Christian/democratic:

  • Has power based on determination and hard work
  • Is held (by author, by readers/ audience) to the same moral standard of everyone else real or fictional
  • Respect for and camaraderie with, eminently average people
  • Does the right thing regardless and in spite of personal cost
  • Sacrifices himself, his goals, his reputation, and his life (in increasing order)

(* For the connection between Christianity and democracy… read some G. K. Chesterton…)

3 responses to “The Superman

  1. Hmmm. I, too, am of the “Batman is Better” camp, but I’m uncertain the dichotomy between the two characters is as neat as you make it, given how many decades they’ve been around and how many writers and artists have been involved in their depiction. Both seem determined to avoid ending any human life, though neither one has ever struck me as particularly concerned about collateral damage (where buildings/cars/etc. are concerned).

    Consider the phone-map network Batman sets up in The Dark Knight, which his employee Lucius Fox finds abhorrent; though he destroys it after use, does not his willingness to use it once qualify as “will to power”? What do you make of Superman’s alter-ego, which roots him to a humbler sphere of existence? In fact, what do you make of Batman’s secret Bruce Wayne identity (which does not, in my memory, sacrifice his goals or reputation except insofar as a wife is concerned)?

    What of the fact that Superman is only super so long as he gets a “funky high” from our yellow sun, and is vulnerable to the radiation of Kryptonite? Or his ties to some folks in Kansas, and Lois herself, which levers can be turned against him as they can be turned against any human man?

    I recognize your distinction between Superman himself and the philosophy of his creators, but I’m not sure Batman is the humblest of warriors either.

  2. (….file that reply under “Thinks Too Much”…Alex would agree, I’m sure)

  3. Certainly its not perfect, except the films feel like they expect you to judge Superman against a different code of ethics, and Batman against the same one you use for everyone. That I think is the key. When batman does things that are wrong, they are as wrong for Batman as they are for you, when Superman does it, it seems like you are supposed to look the other way because he is Superman… Neither of them fit the categories as nicely as say Achilles versus St George… but that wasn’t as fun to write…
    No, Batman isn’t that humble himself, he struggles with pride in a fairly understandable way, but its wrong and he suffers the consequences like anyone else…

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