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On Superman's Existentialism
Zack Snyder's films foreground Superman as an intergalactic refugee, contending with being, perhaps, the last of his kind. Along with this existential anxiety, there's also moral complexity.
"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!"
“[His character] has vague dreamlike memories of his lost home world, particularly every evening at dusk, when he feels an inexplicable sadness and longing in watching the setting sun turn red on the horizon. And every time, in his Clark identity, that he has to politely forego a pickup touch-football game for fear of crippling the opposing line, every time he hears the splash of an Antarctic penguin while trying to relax on a Hawaiian beach, every time he surrenders himself to a moment of unbridled joy and looks down to see that he’s quite literally walking on air, he gets the message loud and clear: He’s not from around here. He doesn't belong here. He was raised as one of us, but he's really not one of us. Superman is the sole survivor of his race. He is an alien being.” — Mark Waid, The Real Truth about Superman: And the Rest Of Us
I am not much of a comic-heroes adult, in much the same way I was never an animations kid, in much the same way I was never a video-games teenager. I was watching soap operas when kids my age were evolving through animation. But it's something to do with Zack Snyder's instinctive and compulsive desire for drama and clinically framed moments that got me watching Man Of Steel and Batman VS Superman, both streaming on Netflix.
That image of Batman’s mother’s pearl necklace being pulled at by the butt of a gun as it shoots off, sending the pearls scattering and the mother dead, like the scene in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby where Daisy unfurls the pearls of her neck in anger, is just one example of elevating scene to spectacle; it is not just that she died but that she died in and as that spectacle. But watching the films, which I thought were exercises in visual hyperbole, made me realize how, instead, they were asking disturbing, and deeply existential questions of being and ego. It is almost as if Snyder, under the guise of style, was actually hinting at something else—ideas.
Superman, The Last Of His Kind
Man Of Steel and Batman VS Superman are deeply existential movies, and perhaps Superman, a deeply existential superhero. The existentialism isn't just about where the plot begins—the end of planet Krypton as its core self-destructs due to unsustainable mining—tapping into the primal need to continue civilizational existence. (There is also something ominous about it, that the end won't be slow, over generations as it probably was with the Indus Valley or dinosaurs, but with a bang and a simper, we'll all be molten, shredded flesh.) Superman’s parents—kind, caring and intelligent citizens of Krypton—send him off, then, the last living person from the planet as it implodes, through oceans of stars and blackhole highways to the Earth, in order to continue the Krypton civilization. He’s an intergalactic refugee, and like most refugees has two names — Clark Kent on Earth and Kal-El on Krypton . It’s a mundane biological imperative to continue one’s lineage that is now underlined, and given more heft, by the impending extinction of its race.
The worry of intermingling of DNA is thus, not on their minds—of what use is the question of purity of DNA if the alternative is no DNA at all? But maybe Superman cannot even mate given the complex structure of Kyptonian DNA, and maybe he will be the last person of his civilization to live (and die). But even as he is the last person of his civilization, he will be god to another civilization, and perhaps that is reason enough to send him there.
Superman, the last of his kind, is psychologically marred by this last-ness. How would you feel if you were the last living human? Worse, the last living human in Mars?
To, as Waid notes, look to the beautiful horizon, every evening, and think that this is not where you belong, that the Earth is not yours, and that the home he was born in would never be able to house him again, must be agonizing. It’s a cinematic variant of the refugees and the migrants who move, through force or will, to live in a world that can never be theirs entirely, a tentative and spare alternative. What does one do in such a situation of cultural alienation?
Clark as a kid turns to Plato, and Clark as an adult turns to the Church—the flashback with Plato, and his confession as an adult are scenes that play side by side in the film to note this orientation towards religion and reason to make sense of this literal alienation; he is called an alien on multiple occasions.
In Man Of Steel, Superman tries to convince the defense ministry that he is as American as they come, raised in Kansas, a farm boy, with a farm heart. It’s not entirely convincing, in the way hyphenated identities when screaming their hyphenation tend to do injustice to the things they hyphenate. In Batman Vs Superman, this anxiety is somewhat allayed towards the end when before sacrificing himself, Superman tells his lover Lois Lane, “I love you. This is my world. You are my world.” Perhaps, and this is the romantic version of things, the man of steel is a mush of sugar at heart, and instead of finding home, he just made another home, through love. The same can be said of Kansas, and his mother.
Where Does Ego Come In Maslow’s Hierarchy?
When Superman’s celebratory statue is defaced, he is looking at the television unspooling this footage, in dismay, and I wondered what it is about this act that disturbed him — the fact that people don’t value his actions, or the fact that people don’t value him? His mother notes, “People hate what they don’t understand… Be their hero, be their angel … be anything they need you to be, or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing.”
This is an incredible moment because it asks the very question: Why does Superman do good for a civilization he doesn’t see himself as part of, yet? This cannot be a Planet Krypton moral compass because the same planet also produced monsters as militia men. Is it just a deep human tendency to be good, that is now, bolstered by physical prowess to actually be able to do good? Is it only because his father instilled in him values to do good? What is this impulse to save a world?
“I’ve been living my way the way my father saw it. Righting wrongs for a ghost. Thinking I’m here to do good. Superman was never real. Just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.”
“That farmer’s dream is all some people have. It’s all that gives them hope… This means something”
“It did on my world. My world doesn’t exist anymore”
A friend pivoted, and perhaps answered, my train of thought on Superman’s god-complex with the question, “Where does ego come in Maslow’s hierarchy? In self-esteem or self-actualization?”
Maybe it is true that Superman’s desire to save the world, Gandhi’s desire to save India, Mandela’s desire to save South Africa comes from not just deep love, but a deep sense of self. (Reminds me of that canonical moment in F.R.I.E.N.D.S where Joey convinces Phoebe that truly, in this world, there is no act that is selfless because of the ego that loves to be stroked by doing good.) To love the world enough to save it, is thus to love oneself just as much. It is why he is disturbed when he sees the world is not valuing him, seeing him as a villain. Because he possesses a morality that is padded by ego, perhaps even propped up by it.
But this doesn’t entirely answer the question of why Superman does good at all in the first place, does it? Perhaps there is an element of ego in it, as noted above. But then there is also his power, which has the capacity to undo intentions. Most of us are not and do not do evil or bad, because, partly, we are incapable of dealing with its consequences. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be caught. We don’t kill because we don’t want to go to jail. (There is, of course, the concept of moral compass which we inherit as part of the human ego, which also stops us from doing bad things. But I am looking at a specific mechanism through which we don’t do bad — fear of consequence). Then given how Superman is almost physically indestructible, and unfenced, why does he have to be good if he doesn’t have to worry about the consequences of being bad?
I could think of two possible answers. One is to be good in order to create a good world where he can live and call home, almost as a way to gain moral citizenship on Earth, the way people do favours to gain into social circles. Second, and this is probably more palatable, is that Superman is not just a character as much a crucible for being good even when there are no incentives to be good, as such. He's a moral tale.
Can You Be All Good And All Powerful?
At one point the villain from Crypton speaks to the hero from Crypton, Superman, pointing out his morality being the end of him and his kind, “You're weak, Son of El. Unsure of yourself. The fact that you possess a sense of morality, and we do not, gives us an evolutionary advantage.”
This is such a crucial exchange because it gives Superman’s valour a veneer of weakness; to be good is to choose between what is right and what is wrong, and that choice often isn’t easy. It involves mental gymnastics around ifs and buts, negotiating with values. It is true what they say, that values are not meant to make your life easier. This is why Lex Luthor notes that one cannot be all powerful if one is all good, and one cannot be all good if one is all powerful, because power requires you to act in a way that will hurt someone, even as it benefits someone else.
But the cost of this is indecision — to be “unsure of oneself” and internal agony. A world that is Machiavellian might be easier to live through if the mind is Machiavellian as well. It is thus evolutionarily disadvantageous to be good in a world where goodness has no utility other than fuelling and being fuelled by ego.
The superhero genre is thus, at its most exciting when it challenges not the power, but the judgment of the superhero. It’s not whether he will destroy the enemy. He will, he must. It is when he must choose between shutting down a plant that is flouting environmental regulations that will cause unemployment among the townsmen, or to keep it open so they have their jobs which involves polluting the Earth and putting their own lives, as workers in a poorly regulated plant, at risk. There is always a trade-off when it comes to judgment.1 In the climax of Man Of Steel, Zor with his laser eyes slashes through a family as Superman has his neck in a hold. Zor tells him, however noble his intentions, people will die. The troubling and exciting part, is whose death will he be willing to give and in exchange for whose life. This is the part of the films, including Nolan’s Batman, that makes the physically invincible, weak in the mental knees. It is in the realm of ideas that the beefcakes twist.
“Luthor becomes a character from Greek tragedy. At least, that's how I approached it, in accord with the screenwriter. He only talks about ideas, which makes him a profoundly theatrical character.” — Jesse Eisenberg on playing the villain Lex Luthor
This is why the connection Nietsche’s Superman, which isn’t physical as much as a psychological idea, is all the more alluring. Superman’s physical prowess is dictated by his psychological choices—whom to save, and whom to let fester and die—, and it is in these choices that often the conflict inheres.
“[übermensch translated as Supermen] will make their own values; they will be very independently minded; they won’t ask “What do other people admire?” and follow along — they will carve their own path. Supermen accepted that they might need to hurt people in the name of great things. They can be selfish in strategic ways.” — School Of Life on Nietzsche’s Superman
One of the striking features, perhaps attributable to DC’s Superman, is thus the idea of a hero who can be, in parts, deeply disturbing. A brawn that is undone by the brain, and a brain that is undone by the choices it makes, a regret it lives with, and a hope that coats it even at its weakest.
I tend to reason backwards, as most people do. It's always first, a feeling. Write to me if you disagree, or even if you emphatically agree. It's always nice to know that one doesn't write into a vacuum.
Mark D White’s essay, Moral Judgment: The Power That Makes Superman Human, was quite helpful in thinking through some examples where Superman’s morality is challenged.