Western culture and society gives Friedrich Nietzsche a lot of credit. Some of his attitudes towards organized religions have merit, particularly the “original sin” spiritual debt complex he somewhat lightly touched on in his views concerning slavery. However, Nietzsche’s pessimistic, nearly apocalyptic views toward popular society and culture have actually been adopted by it, and his ideas seem to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are two concepts specifically, Perspectivism and the worship of Ubermensch, that have burrowed themselves deeply into popular culture. The Ubermensch are well known, but Perspectivism is more deeply ingrained in our chaotic, “postmodern” age and its ongoing assault on humanism and our humanity. Since these two topics are quite large, they will be handled one at a time. Today, we will focus on the Ubermensch, which is often translated as “supermen” in English.
Nietzsche believed that the waning influence of religion and the belief in God would eventually lead to a loss of commonly-accepted values across a society. He believed that the “elites” of society (scientists, intellectuals, the very rich, and the politically connected) would then be obligated to provide new values to the helpless masses. These Ubermensch are to be so important that they are above the notion of laws and immorality, and there is no aspect of democracy or even national sovereignty in this concept. Nietzsche was suggesting the ultimate power fantasy, that a man could become, or at least be treated like, God. With no accountability and a might makes right attitude, this is the megalomaniacal undercurrent that still lives on in this day and age, and is the presumption of today’s “elites.”
Nietzsche also overvalued the role of religion as the linchpin of a society, which is true to some degree, but culture encompasses more than just philosophy and religion. For example, China’s incredibly rich culture has existed since around 2100 BC, that’s nearly 1,400 years before the monotheistic worship of Yahweh in Israel. Chinese writing, a key to culture, may have existed in a primitive form over 6,000 years before monotheism. In fact, the Israelis used to worship a pantheon of gods just like everybody else, meaning they could form their own beliefs rather than acquiesce to the worship of a single deity. There were no bibles, Korans, or Torahs toting “values,” and priests prayed for good weather, successful crops, and fertility among their people. There were cities with multi-ton, megalithic stone structures, organized farming and animal husbandry, and nascent art and culture. The older, polytheistic religions like paganism and the Greek pantheon actually had some quasi-scientific elements in them. Rather than attributing all of creation and purpose to the will of God, a philosophy that shut down brilliant people like Galileo, the ancient philosophers categorized and attributed specific aspects of nature and existence to their pantheon in an attempt to rationalize the world. Aphrodite was all about the creation of life and Hades dealt with death. Ares was associated with war and conflict and Dionysus linked to celebration and drunkenness. These are all aspects of life and human consciousness, and they represent culture as well. The ideology accompanying this type of naturalist philosophy begat great thinkers like Socrates and Pythagoras. So in a sense, the common religious philosophy that Nietzsche claimed was so crucial to the prevention of self-destructive nihilism could be just as suffocating as it was cohesive. There was a time when the postmodern dichotomy of science vs. religion did not exist.
So how does the Ubermensch fantasy present itself today? A very apparent example would be the current trend of prolific superhero movies. There is one about the “Superman” specifically, and the largely negative responses to it are very telling of the current state of Ubermensch worship. In the latest reboot, re-imagining, re-brand, rehash, or whatever marketing jargon you would like to call the remake of Superman titled Man of Steel, the reality of collateral damage incurred by the conflict between good and evil is brought to the forefront as Metropolis is reduced to a pile of twisted steel and powdered concrete. This aspect is necessary to set up the sequel, Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, but it completely negates the heroic efforts of Superman. The Ubermensch is above accountability, so when Batman confronts Superman on this issue, Nietzsche’s philosophical foundation for the entire superhero genre crumbles. The subconscious justification of an at all costs response to the antagonist is shattered, and Superman errs. Many have decided to lay the blame on director Zack Snyder, which is somewhat justified, but Snyder knows how to make a superhero movie. The movie 300 was far more of a superhero movie than anything Snyder made with DC. Just 300 Spartans stop the horde of foreign, evil Persians from invading their homeland, sacrificing themselves and their King in the process to preserve their culture and nation. Being so cut and dry, the plot is easy to understand and the protagonist is easy to get behind. This is how the superhero should be portrayed, according to Nietzsche.
The fact that Zack Snyder is attempting a gritty, realistic version of the superhero genre is a fools errand anyway. The Watchmen series was written like that, so it works. Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Night Returns, was a welcome change of pace in a stagnant world of comics. The darker subject matter was a way to win back grown up fans, and the question of right and wrong became more ambiguous and complicated to keep an adult interested. These darker chapters of the comic book world were less about being realistic, and more about being complex and interesting. We are, after all, still talking about an alien flying out of a telephone booth wearing red underwear and shooting laser beams out of his eyes.
With Snyder’s latest flop, Suicide Squad, the darkness and deviance is pushed even further away from the original Ubermensch concept. Rather than rooting for a protagonist, the audience is expected to support a cast of super villains motivated by their own selfish interests rather than old-fashioned altruism. Instead of saving a school bus full of children falling off of a cliff or smashing open a water tower to put out a massive fire in the city, the characters of Suicide Squad engage in torture, kidnapping and betrayal to avoid completing their mission and advancing the story arc any way they can. Oh, and did I mention Superman himself is dead, rotting in a grave in Smallville during the whole movie? Being slaves to “nanobombs,” the villains of Suicide Squad do not portray the power fantasy, which is the main draw of the genre. I think it’s safe to say that Snyder has no idea why people liked superheros.
So if everybody understands the Ubermensch concept, even on a subconscious level, how powerful is the fantasy? Is it strong enough to drive someone to kill a President?
This “lone nut” did seem to have an Ubermensch fantasy as Hinckley was obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver. The protagonist, Travis Bickle who is played by Robert De Niro, becomes fed up with the dregs of New York City, going on a killing rampage against robbers, pimps, and mafia thugs. He even gets away with it and saves vulnerable Iris, played by Jodie Foster. Hinckley envied Bickle, he stalked Jodie Foster when she was attending college, and he mimicked Bickle’s assassination attempt on a politician when he targeted Ronald Reagan. The assassination attempt portrayed in the movie was itself inspired by a real attempt in 1971, leaving a presidential candidate paralyzed below the waist. Rather than portraying the true consequences of attempting such an egregious act, Taxi Driver allows Bickle to escape from the Secret Service, and his later vigilantism is excused and even praised in newspapers as his victims lacked virtue. The film was loved by critics, nominated for four academy awards, and later preserved in the national film registry and the Library of Congress. It is clearly a power fantasy and Travis Bickle is the Ubermensch, above any consequences for his actions. Obviously, it takes a very disturbed individual to think that murdering people would bring respect and admiration from their peers, but that is precisely what is portrayed. Hinckley may have misconstrued popular entertainment, and what is entertaining, with what is socially acceptable. Therefore, having a poor understanding of society and lacking social skills may have begotten this whole episode just as much as mental illness and the Ubermensch fantasy.
But what about mass shooters? As it just so happens, two of the most infamous were the Columbine shooters, and they also enjoyed a good power fantasy. Rather than Taxi Driver, these two enjoyed the film Natural Born Killers. Juxtaposed to excusing an instance of vigilantism and blatantly ignoring an assassination attempt, every important character in Natural Born Killers is a sociopath that participates in murder. The barbarity of mass killing is trivialized, but then again, decades of yellow journalism will have the same effect. But what is most disturbing is the power of notoriety given to the main character. While being interviewed from jail for a television appearance set to follow the Super Bowl, the character’s speech proves to be so powerful that it causes the prisoners to riot and the two main characters to escape. We are then left with a happy ending as the mass killers are living free in a mobile home with their two children and a bun in the oven. This is the Ubermensch family.
Now please understand, I am not advocating that the new standard for mass media be Teletubbies, I am just trying to point out the inherent social schizophrenia in our culture. People look at the mass shootings regularly appearing in the news nowadays and wonder how people can be so desensitized. I wonder who hasn’t been desensitized, at least in some small way. When these narratives are depicted for entertainment purposes, they receive praise from society. I’m not surprised at all when socially stunted, mentally ill, or maladjusted individuals are fascinated by them to the point of mimicry. If you don’t have a well-developed sense of societal values, irony, and satire, you won’t get that the film is so satirical and fantastical that it could have just as easily been a cartoon on Adult Swim. But what the lunatic fringe will get, just like everybody else, is the power fantasy.
There was a time when popular culture was not interested in such lowbrow storytelling. There was a time when people would say these films were made in bad taste, or were intellectually vacuous and playing off of emotions, cheap thrills, and guilty pleasures. Just like art, cinema has watered itself down to allow films that are social commentary or artistic expression rather than just creations of beauty, skill and passion. The latest iteration of Ghostbusters, with an all female cast and accusations of widespread sexism and misogyny as the reason why the movie was poorly made, is the latest example of how an attempt to inject social commentary, or exploit popular trends, can eclipse the original purpose of a movie- to show the audience an interesting, memorable story involving characters you would actually care about.
But I must stop myself before I get into the Perspectivism, and the postmodern relativism that allows directors like Paul Feig and hack… I mean… Zack Snyder to brand genuine criticism as bias or a result of a lack of virtue. The fact is, they are the ones who lack virtue, or are at least not smart enough to realize that making a good movie is much easier than defending a bad one. With movie budgets soaring into the hundreds of millions of dollars, movie making has become an industry, and with every industry you have the typical risk-averse investors, rule by committee and the ever present fear of the negative return. With these kinds of stakes, writers and directors are naturally going to gravitate towards the macabre, cheap thrills, and guilty pleasures to hedge their bets. The power fantasy is one of those cheap thrills, and the groundwork was laid by Nietzsche all those years ago. Considering how the man died a lunatic with a messiah complex, should it be any surprise that his philosophical concepts resonant particularly well with today’s psychopaths and sociopaths?