Übermensch Candidate 1: Batman
Welcome to the first in an occasional series on figures from popular culture who may or may not be examples of the Nietzschean Übermensch. This week, our inaugural post in this series considers the caped crusader himself, Batman.
Batman has been around since 1939 when he first appeared in DC Comics’ Detective Comics 27. Since then, he has appeared innumerable times in print and on the screen, from the kitsch comedy of the 1960s TV series with Adam West, to the twisted psychology of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, to the ludicrously gravel-voiced Dark Knight of more recent times.
Whatever the permutation, Batman is characterised by his fighting prowess, his high intelligence and the incredible crime fighting equipment he has invented and built himself. Certainly, he is an exceptional man, but is he a superman? (‘Superman’ is one of the permissible translations of Übermensch. ‘Over-person’ would be the actual literal form.)
For Nietzsche, the Übermensch represents the pinnacle of human attainment in every respect. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he writes:
‟Dead are all gods: now we want the Übermensch to live”
The replacement of defunct and discredited deities, and the Judeo-Christian god in particular, with this new kind of human being gives an indication of the supremely elevated character of the Übermensch – nothing short of godlike. Quite some boots to fill!
He or she is powerful, autonomous, determined and possesses an unshakeable will.
‘The noble man honours the powerful man in himself and also the man who has power over himself, who understands how to speak and how to keep silent, who takes delight in dealing with himself severely and harshly and respects, above all, severity and toughness.’
In these respects, Batman certainly fits the bill. He has honed himself physically and mentally to peak fitness. But his personal development goes beyond toughness - he has a genius-level intellect and this (along with a huge fortune and the free time that comes with such wealth) has enabled him to develop advanced technologies to aid him in his war against injustice, for example: the extraordinary Batmobile.
Similarly, though the Übermensch may evoke images of grim, muscle-bound nobles lording it over the mediocre masses, Nietzsche is clear that his ‘man of tomorrow’ will, first and foremost, be strong in spirit. By this he means he will be self-disciplined, focused on his lofty goals, free of concern for the judgements of others and especially free of constraining inhibitions – including those deterring him from what might be normally considered immoral or even evil acts.
This rejection of conventional morality leads some to claim that Nietzsche was a nihilist, or at the very least an amoralist, but neither of these is the case. Nietzsche wasn’t against values or morality per se. In fact, life would be impossible without the evaluating, the choosing and the preferring that morality entails.
What actually concerned Nietzsche, was the blind acceptance of a morality that presents itself as objective metaphysical truth, universal in its application in any and all cases and to any and all subjects – this is the character of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Instead the Übermensch creates their own morality – their own code of rights and wrongs – a code that facilitates his or her successes.
So, does Batman exhibit such a freedom from stultifying, universalising, what Nietzsche would call ‘herd-type’ moralities? Well, he fights crime on the streets of Gotham city and, most would agree that, though the law and morality are not entirely co-terminus, they do have a significant overlap – so, perhaps not.
Batman’s adversaries: The Joker, Two-Face, Bane and the rest, show scant regard for the rights, feelings and lives of others. They frequently kill and maim innocent people. Unequivocally, these activities are at odds with our modern morality. In this respect, Batman is fighting hard on the side of conventional morality, even when he takes things further than the law, and he does often push the boundaries of what we might be comfortable with as morally-justified crime fighting. For example, he rarely seems to use minimum force when apprehending suspects.
But notwithstanding his rough and ready adherence to normal moral boundaries, Batman appears to fight crime for his own personal reasons, rather than out of any objective sense of moral duty. Though he is concerned to protect the weak (not one of the strongest of impulses in the Übermensch) there is also something selfish and self-serving in his secret life as the Dark Knight. Why might this be said?
Everyone knows the back-story for Batman. As a child he witnesses the murder of his parents during a street robbery. Since that time, he has vowed to combat crime. There is an interesting parallel with the Übermensch here. The Übermensch sublimates impulses, whether they are natural instincts or individual passions. He or she transforms them and utilises their energy for higher ends; for creative projects.
Likewise, Batman has taken a traumatic experience and sublimated the rage into a positive and productive avenue of activity. The term ‘creative’ can be interpreted widely in Nietzsche’s writings – Batman’s campaign against the underworld is a creative enterprise - not least because of the striking persona he has fashioned, and let’s not forget all the novel inventions either. This act of sublimation took something negative, the death of young Bruce Wayne’s parents, and used it to create something admirable – Batman. Arguably in this case, what didn’t kill young Bruce Wayne made him stronger!
However, though this quest for retribution gives Batman’s life meaning and a somewhat personalised ‘moral’ framework to operate within, he is different to the Übermensch in that his vengeance is seemingly inexhaustible. Nietzsche writes that the higher man hits back hard when attacked but he or she does not seethe with resentment over injuries sustained and nurse the desire over time to take revenge. In this respect, Bruce Wayne is no Übermensch. As is written in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
‘For man to be redeemed from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope, and a rainbow after long storms. Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.”
In a different aspect, Batman is very much like the Übermensch - both are solitary figures. True, Batman has relationships with selected others, like Robin or Albert, his butler, but there is an unmistakable loneliness and detachedness about him – indeed it is by cloistering himself away in his Bat Cave that he is able to undertake the preparations for his nocturnal escapades.
Likewise, the Übermensch is a true loner. He or she has a tower, even if only metaphorically, where creative projects are germinated and nurtured to fruition. We read in Beyond Good and Evil:
'Today the concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself, being able to be different, standing alone and having to live independently.’
The Übermensch descends from the tower to move among ‘the herd’, but always wearing a mask. Not so much to conceal, rather in order to be able to engage at all. Different masks are different personas for different purposes.
Of course, we know someone else who wears a mask - a mask as a contrived persona with a particular use and function. So the Übermensch and Batman share some common ground here too. But for all their commonalities, there is an irreconcilable gap between the Übermensch and Batman.
It must be acknowledged that there is something unhealthy and haunted in Batman’s relentless obsession with crushing the criminal class. It is perhaps here where he most diverges from the Dionysian ideal of Nietzsche’s perfected humanity. The Übermensch is cheerful and prankish - whilst Batman is (in his most convincing cultural incarnations) brooding, paranoid and morose.
The Übermensch affirms the world and all in it, finding aesthetic value even in suffering. Batman’s Gotham is a few steps from Hell most of the time – an almost irredeemably corrupted metropolis.
The Übermensch is a resplendent and bestowing Sun. Batman is an embittered creature of the shadows.
For these reasons, Batman, impressive though he is, is no Übermensch. Thus, a score of 5 out of 10 is appropriate. However, a little mitigation is given. This is because the Übermensch loves to dance – this is his or her affirmation of existence.
‘We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.’
And Batman, in his Adam West incarnation, cut the rug emphatically at least once, as can seen in this unforgettable footage:
Quite, quite something, you will agree.
Batman’s Übermensch Score: 6 out of 10
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