How Nietzsche Informs Superman & The DC Extended Universe
With the release of Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. faces the aftermath of yet another critically maligned blockbuster built on a dour, cynical foundation constructed by director Zack Snyder (and his assignor Christopher Nolan). The quality of these films have been litigated much better than I have an interest in contributing. Instead, I propose that this often lugubrious, sometimes incomprehensible, aggressively nihilistic franchise best illustrates the ideas of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Spoilers For Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Suicide Squad Ahead
Man of Steel: Zod Is Dead
In 2013’s Man of Steel, Director Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch) and writer David S. Goyer (Blade: Trinity) set an amoral, “dark and gritty” template for Superman. Snyder seemed intent on molding his Superman in his own image - from the cosmetic (the costume, the logo) to the fundamental (the Kent’s worldview, Superman’s veneration of human life). No classic iconography was sacred. Perhaps the most controversial scene of Man of Steel is Superman’s murder of General Zod. In hindsight, it was the most sacrilegious breach of character that was widely seen as a violation of Superman's code to respect life. Zack Snyder betrayed the very values that makes Superman such an archetypal, fundamental American character.
Snyder didn’t just change superficial aesthetics or re-contextualize previous Superman films (despite his protests that Superman has killed in the comics, he selects exceptions, while ignoring the overwhelming majority of stories that reinforce the contrary). He challenged the fundamental canon of what makes this hero THE hero: an adherence to goodness, violence as a last resort, and a faith in our better angels.
“Zod is Dead. Superman is dead and we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”
I’m paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche who famously eulogized god in The Gay Science (1882) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883 - 1891). Nietzsche was proclaiming the death of a Christian-based/traditional morality rather than an actual “god.” To Nietzsche, Christian morality was more obsolete than nefarious. His interest lied in how humanity would create its own set of replacement values once we came to terms with the death of god. He saw Christian values as a step in the path of creating a true, greater morality. By transcending the fictional construct of Christian ethics, human beings were free to create their own values and become the Übermensch.
Having Superman snap Zod’s neck was a public execution of the ideals and values Superman represented. Snyder’s Übermensch is freed from the chains of tradition and comic canon. He is liberated to pave his own “dark and gritty” vision of the DC Extended Universe.
Batman v. Superman: Master v. Slave Morality
It was clear from the start that Zack Snyder was the wrong choice to direct a Superman film. He looked upon “corny” virtues like truth, justice, and the American Way with disdain. What Snyder doesn’t understand - and the reason why this DC Extended Universe will never succeed - is that Superman is not an anti-hero. Superman is the proto-hero, a paragon and embodiment of heroism. Snyder's Batman was singled out for praise in Batman V Superman because Snyder "gets" vigilantism and understands the appeal of an adolescent “awesomeness of violence.”
By selecting Snyder, Warner Bros. followed the designs Christopher Nolan set with a fidelity towards “realism.” However, Snyder's "realism" is a “rated-M” realism: a prepubescent awareness of one's own power - a fetishization of gore and violence as real. Snyder tellingly wants Superman to “grow-up”, hinting that he wants to usher in the testosterone of puberty. He doesn’t understand that “realism” is not simply hyper-violence and cynicism.
He so wants to unleash Superman's physical might, that he doesn't understand that the character's greatest power (and weakness) is in the heroic values he represents: restraint from killing symbolizes restraint from giving into our baser, immature desires. The heroic nature of Superman is in the aspirational: lending a hand to those less fortunate, finding the moral strength to turn the other cheek, wielding great power for good. None of these qualities are evident in the Superman of Zack Snyder's DC franchise; the director sees these principles as antiquated. So what are the values that Snyder would have us graft on to Übermensch after the death of Superman?
Nietzsches’ criticism of Christian morality extends from a theme he calls the "Master-Slave morality." The philosopher saw the Christian virtues of kindness, empathy, humility as a response and self-justification to the moral high ground while being a subjugated people; to him, these traits were born out of slavery. By turning their defects" into virtues - the early Christians rebelled psychologically: weakness became kindness, submission became obedience, inability to take vengeance became forgiveness. As opposed to the Christian "Slave Morality," the "Master Morality" was the values of the nobles - power, strength, honor, the ability to exert one’s will. In a somewhat strange and apropos turn, Nietzsche traced his master morality theory back to the ancient Romans and Greeks - the same civilization to which Zack Snyder can trace his early success. The "Slave morality" was created to empower those who had none, to make their values the relevant values. While the term “slave” is very strong, Nietzsche has a distinct respect for what Christianity was able to achieve. His "death of god" was a diagnosis, not a condemnation.
In Batman v. Superman, Zack Snyder was setting up a competition of moralities: The anti-hero Batman (master morality), who values strength, power, and revenge versus the the hero Superman (slave morality) who values compassion, empathy and humility (even though these qualities aren't necessarily found in the recent films, it's still what the "S" represents). With Zack Snyder’s admiration for physical, brute force, it’s no question which side of this paradigm he resides. His next project is rumored to be an adaptation Ayn Rand's Objectivist novel 'The Fountainhead.'
Most frightening is what Zack Snyder's "American Way" says about us. It's certainly not the aspirational American Way of Jerry Siegel, Joel Schuster, and "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Snyder's perversion of the American Way reflects the bizarro, fearful American Way of the Bush/Cheney-era. Immigrants (even from Krypton) are dangerous and to be feared. Preemptive strikes and extrajudicial punishment is warranted and encouraged. Bruce Wayne echoes former Vice-President Dick Cheney (and supervillain in his own right) almost beat for beat in his justification: “If we believe that there is even a 1% chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” It's a franchise too big to fail. Truth, justice, and the American Way are excised in favor of “shock and awe” aesthetics and “cool uber alles.”
By destroying Superman’s values in Man of Steel and murdering him in Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder razed the very concept of heroism.
Suicide Squad: Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche is often labeled a proponent of nihilism - he’s not, he merely identified that this was the state of the world in a vacuum of morality. Nothing confirms Nietzsche’s theory better than Suicide Squad. In a universe where Superman doesn’t stand for anything, Suicide Squad was inevitable - just as nihilism is inevitable in a world without values. By recasting the villains as “heroes” in the DC Extended Universe, Suicide Squad makes for one of the most meaningless super”hero” films created. After destroying the ideals of Superman - what is a hero? Who do we follow? A Captain Boomerang? A Killer Croc? What are the values of a Killer Croc?
"Aimless" best describes a Superhero film with no heroes. We are asked to root for Deadshot because he is Will Smith, Harley Quinn because she's a cult favorite, and Rick Flagg because he is the conventional "good guy" with a motivation. But no one is ever quite bad enough (for that would violate the blockbuster maxim of a "likable protagonist) and no one is ever quite good enough (cause the foundation built by Zack Snyder is not reflective of this). We have to root for them because they are "cool" - and if we don't buy that they're "cool" then Suicide Squad doesn't work. The movie is more concerned with getting you to buy into the "cool" than by answering fundamental plot questions. What is the mission? Why this group? Why not conventional superheroes or military? What skills does each member bring to the table?
Sadly, Suicide Squad never asks the complex questions relevant to a story of this genre. This concept could work as Lee Marvin and The Dirty Dozen can attest. But the film is so imprinted by Snyder, that the concern for "awesomeness" and the reliance on formula (yes that is yet another blue, beam of light in the sky surrounded by swirling debris) trumps any meditation on the nature of being a hero or a villain, what moral boundaries these self-proclaimed "bad-guys" are willing to cross, or whether the ends justify the means. Suicide Squad could have been a version of The Expendables crossed with The Hateful Eight. Instead, without anchoring anyone with ethics and opposition to those ethics, Suicide Squad falls back on a familiar superhero "beats" without the heart, explanation, or story.
The Snyder DC Extended Universe: The Birth of Tragedy
After pronouncing god dead in Nietzsche’s The Parable of a Madman, the titular madman throws down his lantern as he is engulfed in existential ennui. "I have come too early," he said then; "my time is not yet” (this is remarkably similar to a “dream sequence” in Batman V Superman, where the Flash (not a Lantern) ham-fistedly foreshadows more DC movies by being "too soon"). Nietzsche understood that his ideas were ahead of the time. How much longer will it take for the audience to see that these logos are merely used as bait?
There’s too much pride and money on the line for Zack Snyder to ever relinquish his foolish destruction of this franchise and complete misunderstanding of these characters. I don’t expect him to have the self-awareness to realize what damage he’s done to these beloved brands. Based off his defensive posture following the reception of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, he’s probably more apt to dig in. But if you think - as I do - that pop culture is important, then you'll contextualize the gross nihilism of Zack Snyder's Übermensch for what it is in the long run - a footnote and an aberration. You'll remember the values that Superman embodies at his most hopeful:
The American tale of an outsider from a distant land that comes to this country and become its most recognizable representative. A hero who uses the the great power provided by his adopted home to help the weakest of society and stand up for the welfare of those who are different. A character who only goes to force as a last resort, because he's not afraid to turn the other cheek. Someone who struggles with being "different" and fitting in, someone who suffers unrequited love, wonders about his past, and aspires to his future. These are the values we recognize in each other, the common man, and the Superman.