You are on page 1of 7

The concept of the bermensch is undoubtedly a key moment of importance

in the philosophies of Nietzsche. As a solution to overcoming the restrictions of the

Slave/Master dichotomy that (according to Nietzsche) a vast majority of society
place themselves in, the bermensch is characterized as one whom transcends
these perspectives in an ultra-conscience way. Though it is a very much talked
about theme in the works of Nietzsche, there is still a haze of ambiguity surrounding
the bermensch that is made apparent in its favored translations. In some
collections, such as The Portable Nietzsche translated by Walter Kaufmann, it is
translated as Overman, while in others, such as The Longman Anthology of
Nineteeth Century Philosophy by F. Goffling who prefers the Superman translation.
Regardless of these terms carrying the same general jist, the connotations
inherent in them (and therefore the collections of ideas attributed to the
Nietzschean notion) are vastly different. Considering that both these interpretations
were chosen after the Golden Age of superhero comic books (ushered in by
Supermans first appearance in 1938), this point of digression cannot be
disregarded. This paper will illustrate that the inevitable undertones of the
Superman translation do not jive with those intended by Nietzsche. Through the
rhetorical scope of Detective Comics (DC) Batman via the relationship between the
personalities, motivations, and philosophies of Batman and the Joker, I will
demonstrate that we typically regard as a Superman archetype does no longer
aptly apply to the bermensch.
In the Editors Note preluding the Kaufmann version of the piece Thus Spoke
Zarathustra: First Part, Kaufmann refers to the ironic word superman, as being
an alternate translation (Kaufmann, 1976). Though he doesnt really go into why
he dislikes this version with specificity, to be sure, he does make note (with a
sarcastic tinge) of its ill-fitting nature and its consequential association between the
comics and Nietzsche. The reason as to why the Overman interpretation is to be
favored, according to Kaufmann, is that it may help to bring out the close relation
between Nietzsches conceptions of the overman and self-overcoming, and to
recapture something of his rhapsodical play on the words over and under,
particularly marked throughout the Prologue (Kaufmann, 1976). For me, however,
the reasons for this preference do not stop here; inevitably associated with the
Superman translation are those ethics and motives to which superheroes typically
ascribe. This stark contrast in ethical dispositions thus leads to contradiction with

regards to the original term. To be sure, according to Nerdy Urban Legend, the
original motivation for the concept Superman was this translation of the
Nietzschean bermensch. Undoubtedly then, it is owed due credit in the
formulation of the original superhero, but because Nietzsches conceptualization
of the Overman is not consistent with those Christian values so close-held in ApplePie-America (especially in the face of the second World War), the Nietzschean
notions behind it were scrapped but the name stuck. With this move itself, we have
rendered the word choice of Gofflings translation a poor one in regards to modern
considerations, and more readily accept the Overman translation; yet, I know that I
cannot rest my case on this fact alone.
We must first admit the fact that the ancient Greek/Roman/Norse cultures are
what served as a moral compass/basis for the Abrahamic Religions (i.e. Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam), and thus the hypothetical syllogistic trickle of these
righteous morals were pumped into the motivations of superheroes. To boot, in the
process of creating the star superheroes from the Golden Age of comics 1, many
authors/artists would look to the same ancient lore for inspiration, as these
righteous figures themselves had already taken on superhuman qualities that could
easily be wrapped in a cape and tights. This is especially true considering that
superheroes generally take it upon themselves to protect manmore often than not
from itselfsimilar to a Christ-like martyr with utilitarianist ends 2; thus, as these
draw their ethical principles from the same source, we can use comics as a point of
reference. Nietzsche, in appealing to the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus in his
discourses, is appealing to these values as well, and in A Genealogy of Morals states
that, we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values is for the first
time to be called into question (Kaufmann, 188). The abandonment of this deeprooted internalization prescribed by Nietzsche is the abandonment of the
supposedly intrinsic moral laws to the social contract. Thus, the bermensch as
depicted by Goffling as our superman is inept: as the bermensch is a man who
goes beyond those accepted morals taken for granted in an Extra-Moral sense, our
golden boy seems ill-fitting.

1 This spanned from (roughly) the late 30s to the early 50s, and was termed as
such because its when the comic in its modern form were first published and
2 From Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.

Perhaps unwittingly, Nietzsches bermensch is more similar to an antihero/villain, and namely, for the purposes of this paper, the Jokera man who just
wants to watch the world burn (Nolan, Batman: The Dark Knight). First, it is
interestingly awesome to note, in Christopher Nolans The Dark Knight, the Jokers
first line is a slightly tweaked Nietzschean aphorism: I believe that whatever
doesnt kill you, simply makes you stranger as opposed to the original use of
stronger (Nolan 2008, Batman: The Dark Knight; emphasis mine). So (perhaps
unintentionally) we have been given an immediate point of correlation between the
bermensch and the Joker. In this moment, the Joker is clearly taking the
supposedly irrefutable facts concerning morality into a critical light, revealing that
the notion of strength built by past traumas ought to be seen differently. Physical
strength arises from a solely reactive response as is obviously the case with Bruce
Wayne becoming Batman after the death of his parents. The strange is that which is
misunderstood by the masses, thus granting one a perspective beyond the
constraints of socially enforced ideologies; the strange allows us to gain strength
unobtainable by the master or slave. This fact is especially apparent in the
interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight:
Joker But I know the truth, theres no going back, youve changed
things forever. Batman Then why do you wanna kill me?
Joker Kill you?! I dont wanna kill you! What would I do without you?
Keep rippin off mob dealers? No, no, noyou, you complete me.
Batman Youre garbage who kills for money.
Joker Dont talk like one of them, youre not, even if youd like to be.
To them, youre just a freak like me. They need you right now but
when they dont theyll cast you out like a leper. You see, their morals,
their code, its a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. Theyre
only as good as the world allows them to be. Ill show you, when the
chips are down, these civilized people will eat each other. You see, Im
not a monster, Im just ahead of the curveThe only sensible way to
live in this world is without rules.
(Nolan, 2008)
In this Joker is wholly denouncing any sort of faith in the social contract that is so
revered manipulated and by those in power, and blindly obeyed by its slaves.
Following a similar track, Nietzsche proclaims:
But on that day on which we say from the fullness of our hearts,
Forward! Our old morality too is fit material for Comedy, we shall
have discovered a new plot, and a new possibility for the Dionysian

drama entitled The Souls Fateand he will speedily utilize it, one can
wager safely, he, the great ancient eternal dramatist of the comedy of
our existence (Nietzsche, p. 189).
The parallels between these figures philosophies are uncanny, especially in
reference to the comedy of morality and Dionysus. As Dionysus is representative
of chaos and everything which goes beyond reason, there is no better
personification of the Dionysian drama than the Clown Prince of Crime himself.
Regardless of the fact that there are instances in which one could reason that
Batman more so follows the Nietzschean ideal of the bermensch, it must be
noted that Bruce Wayne carries blatant ressentiment (a big no-no for the
bermensch) towards crime after the death of his parents. According to Nietzsche,
ressentiment is experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper
outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge, and
in the case of Bruce Wayne, it fuels the motivations for his superhero antics
(Kaufmann, 195). Batman does not go through the legal channels or proper
outlets, but takes care of criminals in his (maybe not so) imaginary revenge, i.e.
dressing up and kicking ass as Batman.
Though Batman and the Joker are both (quite literally) giving style to ones
character after having experienced the traumatic events that made them into who
they are today, it is clear that the Joker expresses amor fati (love thy fate) while
the Bat does not. Though we dont know who the Joker was before his
transformation, the story of his origin has been fairly well-established. Due to the
fact that his girlfriend was pregnant, that his career as a comedian was failing and
that he had lost his job at the Acme Chemical plant, the would-be Joker opted to
take a job for the mob. Because he was familiar with the layout, the gangsters
recruited him to help loot the chemical plant and gave him the Red Hood as a
disguise. Even though he learns that his girlfriend died in an apartment fire during
the conversation with the mob, the gangsters force him to done the hood, and he is
eventually chased by the Batman into the plants toxic waste. The chemical
concoction metamorphosed him physically and mentally into the Joker; he emerged
stark-white skin, green disheveled hair, and twisted grinlaughing maniacally,
not vowing revenge. To the Joker, all it takes is one bad day to understand the
futility of the social contract, to find it a joke, and to seek to overcome it.
Conversely, the Bat, seeks to uphold the social contract with intense fervor for the

sake of retribution and revenge under the guise of a superheros mercenary

crusade. In his essay entitled Good and Evil and Good and Bad, Nietzsche states:
the judgment good did not originate among those to whom goodness
was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the
aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who
have felt they themselves were good, and that their actions were good,
that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the
low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebeian (Kaufmann, 190-191).
Being a billionaire and thus one of the most powerful men in Gotham under the
Wayne family name, it can be easily stated that Bruce Wayne is the social caste of
which Nietzsche refers. In addition to this, Bruce set out to hone his skills and far
surpass most others mental and physical training to perform purportedly good
deeds as Batman in contradistinction to the many crooks and supervillains of
Gotham City. Thus, because Bruce determined that since he had the privileged
means to avenge himself and his parents, that he has the right to be the Caped
Crusadera nightmarish figure taking on the image of a bat to strike fear into evildoers; he reverts to a beast-of-prey status, regarding which Nietzsche states:
these men who in their relations with each other find so many new
ways of manifesting consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride,
and friendship[are] not much better than beasts of preythey revert
to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant
monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson,
rape, and torture with bravado and a moral equanimity (Kaufmann,
Because Bruces family was the face of Gotham, the opposite of which (the poor)
are bad or evil, beating men to a pulp thus becomes justified by virtue of utilitarian
ethics. Regardless of the cases where Batman kills another man (supposedly on
accident though3, since he doesnt want to stoop to their level) they become
necessary evils when considering the bigger cause. Even if the mugger who killed
Thomas and Martha Wayne had more altruistic intentions (such as needing to feed
his family like a Jean Valjean character), Batmans are more warranted as a martyr
for/savior of the innocent upper class.
Further characterized by Nietzsche, the overman is one who possesses an
inability to take seriously for any length of time their enemies, their disasters, their
misdeedsthat is the sign of the full strong natures who possess a superfluidity of
molding plastic force, that heals completely and produces forgetfulness

3 Im putting aside the fact that Batman did have a gun in very early appearances.

(Kaufmann, 196). This inevitably reminds one of the Jokers famous Why so
Serious? mantra, and this notion of respecting ones enemies in such a lax way is
also prevalent in the Jokers attitude towards Batman (Nolan, 2008). In The Dark
Knight, the Joker explains towards the end of the flick (while Batman is holding him
upside down off a skyscraper) the nature of their relationship. He says:
Oh, you. You just couldnt let me go, could you? This is what happens
when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are
incorruptible, arent you? You wont kill me out of some misplaced
sense of self-righteousness. And I wont kill you because youre just
too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever (Nolan,
This quote signifies the fact that Joker recognizes that all of Batmans actions
(though I love him dearly) are purely reactionary: Joker is an active, unstoppable
force, while Batmans immovability is realized solely in encountering the Joker. As
Geoff Boucher (a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly) states in the documentary
Necessary Evil: Supervillains of DC Comics, the superheroes are always reacting.
The villains are making things happen. Villains are the ones with a plan, villains are
the one taking the initiative. While the hero is simply upholding those ethical
principles he believes to be right, the villain is actively challenging these principles;
ergo, not only does the villain in effect define the heros true nature, but the villain
is ultimately the driving force behind the heros very existence.

Necessary Evil: Supervillains of DC Comics. Dir. Scott Devine and J.M. Kenny. Perf.
Christopher Lee, Neal Adams, Brian Azarello. DC Comics, 2013. DVD.
Nietzsche. (2006). In D. Kolak & G. Thomson (Eds.), The Longman standard history
of philosophy. New York: Pearson/Longman.
Nietzsche, F. (1976). The portable Nietzsche (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York:
Penguin Books.
Nolan, C., Roven, C., Thomas, E., Goyer, D. S., Nolan, J., Bale, C., Ledger, H., ...
Warner Home Video (Film). (2008). The Dark Knight. Burbank, CA: Warner
Home Video. (Hanging out of cop car) (Pencil Trick)