Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel heralded the dawn of the golden age of comics and “launched modern mythology” (Langley 2012, p. 6) with the birth of Superman. And the man of steel’s resounding success led publishers to try and replicate it with a slew of imitations. Bob Kane and Bill Finger, however, chose to take a different path. Where Superman had been inspired by Samson and Hercules, Kane and Finger turned to “the dark mystery-men of silent movies and pulp fiction, most notably Zorro and the Shadow” (ibid.). While Superman is a veritable God amongst men Batman (or the Bat-man as he was known in those early years) is an example of all the untapped potential of mankind made possible. He is the peak of human physical and mental perfection. But is he the Ubermensch foretold by Zarathustra?
Of DC’s pantheon of superheroes he is the one that requires the least suspension of disbelief. At a time before all superheroes received a gritty Hollywood reboot Batman was a superhero closest to reality. He hails from a city – a fictional city but a city nonetheless – not a mythical island or a distant world; there are no secret formulas, radiation or power rings involved in his ascendance to superherodom (Langley 2012). He has an origin story so tragic and believable that “it taps the most primal of our childhood fears” (Langley 2012, p. 6) and “has become one of the classics of modern literature” (Weaver 2013, p. 70). While “Jerry and Joe played with the bright and impossible; Bob and Bill expanded that meme by adding the coin’s other side, the dark and improbably possible” (Langley 2012, p. 6). In the fantastical world of superheroes Batman was a man that dared to play with the Gods and not only became their equal but at times their better (see Justice League: Doom and Final Crisis).
With a 74 year history he has continued to evolve not only reflecting the consciousness – and, maybe, subconsciousness – of the revolving door of writers that interpret him in each generation but also of the values of his times (Langley 2012). And despite this evolution the essence of what his creators envisioned had not changed although almost everything else around him had: he continues to be “the nocturnal vigilante endlessly and symbolically avenging his parents’ murder” (Langley 2012, p. 2). His extensive history and incarnations in various media have embedded him in our collective psyche like the mythic heroes of old.
However, the depth of Bruce’s suffering is never truly explored until Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy of movies. In Batman Begins Nolan explores “the mythological underpinnings of Batman’s origin” (Weaver 2013, p. 70). As Langley notes:
For the first time, a Batman movie’s central figure was the man inside the mask, Bruce Wayne … Whereas Tim Burton and his team had created a Gotham askew from our reality, built on massive soundstages with nightmare architecture and no hint that the rest of the planet might even exist, Nolan gave us a city as real as he could create with scenes shot in London and Chicago … and its hero roaming the planet (2012, p. 20).
Nolan had blurred the lines between myth and reality by placing him in our world all to dig beneath the surface of the story’s central character. While the movie is mainly about fear – what causes it, how it is overcome and how it is instilled – it is also about identity and the heroes journey the young Bruce Wayne undertakes on his path to becoming Batman.
And the catalyst that puts him on this path is the murder of his parents by the criminal Joe Chill. Of course, Batman is not the only hero to lose his parents. The two greatest and best known superheroes in DC’s stable are both orphans and their “origins include defining moments centred on their parental losses” (Langley 2012, p. 36). But while both lose their parents only Bruce is traumatized by the incident. The infant Kal-El never knew his parents or the world he left behind. He “flies through space, listening to Krypton’s version of Your Baby Can Read, blissfully unaware of [the] catastrophe” (Langley 2012, p. 37) that had befallen his home planet. Even when the teenage Kal-El, now known as Clark Kent, learns of the destruction of Krypton the events are so far removed that they are more akin to reading a story from a book than his personal history. He never suffers as Bruce does. And when Clark takes up the moniker Superman to fight for truth, justice and the American way it is because it was the path laid out for him by his father, Jor-El. Bruce, however, had to carve out his own destiny in the wake of his parents’ death – in other words, he exhibited Nietzsche’s will to power.
In Batman Begins we see young Bruce deeply hurt by the loss of his parents but he is never seen to go through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (Langley 2012). Instead we fast-forward 14 years to Joe Chills’ trial where we learn Bruce has accepted his new reality by focusing on the only thing that made sense to him, vengeance. However, he is denied the vengeance he seeks as Joe Chill is murdered by the gangster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Once again on the brink of despair Bruce gives his life new meaning and narrative, as Nietzsche would suggest (Young 2009), by deciding that what happened to him will never happen to anyone else. To this end, we see him discard the clothes of his old life and set off on his journey to immerse himself in knowledge and training.
According to Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero of a Thousand Faces, the departure is the first step in the ‘Heroes Journey’ with the other two being the initiation and the return (Langley 2012). The initiation, a series of trials undergone by the hero, are shown to us in brief glimpses in which Bruce slowly descends into the criminal underworld as he roams the Earth. The final stage of his initiation, where he gains the tools with which he will fight criminals and the first glimpses of his assumed identity, takes place when he trains with Ra’s al Ghul, under the guise of Henri Ducard. It is only on his return to Gotham and the incorporation of his old fears with his newly acquired abilities, thus creating Batman, is his ‘Heroes Journey’ complete. With his invention of the masked vigilante he created a mythos for himself and, as will be revealed in The Dark Knight with the Joker and the cult of Batmen, new myths for others to follow.
In the movie Christian Bale portrays both Bruce Wayne and Batman and much has been made about which identity is the more authentic one. At the end of the movie Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) says to Bruce, while touching his face, “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.” This is not quite accurate. In this incarnation, unlike in the four Batman movies that preceded it, Bale is actually playing three roles: “the reckless billionaire playboy, the symbol who must be more than a man, and the flesh-and-blood mortal his surrogate father Alfred knows best” (Langley 2012, p. 21). The truth is each is equally authentic and important parts of his psyche. Each falls into a Jungian archetype. The reckless billionaire, the mask he wears to help him interact with the outer world and the character he may have become had he remained the overindulged son of billionaires and not an orphan, is his Persona. Batman, his dark side and “made up of everything that does not fit conscious demands” (Papadopoulos 2012, p. 96), is his Shadow. And the individual Alfred knows, the one that balances both the Persona and the Shadow, is the Self. The Self is a union of opposites that neither promotes nor diminishes one aspect of the person’s psyche over the other (Huskinson 2004). It is this union, along with the aforementioned actions of Bruce Wayne, that brings us closer to believing that Nolan has interpreted Batman as Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. As Huskinson notes:
The Ubermensch will draw upon his creative capacities in order to unite the opposites within him; he will ‘educate himself’ and ‘draw forth and nourish all the forces which exist … and [will] bring them to a harmonious relationship with one another’ (UM, III, 2) (2004, p. 30).
It is unsurprising that the Self would be a bridge to the Ubermensch as Nietzsche had implicitly made the connection himself in a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Jung had acknowledged Nietzsche’s influence in his concept of Self (Huskinson 2004). Despite this Nietzsche’s mouthpiece, the prophet Zarathustra, never actually defines the term Ubermensch and Nietzsche’s lyrical writing style leaves it open to interpretation (Irwin & White 2013). However, it is generally understood, by looking at his later works, that the Ubermensch is one that lives to mankind’s fullest potential; creates new myths for others to follow and new values beyond good and evil; exhibits a will to power (self-mastery and self-creation); and would embrace the doctrine of the eternal recurrence (Jackson 2010).
Therefore, by this criteria Nolan’s interpretation of Batman falls short of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. While Batman is a symbol of non-conformity who did not fit within the norm and was prepared to challenge the contemporary beliefs (that criminals would forever rule Gotham) (Jackson 2010) he failed to transcend society’s values and create new ones. He adhered to the old Christian morals (he would not kill) and chose good over evil (despite his inner dualism). Then there is the issue of the eternal recurrence. As Jackson (2010) notes:
Importantly, the link with the eternal recurrence is that the Superman is one who will embrace the doctrine: who can look to his own life and wish to re-live it again and again for infinity … For Nietzsche, the Superman is an affirmation of life not, like Schopenhauer, a denial of it and a desire for the self to be extinguished.
While Batman has no desire to be extinguished it is unlikely he will wish to re-live his life, without change, for infinity. Because of the tragedy of his parents’ murder it is unlikely to make him look back on his life with joy. The loss of a parent is, after all, the “single most stressful common life event children can experience” (Langley 2012, p. 37). But that does not mean he looks for comfort in the next life. Instead he attempts to extend his power over his current surroundings and mould it to his will. Still, in failing to embrace the doctrine of the eternal recurrence and transcend society’s values Nolan’s Batman does not possess the ‘great health’ of the Ubermensch. He is an extraordinary man but a man nonetheless. However, in fulfilling the other aspects of the Ubermensch he is what Nietzsche would refer to as a ‘higher’ type (Young 2003). This means an Ubermensch still does not exist in history or literature but Nolan’s Batman is a step in the right direction.
Armstrong, K 2000, “The Battle for God”, Alfred A Knopf, New York.
Huskinson, L 2004, Nietzsche and Jung: The Whole Self in the Union of Opposites, Brunner-Routledge, New York.
Irwin, W & White, M D (eds) 2013, Superman and Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., West Sussex.
Jackson, R 2010, Nietzsche – The Key Ideas, Hodder Education, London.
Langley, T 2012, Batman and Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey.
Papadopoulos, R K 2012, The Handbook of Jungian Psychology, Routledge, Madison Avenue, New York.
Young, J 2003, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life, Routledge, London.
Weaver, T 2013, Comics for Film, Games, and Animation, Focal Press, Massachusetts.