The Conundrum of the Superhero

In the recent installment of the most recent Batman series, The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is confronted with a very deep question: is he a hero or is he something more? A similar question is presented to a young Clark Kent in the television series Smallville. Each young superhero takes the question at a different approach. For Clark, the question is whether or not he can live a normal life and save those who are closest to him. Bruce on the other hand has to struggle with being a true vigilante who is forced time and again to break the laws of his city Gotham.

At the beginning of the Smallville series, we are shown Clark standing in front of his high school with friends Pete Ross and Chloe Sullivan. In Clark’s hands are a collection of books, on top is a collection of the writings of German philosopher Nietzsche. Clark notices the love of his life Lana Lang standing near the stairs at the entrance of the school. He decides to walk towards her but eventually trips; Lana approaches him to help him pick up his books. When she hands him the Nietzsche book, Lana asks, “So Clark, are you man or superman?” Clark simply responds, “I haven’t figured it out yet.” Clark, due to his special nature, is forced to walk a thin line which helps conceal his identity and yet helps those who are in need. As a result, Clark doesn’t attempt to break the laws of Smallville or Metropolis whenever it is possible. It is hard to peg Clark as a vigilante as you can Bruce Wayne. Clark has no qualms to settle with criminals throughout his two beloved cities. But it is also clear that Clark is a messiah of sorts, sent by his father to Earth to help save humanity. In another episode of Smallville the young Clark and Lana are seen in a cemetery, where Clark is conveniently shown with a statue of an angel behind him giving the allusion of Clark having wings.

Bruce Wayne on the other hand is the orphaned son of a billionaire who himself attempted to save Gotham before being shot down in the back alley of an opera house along with his wife. Bruce is distraught with grief over his parents’ death and eventually leaves the U.S. for Asia. In Asia, Bruce attempts to understand the criminal mind by putting himself in their shoes until he is eventually caught and imprisoned. While imprisoned he is saved by Raj Agul the leader of a group called the League of Shadows, a vigilante group who seeks to help maintain “true justice.” Bruce eventually returns to America to take up the identity of Batman, the alias chosen because he fears bats and hopes that his enemies will eventually grow to fear the one thing he fears most. Batman for better or worse is a vigilante, though Bruce wants to serve justice. Unlike Clark, who more or less does actually serve justice, Bruce puts himself above the laws of Gotham as a Nietzschen “superman” might.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent each toe a similar line between being simple heroes and realizing their full potential as saviors in their respective universes. For Clark in Smallville the struggle with becoming a savior is accepting that he must put himself above the laws of man in order to save Metropolis and the world from those who wish to destroy them. Bruce on the other hand, who has already crossed the line, struggles in The Dark Knight with whether or not he is able to be a true savior; if he is that means he must cross that line and not just once in a while but always and forever. Batman is considered by the police of Gotham to be a villain, after all he has broken numerous laws time and again. Bruce is finally confronted with the true struggle before him in The Dark Knight, by the Joker who refuses to see good and bad or morality at all. Bruce has maintained that their is good and there is bad and that there is a set way for things. But if Bruce is to be a savior, it appears that he must be willing to transcend morality and simple understandings of good and bad.

Take the model for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent: Jesus Christ, the savior of most of the world’s population. Jesus in the New Testament continuously breaks the laws of Judea and the laws of his Jewish religion. He is ultimately crucified by the Romans for high treason on the charge he has claimed to be superior to Caesar. Jesus is forced to transcend the social norms and laws in order to fulfill his destiny of saving God’s children. Where Clark Kent in Smallville and Bruce Wayne in the most recent adaptation of the Batman comics fail to meet Jesus Christ as messiahs is in different parts. Clark is unwilling to transcend the social norms, in fact his own motto is “Truth, Justice and the American way.” For Bruce, he is more than willing to transcend those norms and create more or less his own morality in the name of justice and salvation of Gotham; Bruce isn’t willing, at least up until the end of The Dark Knight, to take up his cross and become the villain that Gotham needs him to be. For Clark, who essentially is immortal, he can’t do this and so he is constrained by his own very nature to the norms of society in that way. The Superhero, unlike the typical hero, must be willing to imitate the model of Jesus Christ if he is truly willing and able to become the savior of his time and place. Clark eventually does match up to the Christ messiah mosaic because he represents a Nietzschen superman model; Clark as Superman transcends the understanding of justice adopted by the people of Metropolis and establishes his own justice and morality.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I agree with your analysis. I was wondering about your connection between the Nietzschen superman model and the modal of Christ. Are you saying they are the same, or just that where they can overlap they do for Clark Kent? I have no confidence in my own background in philosophy, so feel free to lecture me because I’m truly interested.

  2. I am not completely sure about the Nietzsche Uebermensch, but I do know that he is to bring order and his own morality to his people/nation. The Uebermensch is the one who overcomes his own humanity. By his own superiority over the average man, Clark/Superman is this Uebermensch. In Smallville, Clark’s main struggle is over his nature among men. Clark also struggles with the Christ model in attempting to become the savior as Christ and Batman are. Another model that Superman/Clark represents is the Jewish Messiah.

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