Will to Power: A Dissection of Man of Steel

Recently, I saw the movie Man of Steel and I must heartily recommend it for the viewing pleasure of the philosophically inclined. Only they can fully appreciate it – of a truth, only they can fully appreciate most of what life has to offer. It’s somewhat sad, but as history shows, it has always been such that while the majority blindly walk a path chosen for them and strive for riches, power over people, and other superfluous things that add no value to the soul, a few will wake up, perhaps more by accident than design, and become concerned with living a deeper, fuller life. These are those who have searched themselves thoroughly and found that certain laws such as the search for truth, the need for justice, morality, brotherly love and a strong reasoning ability are unassailable in human nature and that in some form, psychological harm comes to the individual who breaches these laws. All this and more I saw in Man of Steel.

That’s why it left me with a veritable enthrallment; the kind felt when one’s core is touched. Yes, it contained the excitatory action scenes that could inflame my more somnolent senses (which were indeed stirred) but more importantly, it was a brilliant reminder of the way of life espoused by Friedrich Nietzsche, the creator of the concept of the superman or the overman (Übermensch). He believed as I do that all life is infused with a need to grow, an endowment which he called the Will to Power.

As I read him, a human being’s will to power, which is the need to grow spiritually and psychologically, needs freedom and obstacles to be realized, and ab initio these themes of freedom and self-overcoming were set apart as important in the movie, which starts with the destruction of Krypton, Superman’s home planet. As far as I know, no other Superman film has such a beginning; it’s like a newly discovered bay through which fresh philosophical winds blow, one which allowed a different side of the Man of Steel to be shown – his rather “normal” background. Normal, in my mouth, refers to how similar he is to a human on his home planet; he has no flight, no heat vision etc. when atmospheric conditions match that of Krypton (as shown later on in the movie.) (How many of us feel like our talents are stifled at home?) On the surface, the implication of this is that he’s only special to humans – “normal men.” But the more deeply one looks, the more one wants to ask “why didn’t the other people (if I can call them that) from Krypton become super humans when they came to Earth?” Yes, they had similar powers to those of Superman, but they lacked something; something which one has to have in order to be super human, something which Superman had in full, something which caused him to be stronger than they were. This “thing” is central to Nietzsche’s philosophy and to find it we have to look at Superman’s psychological past.

From birth he was set apart. He was the first child born naturally on Krypton in centuries. As such, unlike other Kryptonian children, his place in society wasn’t chosen for him. His father intended for him to aspire to something greater. Kal-El was meant to be a wheel onto himself as opposed to a cog in the wheel of Kryptonian society, the opposite of what General Zod, a tool dedicated to Krypton’s safety, was. But what’s greater than wholehearted service to one’s fellow citizens? Nothing in Superman’s eyes, as we saw later on in the movie wherein he was willing to sacrifice himself for Earth. Then what’s the difference between his and Zod’s service? The difference must lie naturally in the way their services were rendered – their acts. And since acts spring from motives, which are born of ideals, the difference between Zod and Superman is, fundamentally and quite obviously, a difference in ideals.

As a boy growing up on Earth, Superman realized that he was different from others – he was stronger and faster, etc. But he couldn’t express his superiority, because his Earth dad instilled in him a sense of responsibility to the world, a world which wasn’t ready to learn that there was life elsewhere in the universe. Therefore, insofar as he was able to, he spent a large part of his young life pretending to be weaker that he was. This came with certain social consequences. He was classed as a “weirdo” from elementary school on wards and bullied in high school. This, I suspect, left him with deeper sense of unrest than if had been “popular” during his formative years. And above all, his Earth dad died before his eyes trying to help him to conceal his powers. It’s no surprise then that he developed a great need for answers…What I am? Where am I from? Where am I right now? What is my life task? All this must have run through his mind as often as possible; life for him must have been a terrible riddle. It’s the same existential problem all thinking, feeling people have faced since the “Death of God,” which is more of a sociological truth than a metaphysical claim. Death of God here refers to the point in our recent history where it became rather fashionable for learnt people to see the world through a scientific lens rather than a religious one.

Ever since science exposed certain falsehoods and gave us a new picture of the world, one without magic and superstition, religion, or at least the scientific-magical aspect of it, has been on the decline. With this removal of religious certainty, the thinking person is left with a heavy burden – freedom. We are free to choose ourselves, how we’ll live in the face of certain death – what we’ll aspire to while living. Such freedom comes with extensive responsibility, because to choose one thing means to forego another or others. And if opportunity costs are so burdensome when choosing what to have for lunch, how much more burdensome are they when choosing between ways of life? It is easy to see why some people busy themselves trying to avoid the thoughts and feelings that scream “choose!”

Not so with Superman. To deal with this problem, he went on a truth seeking journey, a mission to find out where he was going and how best to get there. He worked in many different jobs, saw many places, and did many things. In a sense, he became “many different persons in order to become one person.” Finally, he was rewarded with the truth about his history, and in that same moment given a picture of the future he should aspire to, for one only knows his destiny to the extent that one knows his past. In so doing, he became a child, a creator of his own values.

Also, something important happened in the scene wherein he met his real father (or the consciousness thereof). He was told that in order to become stronger, he had to continually test his powers. This is also a new theme in the superman universe. In other movies, Superman’s powers came naturally. In this one his skills had to be honed and developed through a mixture of self-discipline, necessity inspired by hardship and the courage to fail and try again. This, of course, is the very core of Nietzschean philosophy, the philosophy of “crescit sub pondere virtus” wherein it is believed that in the school of life, what doesn’t kill one instead makes one stronger. Or the more difficulty one overcomes, the closer one moves to perfection. “He who has climbed the highest heights can laugh at all tragedies, whether real or imagined,” says Nietzsche. His was truly a philosophy of climbing mountains.

Thus, all this traveling, all this searching, all this self-overcoming, allowed the Man of Steel to become what he was – super human. Perhaps, apart from his attachment to his Earth mother, this is why he was so sympathetic to humans. He knew what a human/sentient being could become through continuous effort. He knew that life is Will to Power!

Zod and the others had no such insight. How could they? They weren’t forged from the same steel that Superman was; they weren’t put through his fire, his doubt, his heartbreak. They never knew the difficulty of creating one’s own self and values, the difficulty of developing one’s own censor morum. Theirs was a life of escaping from freedom, of accepting authority, of being slaves – impoverished and bound spirits.

Honestly, I don’t believe that the majority of people in any culture will ever become strong enough to be as free and autonomous as the Man of Steel is, but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps there’s an age coming when strong humans will be bred in large numbers. Who can say? What is clear is that either one is on the road to becoming a super human or one is a slave. Have you understood me?…Superman versus General Zod.

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