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Why Lex Luthor is really the Übermensch, not Superman

I’ve been trying to think of a worthwhile blog idea for a few weeks now and just this week did this idea creep into my head. Well I started writing this blog with Ultraman in mind but research compelled me to change it to Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor is a character who is the direct opposite to who Superman is and what he stands for. In my opinion, the best way that the Luthor/Superman dichotomy shows brightest is by contrasting Nietzsche’s Übermensch and seeing which character truly is most like Nietzsche’s concept. Being a student of philosophy and having had much interest into that particular field, Friedrich Nietzsche is one of my favourite philosophers given his rather dubious and morally questionable philosophies. I am particularly interested in his views on religion (which I will not address here have no fear) and his concept of the Übermensch.

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First, I suppose some background info is needed. Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher born in Prussia 1844 who wrote very critical texts on religion, morality, philosophy, science and more. His influence has been widespread across the field of philosophy and his radical questioning of objective value and truth has changed the way philosophers of post modernism, post structurism and existentialism worked. One of his most well known, key ideas was the Übermensch which has a number of English translations like Overman (sound familiar?), Superhuman, Above Human and its most common translation, Superman. Nietzsche posited the Übermensch as a goal for humanity to reach in his 1883 book “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” The basic concept of the is introduced by Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra as the meaning of the earth and admonishes his audience to ignore those who promise other-worldly hopes in order to draw them away from the earth. Nietzsche presents the Übermensch as the creator of new values that ignore the norms of society and introduce a new standard of moral values into the field of play. This starkly contrasts with Superman’s upholding of humanity’s moral values that show the better side of our nature. And Lex basically justifies whatever he wanted to do throughout his long antagonistic relationship with Superman, both as the mad scientist and the scheming industrialist businessman. As Grant Morrison put it in an interview with Wizard Magazine “"He's the part of us that's the most evil, the most human, and the most brilliant. He's great; he's just really bad...” The creation of new moral values point is based on a nihilistic claim that in the absence of a commanding authority, there are no grounds upon which to criticize or justify any action, including the particular values created and the means by which they are spread. In a way, this is how Lex justifies his obsessive crusade against Superman instead of using his mind for more worthwhile purposes. He feels it’s more important he focuses his efforts on correcting humanity’s aspiration of a false value or idol, Superman.

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Throughout his book, Nietzsche makes the Übermensch a goal humanity should strive to reach through yet another concept; The Will to Power. It replaces standard interpretations of “compassion” or “goodness” or “piety” as a guiding principle of life. What is it that makes you better? Stronger, smarter, richer or more important? Do those things and become better. That’s the Will to Power, and that’s the principle that Lex Luthor lives by, for the most part. His wealth, his intellect and his power have been grasped at by Lex throughout his entire life of fighting his way to the top of the ladder, becoming the executive of one of the most powerful industries the DC Earth has. Yet everything Lex owns pales in comparison with Superman. For all the moral and philosophical advancements Nietzsche proposes in the Übermensch, the irony is that Superman actually can do anything he wants. He could take over the world, run riot, live on his terms. There are a plethora of ways Superman could have lived his life on Earth. But the defining thing about Superman is that he is a physically superior specimen to a human, even the Übermensch in every conceivable way–and yet he lives his life according to a moral code instilled in him by physically and intellectually inferior beings. It is willingness to selflessly uphold these codes and act as a paragon of morality which makes the arch rivalry with Lex Luthor even better. Lex is driven by sheer ambition and hatred of Superman and endeavors to transcend beyond humanity’s limitations whereas Superman abides within the limits of what we consider right and wrong.

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Grant Morrison expresses this rather well in All Star Superman. Lex Luthor really is the ultimate man–a man who can and has achieved all and more that a man is capable of. And yet he is always going to be seen as inferior to Superman, whose power is not an expression of will, but a simple accident of birth. Luthor’s hatred is born of resentment; if the alien had never come to earth, Lex Luthor would be the greatest man who’d ever lived. And that’s what makes All Star Superman’s portrayal of Lex and Superman’s rivalry so exquisite, especially when Luthor gains Superman’s powers and sees what he sees for the first time only to be stripped of his power and defeated by his ultimate enemy. He temporarily becomes the ultimate man yet is defeated by a mere man.

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All in all, Lex Luthor can't really compete with the mythical figure of Superman; people place their hopes and dreams in Superman precisely because he is more than human. This struggle with what Lex Luthor wants to be versus what he can actually accomplish is one that defines his character, and this inner conflict is what causes him to hate Superman so passionately. Here the Will of Power arises again and once again it drives Luthor’s obsession over his limits and Superman’s seeming lack of any. If it weren’t for Lex’s obsessive quest for supremacy over a god like alien, we would not just have one of the greatest fictional villains in history but one of the greatest fictional rivalries in fictional history too.

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Well I hope I didn’t bore you too much with my long rant looking at the contrasting relationship between Lex Luthor and Superman and why Lex embodies Nietzsche’s Übermensch far more than Superman does and hopefully ever will. Here’s to my favourite superhero and favourite supervillain! May there always be great stories involving these two characters!

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Decoy Elite

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Edited By Decoy Elite

Really good points here. Lex really does make a great villain for Superman, which is why I find it a tad bit annoying when he's put against other heroes, it's not necessarily bad, but he's at his best when Superman is involved.

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@Decoy Elite: Thanks though I did like the Black Ring when Cornell put him up against other villains. That was an excellent show of why Lex is the biggest villain in the DCU as Superman is to the heroes.

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colonyofcells

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Edited By colonyofcells

My opinion on super people is that all life has desires that came from chance so all desires are the same value and each person has desires and each person is a super person except that for those who have neighbors, you also have to consider the feelings of your neighbors. Both Lex and Clark Kent have desires that originate out of nonsense things, so I would say Lex is not better than Clark as a super person, but everyone is in the same stupid desires boat.

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Kairan1979

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Edited By Kairan1979

As I remember, In Superman : Red Son Lex proved that he wasn't just boasting. He united the whole world into Global United States, cured all the diseases and colonized the Solar system.

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YourNeighborhoodComicGeek

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@Kairan1979 said:

As I remember, In Superman : Red Son Lex proved that he wasn't just boasting. He united the whole world into Global United States, cured all the diseases and colonized the Solar system.

@Decoy Elite said:

Really good points here. Lex really does make a great villain for Superman, which is why I find it a tad bit annoying when he's put against other heroes, it's not necessarily bad, but he's at his best when Superman is involved.

This.

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lykopis

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Edited By lykopis

Wonderful blog! Extremely enjoyable to read with insightful parallels drawn.

Well done, sir.

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Lvenger

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@Kairan1979: Oh I agree he definitely could but it's Superman's very existence that gives Lex his vendetta against him as he's overshadowed by Superman and what he represents. And thus he keeps striving via the Will of Power reminiscent in Nietzsche’s philosophy that makes him an excellent villain. The same would apply to Doctor Doom too I think.

@lykopis: Thank you very much! High praise from you definitely means writing this blog was well worth it! :)

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jhazzroucher

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Edited By jhazzroucher

I disagree.

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@jhazzroucher: And why is that exactly?

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SC

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Edited By SC  Moderator

Beautifully written and presented blog! Definitely not boring, I appreciate the time and consideration you put into this. Kudos.

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AtPhantom

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Edited By AtPhantom

It's interesting that most of Superman's greatest villains are the ones which explore what exactly it means to be a superman. Great essay, Lex is one of the most awesome comic characters, period.

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Mega_spidey01

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Edited By Mega_spidey01

this is why lex luthor is one of my favorite DCvillians, besides.

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@SC: It's a great privilege for you to give my blog such high praise! Much appreciated! :)

@AtPhantom: I agree, villains like Lex truly explore what it means to be Superman that makes Lex and Superman such great characters. And thank you! :)

@Mega_spidey01: It's why he's my favourite villain too!

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Killer_of_trolls

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Edited By Killer_of_trolls

TL;DR

Lex is little boy wishing to be Superman exactly the same way Joker is gay for Batman.

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Dark_Vengeance_

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Edited By Dark_Vengeance_

@Killer_of_trolls said:

TL;DR

Lex is little boy wishing to be Superman exactly the same way Joker is gay for Batman.

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NewComicGuy

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Edited By NewComicGuy

Very well-written piece. I definitely enjoyed your insight and think you picked a perfect topic to discuss.

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Lvenger

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@NewComicGuy: Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it! :)

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Lvenger

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Pyrogram

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colonyofcells

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I have to agree that Lex is smarter than Superman. Maybe Lex might even have the better solutions for the problems of the human species and not Superman.

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JamesKM716

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@lvenger: You know, I kidna feel like Lex is almost a better villain for Batman than Sueprman.

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colonyofcells

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Ras Al Ghul might be smarter than even Lex so Batman has lots of smart enemies already like Ras Al Ghul and Joker.

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Kal'smahboi

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Edited By Kal'smahboi

This is terrific. I must confess you enlightened me to many aspects of Nietzsche’s Übermensch that I had not known. I think that the views you said here is going to help me enjoy the Superman/Luthor rivalry even more.

Very well written. Thank you.

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Lvenger

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@kal_smahboi: I'm humbled my blog helped you to achieve that. It was just curiosity that led me to write this but it turned into a great deal more. Thank you again!

@jameskm716: How come?

@colonyofcells: It's been hinted at times in Elseworld stories that Lex is capable of solving the world's problems if he were good rather than evil.

@darkknightdetective:Thank you!

@pyrogram: Thanks Pyro I appreciate it! :)

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theTimeStreamer

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lex luthor: man of steel. everybody should read this. it is the best insight into what and why lex does what he does.

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colonyofcells

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Since good and evil are just relative and have no real basis apart of human irrational desires, I would object to labelling Lex as evil. Lex and Superman just have different ways of trying to save the human species and it is hard to tell who or if anyone will ever succeed in saving the stupid human species.

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Lvenger

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@colonyofcells: True but Superman's is a much more morally righteous way of going about it than Lex's. Lex uses people to his own benefits and ego so that's not a way to go about saving the human race.

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JamesKM716

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@lvenger: Mostly because he puts a challenge against all of Batman.

LexCorp can fight Wayne Enterprises

Lex can intellectually match Bruce

Lex can physically match Bruce.

Lex can ideologically match Bruce. (Similarly philosophies in different ways)

On a whole, Lex can challenge Bruce arguably better than any villain.

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colonyofcells

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Lex is just similar to military leaders who routinely make decisions on who to sacrifice in order to save more lives. Sometimes, you might need to break a few eggs in order to save more lives.

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@colonyofcells: Military leaders at least have some good intentions at heart when making those decisions. Lex on the other hand does not. He just does what he does to further his own agenda and ego.

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colonyofcells

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Edited By colonyofcells

My guess is Lex has some love for the human species since most of us are born with some sympathy for our fellow humans. It is hard to find humans devoid of sympathy since we all evolved within the same social species. Most of us are born not to like other species since we tend to use other species and if Superman belongs to another species, it might actually be natural for Lex to hate Superman. Some people desire to help other people, some people desire to help only themselves or their own family, but these are all just desires and no desire is really better than another desire.

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RDClip

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Great post, I've always had a similar theory about Lex, but couldn't put it to words as well as you did.

Lex is the best of human accomplishment and worst of human hubris. He really is a fasinating character because he truely believes that he is the best of humanity, abition unbound by attachment or morality. In his mind people should strive to be him not, Superman. In Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, we see Superman the way Lex does, a enigmatic alien whose most noticable feature is the inhuman in his terrifying red glowing eyes. Lex honestly believes that Superman is bad for the world. What is the most interesting is that with all his justifications, one could boil down his deep seeded resentment of Superman to simple obsessive envy.

There really is a fundamental trajedy to the character, he could do great things. He could help so many people, turn the word into a utopia. However, his resentment has driven him to single-minded obsession with destroying Superman to prove to the world that Lex is the one worthy of adoration. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel perfectly illustrates that. I think we are meant to believe that he honestly loved Hope, but he was forced to give her up in favour of villifying Superman.

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Lvenger

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@rdclip said:

Great post, I've always had a similar theory about Lex, but couldn't put it to words as well as you did.

Lex is the best of human accomplishment and worst of human hubris. He really is a fasinating character because he truely believes that he is the best of humanity, abition unbound by attachment or morality. In his mind people should strive to be him not, Superman. In Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, we see Superman the way Lex does, a enigmatic alien whose most noticable feature is the inhuman in his terrifying red glowing eyes. Lex honestly believes that Superman is bad for the world. What is the most interesting is that with all his justifications, one could boil down his deep seeded resentment of Superman to simple obsessive envy.

There really is a fundamental trajedy to the character, he could do great things. He could help so many people, turn the word into a utopia. However, his resentment has driven him to single-minded obsession with destroying Superman to prove to the world that Lex is the one worthy of adoration. Lex Luthor: Man of Steel perfectly illustrates that. I think we are meant to believe that he honestly loved Hope, but he was forced to give her up in favour of villifying Superman.

Well that was easily as good as the way I put it. A more valuable insight on this blog I have yet to see. Thank you for reading and commenting :)

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dernman

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dernman  Online

@lvenger: Since this has been bumped from another user I'll ask this.

Do you still think that now that this guy is Lex? :p


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those_eyes

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@dernman said:

@lvenger: Since this has been bumped from another user I'll ask this.

Do you still think that now that this guy is Lex? :p

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yep, thats lex alright. lol

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RideASpaceCowboy

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@lvenger: I can't recall if it was a theory or historically documented, but I've read before that just as the Nazis had misappropriated Nietzsche’s Übermensch to describe their Aryan ideal, the Jewish Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster deliberately stole the term in order to subvert both Nietzsche and Nazi ideology in their creation of the mild-mannered, humanist Superman.

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Lvenger

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@radicv96: Sorry for the delay, but I am not the original creator of that Nietzsche Superman image. My IT skills are very lackluster (something I was told I needed to correct to get a future job today) so I did not create this image. Thus, I cannot release it into the public domain or GPL. You can just type Superman Nietzsche into Google and see the original site where this image was made.

@dernman said:

@lvenger: Since this has been bumped from another user I'll ask this.

Do you still think that now that this guy is Lex? :p

Oh yeah snarky, bratty and snooty wiseguys totally sum up the Ubermensch and Lex Luthor in the comics -_-

@lvenger: I can't recall if it was a theory or historically documented, but I've read before that just as the Nazis had misappropriated Nietzsche’s Übermensch to describe their Aryan ideal, the Jewish Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster deliberately stole the term in order to subvert both Nietzsche and Nazi ideology in their creation of the mild-mannered, humanist Superman.

That is interesting information, I know you've blogged and written about such subjects on here and outside of CV too. I'd love to find out about that possible theory if I can, a subversion of the Nietzschean and Nazi belief systems would be an intriguing driving force behind Superman's creation.

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Squalleon

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Great stuff.

I think one aspect that you leave is that Superman is a "good man" for no god but himself. I interpreted the Ubermench as man trying to find his place in a world where the "laws of gods" have waned. Man must choose his own morals and Superman does what he does because he believes in them, not because of such law (arguably he is a god himself though so it creates some ambiguity), he lives his life by doing what he excels in and wants, saving people.
But that's my interpretation and I haven't delved too deep in the Nietzschean Ubermench to know even if it is a bit valid, since the concept has become ambiguous by the times.

I loved that small touch in the DCAU All Star Superman, that Luthor admits to Superman his intentions were never to help humanity and after Superman dies, he repents and give the world the code to clone Superman. I feel the ending was more poetic than the books in that aspect. Luthor finally understood he was wrong and selfish and then changed the world for the better. Superman saved humanity by redeeming the worst it had to offer.

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@squalleon: Did I miss that out? Huh thought I put that in but that is a crucial point you make, Superman is good for the sake of being good, not because of a belief in a higher power, at least not in the case of Post Crisis Superman. The clear difference is that the Übermensch does put himself above the laws of man whereas Superman adheres to these laws even if he can break them at any time he wishes as he is biologically superior to humanity with his powers under a yellow sun.

That was a nice touch in the All Star Superman movie now I remember it, though it does come into conflict with the approach that Lex can make humanity better with his intellect but doesn't do so until he's rid the world of Superman like in Red Sun and certain Pre Flashpoint stories. Still ,it works well as a way to tell Lex's motives and desires too.

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Squalleon

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@lvenger said:

@squalleon: Did I miss that out? Huh thought I put that in but that is a crucial point you make, Superman is good for the sake of being good, not because of a belief in a higher power, at least not in the case of Post Crisis Superman. The clear difference is that the Übermensch does put himself above the laws of man whereas Superman adheres to these laws even if he can break them at any time he wishes as he is biologically superior to humanity with his powers under a yellow sun.

That was a nice touch in the All Star Superman movie now I remember it, though it does come into conflict with the approach that Lex can make humanity better with his intellect but doesn't do so until he's rid the world of Superman like in Red Sun and certain Pre Flashpoint stories. Still ,it works well as a way to tell Lex's motives and desires too.

I always saw Superman as someone who doesn't care about the laws as long as they don't limit him. He breaks them too often. But usually in his scale breaking the law brings backlash and he has humanity's own evolution to think about.
I feel he reaches the point of the Ubermench after he returns from his 700 century trip in One Million, where he is "past hero worship" and brings forth a bright new era.

In most stories, he usually does what he does because of Supes. In Red Son, he finds Superman's notes to usher his new era for example. In pre-flashpoint he didn't care about saving humanity before Superman appeared and in Luthor: MoS he actually doubts his own motives. Its like Luthor saving humanity is Luthor wanting to beat Superman at his own game,rather than his own want.

Its always a combination of Lex and Supes that evolves humanity, fitting, since men evolve because of their bad qualities and the good ones.

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Lvenger

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@squalleon: That makes sense, Lex's desire to help humanity is certainly not an altruistic one in the stories that focus on this question regarding what Lex would be capable of without his vendetta towards Superman. It's a fitting way of describing how humanity prospers from these two characters, Superman represents its best altruistic values whilst Lex represents its self centred drive for domination.

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Slayz

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@lvenger: Really great post, and an interesting read. These are the threads that deserve 100+ comments, but people don't want to invest actual brain cells to thinking about them.

Luthor is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created, and he owes that to his contrast with Superman. If Superman hadn't come to Earth... Yeah, Lex would have been the greatest man to ever live on the planet. I have no doubt he'd be curing cancer and enacting world peace. A shame we have to watch his live action portrayal carried out by a 30 year old prepubescent boy.

By the way, what is that scan with Raven and Luthor from?

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Lvenger

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Edited By Lvenger

@slayz: Thank you very much for the high praise, I've been meaning to write another blog similar to this one but university and real life has kept my focus on them. I'm glad I wrote this blog even if it doesn't have nearly as many comments as my MOS review. The ideas and themes are another way of discussing a medium we fans are passionate about in a more philosophical way.

I think so too, Luthor is indeed a great comic book character and I wanted to contrast something attributed to Superman that fits Luthor better actually when you look at what the Übermensch is supposed to be.

I don't know exactly what issue the Raven/Lex Luthor image is from but it's from Teen Titans Volume 3, possibly issue 24 or 25 based on the covers on the wiki displaying Lex Luthor in the Superboy T-shirt and the tagline 'Superboy's Birthright.' Based on that, I would say it's in either one of those issues.

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aftershafter

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Edited By aftershafter

@lvenger:

Interesting post, but as someone who is also a student of philosophy and actually did his Master's thesis on Nietzsche's notion of the overman, I think you're making a mistake that a lot of philosophers have made over the years - assuming that Nietzsche's "great man" is the overman.

One of my papers leading up to my thesis was focused on contrasting two figures in Nietzschean philosophy, both of whom might well have been Nietzsche's overman figure. One was the figure presented in Nietzsche Lenzer Heide fragments (section 55 of The Will to Power, and some other surrounding segments, if you have it handy) and the other is a figure I started calling "the Argonaut of the ideal" - the idealized figure who is highlighted mainly in the latter parts of The Gay Science. More than a few people have taken to lumping all of the "great men" types of Nietzsche's books as examples of his ideal overman, but I argue that those figures aren't, in fact, overmen in the Nietzschean sense. The stupidly short version of my argument is that Nietzsche makes a distinction between there being a "great man" figure - a Napoleon, for instance - who are "human beings who are sure of their power and represent the attained strength of humanity with a conscious pride" (55, WTP) and another figure. This other figure, the Argonaut of the ideal from TGS, says "“Has there ever been a more hideous old woman among all old women…? No, we do not love humanity.” (talking about humanity - 377, I believe, from TGS). The figure doesn't like humanity, isn't interested in it, doesn't want it... Lex, contrasting to this, is actually somewhat of an idealistic human in a manic kind of way. The is an evil genius who wants to basically become a mega-dictator and bring humanity into his vision of what's good for it. Nietzsche's Argonaut of the ideal doesn't even like humanity - the great man, the Napoleon, does. I think Lex is the latter, not the former.

The big difference between the two figures is that the great man wants to be the top dog in terms of what is human, be the boss, and make things better within a framework of "the human." The Argonaut of the ideal wants to separate themselves from humanity, transcend it in the sense not that they become super-human, but post human... They rise above all human concerns (this should remind you of early Zarathustra, who I argue is the attempt to be an overman that doesn't *quite* live up to the ideal). Lex fits into the Napoleon model, the great man, not the ideal Zarathustra strives for, if you ask me. Superman *definitely* has nothing to do with Nietzsche's overman, but I don't really think Lex does either.

Whoever it was that did the whole mockup of Nietzsche's overman onto Superman missed the subtle nature of Nietzsche's overman in that the overman isn't a bigger, better, faster, smarter human... Rather, they're more likely a human who has done what Zarathustra was able to do for at least some of his life - rise so far above human concerns that they no longer concerned him. The Übermensch is literally the overman - the one who is over humanity, who is above and unconcerned with humanity... Lex is perpetually focused on humanity, operates very much in terms of humanity - he is a "better" human, a superhuman, not someone who has transcended humanity and its concerns. As in, while Lex and Superman are battling over the fate of the world, Nietzsche's overman is likely sitting out in a cave somewhere, not really caring - because he has really risen above all things human. Lex is human, all too human, to be the overman.

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Whathappened

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@lvenger: I really loved this article! You should join the Daily Planet!