The world lost the great German philosopher, prose poet, cultural critic, philologist, and composer Friedrich Nietzsche in August 1900.
His unconventional ideas shook the intellectual world then and we continue to feel the tremours in our world today.
Books, articles, analyses, theses, and films reflect the influence of this “existentialist” thinker, particularly his most famous work Sprach Zarathustra: Ein buch für Alle und Keinen (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A book for All or None), published in four volumes, 1883-1885.
The ideas which Zarathustra spoke were mostly expressions about morality, truth, and the eternal struggle between good and evil, glorifying the concept of the superhero.
He spoke of an Uberman, a Superman who would possess a superior power of thinking, “to tell the truth, to aim straight”.
Superheroes began to invade our realm of thinking and it was not long before they appeared in what is known as action comic books during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. One superhero after another captivated the readers, young and old, who could not get enough of them, so they got more.
Nietzsche is credited for inspiring the creation of those superhero iconic characters which appeared in comic books over the years, providing us with epic storytelling for the big screen.
We all have a superhero inside of us; it takes the magic of film to help bring it out.
The earliest superhero is 1902’s Hugo Hercules, but it is The Phantom (1936) that is widely considered the debut of superheroes.
The Golden Age began in 1938 with the arrival of Superman from planet Krypton.
Just before the destruction of the planet, father Jor-El, puts his son Kal-El on a spaceship headed for Earth. His red and blue costume is unmistakable, so are his superhuman powers.
A year later, detective comics hit the stands with a darker, grimmer hero, dressed in a long black cape, his face totally masked with two pointed bat ears.
Created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane, Batman Bruce Wayne, did not possess super powers like Superman, but a super intellect, fashioned more after Nietzsche’s idea of an Uberman. His fine detective skills, his intention to clean up the corrupt Gotham City, where he lived, puts him on the same superhero level.
His popularity depended on his sharpness, his grittiness, which added to the mystery enveloped in his dark and awesome black cape. He has enjoyed a life of his own on TV, cartoons, feature films on a regular basis for over 80 years and has become one of the most recognised 10 “people” on earth.
One followed another, and a host of superheroes became big money-makers on film; special effects came along, taking us further still.
When Spiderman: No Way Home becomes the number one film of 2022, it says volumes about us. It was a surprise to learn that Spiderman was the favourite amongst critics as well as viewers. We remain dazzled by the adventures, courage, and humour in those heroes we dream of.
It has been said that “literature is a luxury, fiction a necessity; may we add fantasy, an extension of fiction and then some. It has become a needed fix for humanity in this era of gore and deceit.
More than ever we seek to escape the moans and groans of our world for a well-needed rest from daily troubles, and what better way than to run to our nearest screen inundated with tales and fairytales, fantasy and fancy, dreams of utopias, visions of elusions and delusions and Ubermen of every shape and hue, about to save us from extinction.
Gone are the glory days of yesteryear, with their excessive beauty and splendour.
Our heroes are now nameless, faceless and fearless. They have replaced the Gables and the Coopers; the Monroes and the Taylors. Now we have Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ironman and they even managed to squeeze in a woman among them, Wonder Woman.
We have Terminators, Avengers, X-Men, Men in Black, Dark Knights and Blade Runners. Who needs glamour when you have such superheroes.
All we need are fantasies — stories and events that could not exist in real life. We are in the thick of a fantasy cycle and with artificial intelligence under our wing, our new world is brave and powerful.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said the scientist of the century, Albert Einstein. Perhaps our imagination can now reach further heights and widths, up there in outer space.
The 1960s science fiction has become the 21st century’s science fact.
The hybrid combination of science fiction and action-adventure is fertile ground for new fairytales to tell. The advancement of visual effect technology is in itself a super power, enabling filmmakers to pull off a realistic dose of what once existed in our dreams. Did we ever dream of Hunger Games or Missions Impossible?
Whether in a suit of iron, or a spider, or just a black cape, these forces come close to Nietzsche’s idea of a Superman, for to him, “Man is something to be surpassed.” They rise above the ordinary human to battle the evil forces that threaten our existence.
Only on our screens now, who knows what the future holds! Hopefully AI will channel its new powers into serving humanity, for a better world, a better life and a better man.
“The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously,” Thus spoke Zarathustra.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly