An Unnecessary Inquiry: Nietzsche and Superhero Films


amazingtransformingsuperheroAfter reading Audrey Anton’s The Nietzschean Influence in The Incredibles and the Sidekick Revolt (found within “The Amazing Transforming Superhero! Essays on the Revision of Characters in Comic Books, Film and Television”), it has become incredibly clear that being super in a Hollywood blockbuster certainly does not entail possessing super powers. Rather, as Friedrich Nietzsche would argue, being super is the byproduct of class stratification—the inherent relation between those who are superior and those who are not. Nietzsche entitled these superior people the noblemen and the non-superior peoples the commoners, or the slaves. Nietzsche claimed that the noblemen possessed significant abilities and talents that the commoners did not, and that they were ordained with a relatively strong “will to power,” which Nietzsche believed was what partitioned the two classes. Without this partition, he argued, society would descend into widespread mediocrity. I aim to apply these views in the context of Brad Bird’s 2004 The Incredibles (and, I will then urge you to do the same to your own favorite superhero film): In The Incredibles, the superior humans—or the “supers”—are those who possess the ability to do fantastic, unnatural things—such as infinitely stretching their bodies, lifting up cars high in the air, and running fast enough to glide above water. Meanwhile, the commoners appear to be those who do not possess such super powers.

In The Incredibles, the supers are in an interesting predicament. In “the old days,” they were revered by all and were an active part of society—performing good deeds and helping those in need. Soon after, however, the commoners turned and labeled the supers as unwanted showoffs. The supers became the embodiments of the commoners’ own shortcomings. As Anton points out, “originally, superheroes provided ideals to live up to…now [the commoners] resent such greatness.” In effect, the commoners’ ceasing to celebrate the “superheroic nobility” of the superiors is what forced the supers to cease celebrating it as well. This “slave revolt,” according to Nietzsche, was absolutely inevitable. Once publicly using super powers was outlawed by the (The Incredibles’) government, the supers were forced to blend seamlessly into society. This blending forced these noblemen to descend down to the commoners’ level, and behave and think in a similar, slavish manner; Elastigirl’s (Mr. Incredible’s super-stretchy wife) suppression of her desire to do heroic things is paralleled in her conversation with her disenchanted son, Dash: “the world just wants us to fit in.” In contrast to the Nietzschean ideal of embracing all that makes one noble, these supers—in light of the revolt—decide to forgo what makes them superior in order to avoid distinction. Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, for example, refuse to let Dash (who can achieve super-human speeds) run track at school for fear of him being too much better than his competitors. This dumbing down of the noblemen is what Nietzsche argued would be the one and only path to mediocrity—since, conversely, the slaves would never be able to rise up to the level of the noblemen.

It is important to note that the super-powered humans in The Incredibles are entitled “supers,” and not “superheroes.” The lack of “hero” makes it easier for the commoners to view the supers as their own kin—they are just like them except for they happen to be ordained with the absurdity of wielding super powers. In this light, the supers are not necessarily heroic and therefore are not necessarily any more morally-sound than the commoners. With the facilitation of such a view, mediocrity becomes all that more achievable; “when everyone is super,” states The Incredibles’ baddy, Syndrome, “no one is.” Nietzsche believed that society could only behave smoothly when people acted within their birth-given roles and that it is a bad thing when just anyone believes that they, too, can be noble—or super. Thus, Syndrome attempting to be super, without birth-given super powers, is not only an embodiment of the slave revolt but also a foreshadowing of the mediocrity to come.

In the Incredibles’ fictional world, the first comprehensive step towards mediocrity was the Superhero Relocation Program. This was a federal attempt at suppressing those who were superior in order to tame the resentment felt by those who were not. As Anton states, either “[the] resentment or the will to power will win this fight.” Nietzsche postulated that it is the resentment—a characteristic of the weak—felt by the slaves that spurs the revolts. Syndrome’s resentment of his aspirations to be like Mr. Incredible is a prime example of this in action. At the heart of The Incredibles, resentment ultimately won while the will to power was subdued. In order for the shackles of mediocrity to be broken and greatness to be restored, the noblemen’s will to power would need to be fully embraced. Explicitly, the supers would have to fully embrace their super abilities and use them to achieve greatness for themselves. Nietzsche believed that the cornerstone of the nobleman-and-slave societal structure was the exploitation of the commoners for the growth of the noblemen; he believed that the nobles should use the slaves to attain greatness, not to help them attain their own greatness. Otherwise, mediocrity would ensue.

In an attempt to relive the “glory days,” Mr. Incredible thrust himself back into superheroic escapades. In doing so, he began to exercise his will to power and, consequently, to greatness. Then, after defeating the film’s villain, Syndrome, his family emerges as a super ensemble. In the film’s conclusion, some form of greatness has, in fact, returned from the depths of mediocrity that was instilled partially by the Superhero Relocation Program. But, not necessarily the type that Nietzsche had in mind. The film begins with the supers newly suppressing their abilities and talents from the world to ultimately wind up—once again—exercising these abilities (by publicly overpowering Syndrome and his robot, Kronos, in the streets of Metroville.) This defeat, however, could easily be interpreted as an assistance to the cause and existence of the commoners (in which their lives and city are saved) and not necessarily assistance to the superior supers themselves. For this reason, what was displayed was likely not Nietzschean greatness. Nietzsche would undoubtedly argue that the pseudo-greatness exercised at the end of The Incredibles would set society back up for repeated revolts and thus future relapses into mediocrity.

In order for class stratification and nobility to be properly instilled, the supers need to exploit the commoners for their own gain. On the flip side, however, it could be interpreted that instead of simply intending to save Metroville, the Incredibles aimed to cleverly thrust themselves back into the spotlight instead (in hopes of reclaiming superheroic greatness.) Thus, The Incredibles presents a very murky conclusion to the Nietzschean dichotomy that they had originally established in act one: it showed that it is possible to return to pseudo-greatness—or perhaps even Nietzschean greatness itself—after the birth of mediocrity, but it did not attempt to establish how permanent this form of greatness would be, nor how Nietzschean of a form it took; superheroic nobility was implied to once again be celebrated but there was no suggestion that the commoners had learned their lesson and accepted Nietzsche’s ideal of a “natural” society—one in which class stratification is strict and the growth of the noblemen is the outcome of a self-centered will to power. Hence, The Incredibles’ narrative coming full circle seems to suggest that the superhero is permanently compromised by the slave revolt.

How does Nietzschean class philosophy apply to your favorite superhero film?

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