Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Posthuman Superman: The Rise of the Trinity

"Thus,  existentialism's first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but he is responsible for all men."
-- Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

[Apologies for any format issues or citation irregularities. I'll be out of town for the next few days and wanted to get this up before I left!]

Upon the release of the trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a few people contacted me, asking if the trailer seemed to be in keeping with the ideas I presented in my Man of Steel review. In that review, I concluded that the film presented a "Posthuman Superman," because, like iterations of technological protagonists and antagonists in other sci-fi films, Kal-El is striving toward humanity; that "Superman is a hero because he unceasingly an unapologetically strives for an idea that is, for him, ultimately impossible to achieve: humanity." That quest is a reinforcement of our own humanity in our constant striving for improvement (of course, take a look at the full review for more context).

This is a very quick response, mostly due to the fact that I'm not really comfortable speculating about a film that hasn't been released yet. And we all know that trailers can be disappointingly deceiving. But given what I know about various plot details, and the trajectory of the trailer itself, it does very much look like Zach Snyder is using the destruction that Metropolis suffered in Man of Steel, and Superman's resulting choice to kill General Zod, as the catalyst of this film, where a seasoned (and somewhat jaded Batman) must determine who represents the biggest threat to humanity: Superman or Lex Luthor.

What has activated my inner fanboy about this film is that, for me, it represents why I have always preferred DC heroes over Marvel heroes: core DC heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc) rarely, if ever, lament their powers or the responsibilities they have. Instead, they struggle with the choice as to how to use the power they possess. In my opinion, while Marvel has always -- very successfully -- leaned on the "with great power comes great responsibility" idea; DC takes that a step further, with characters who understand the responsibility they have and struggle not with the burden of power, but the choice as to how to use it. Again, this is just one DC fan's opinion.

And here I think that the brief snippet of Martha Kent's advice to her son is really the key to where the film may be going:

"People hate what they don't understand. Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel. Be their monument. Be anything they need you to be. Or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did."

Whereas Man of Steel hit a very Nietzschean note, I'm speculating here that Batman v Superman will hit a Sartrean one. If Kal-El is to be Clark Kent, and embrace a human morality, then he must carry the burden of his choices, completely, and realize that his choices do not only affect him, but also implicate all of humanity itself.

As Sartre tells us in Existentialism is a Humanism:

"... I am responsible for myself and for everyone else. I am creating a certain image of man of my own choosing. In choosing myself, I choose man."

And if we take into account the messianic imagery in both the teaser and the current trailer, it's clear that Snyder is playing with the idea of gods and idolatry. Nietzsche may dismiss God by declaring him dead, but it's Sartre who wrestles with the existentialist implications of a non-existent God:

"That is the very starting point of existentialism, Indeed, everything is permissible of God does not exist, and as a result, man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.  He can't start making excuses for himself."

Martha Kent's declaration that Clark "doesn't owe the world a thing" places the degree of Kal-El's humanity on Superman's shoulders. Clark is the human, Kal is the alien. What then is Superman? I am curious as to whether or not this trinity aspect will be brought out in the film. Regardless, what is clear is that the Alien/Human/hybrid trinity is not a divine one. It is one where humanity is at the center. And when one puts humanity at the center of morality (rather than a non-existent God), then we are faced with the true burden of our choices:

"If existence really does precede essence, there is no explaining things away by reference to a fixed and given human nature,. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist we find no commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses."

For Sartre, "human nature" is as much of a construct as God. And Clark is faced with the reality of this situation in his mother's advice to be a hero, an angel, a monument, and/or whatever humanity needs him to be ... or not. The choice is Clark's. If Clark is to be human, then he must face the same burden as all humans: freedom. Sartre continues:

"That is the idea I shall try to convey when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown in to the world, he is responsible for everything he does. the existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuses. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion."

If Clark is to be the top of the Clark/Kal/Superman trinity, then he cannot fall back on passion to excuse his snapping of Zod's neck, nor can he rely on it to excuse him from the deaths of thousands that resulted from the battle in Man of Steel. Perhaps the anguish of his tripartite nature will be somehow reflected in the classic "DC Trinity" of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman found in the comics and graphic novels, in which Batman provides a compass for Superman's humanity,while Wonder Woman tends to encourage Superman to embrace his god-like status.

And the fanboy in me begins to eclipse the philosopher. But before it completely takes over and I watch the trailer another dozen times, I can say that I still stand behind my thoughts from my original review of Man of Steel, this is a posthuman superhero film. Superman will still struggle to be human (even though he isn't), and the addition of an authentic human in Batman, as well as an authentic god in Wonder Woman, will only serve to highlight his anguish at realizing that his choices are his own ... just as Sartre tells us. And in that agony, we as an audience watch Superman suffer with us human beings.

Now we'll see if all of this holds up when the film is actually released, at which point I will -- of course -- write a full review.