Tag Archives: superhero philosophy

Why Deadpool Is The Perfect Nihilist Hero

deadpool-2

How do you navigate a world where everything is ultimately meaningless? That is a question that self-proclaimed nihilists and “Rick and Morty” fans often struggle with in heated philosophical debates.

I’ve tried contributing to that debate before with my own insights. I’d like to do so again while also tying the discussion one of my favorite superheroes, who just happens to have had a very successful movie this year. For me, that’s as big a win-win I’ll get without also referencing ice cream and bikini models.

I still want to further the nihilism debate, though. To do that, I need to re-frame the initial question I stated. How do you navigate a world where you know you’re just a comic book character and everything you do is subject to endless retcons, marketing gimmicks, and the occasional time traveler?

That’s basically the life Deadpool lives every hour of every day. Unlike the myriad of other iconic superheroes owned by Marvel and governed by their Disney overlords, he knows he’s a comic book character. His tendency to break the fourth wall is the most common manifestation of that knowledge.

It doesn’t seem to bother him, though. It hasn’t stopped him from doing things like joining the Avengers, teaming up with Cable, and marrying a succubus. He still cracks dirty jokes, shoots people and the occasional shape-shifting alien for money, and generally does his own thing outside the traditional superhero archetype.

Now, there are a lot of reasons why Deadpool is such an endearing character. I’ve cited more than a few, but I’d like to submit another for Deadpool fans and philosophy buffs alike.

Deadpool is the PERFECT nihilist hero.

I know “nihilist hero” isn’t really a thing, but given the philosophical underpinnings of nihilism, that really doesn’t matter much. When I say Deadpool is a nihilist hero, I don’t just mean that he’s someone who personifies a concept the same way Captain America personifies American ideals. With Deadpool, I’m referring more to the way we process the often-depressing implications of nihilism.

Those concepts can be pretty difficult to anyone who thinks about them for more than two minutes. At the core of nihilism is the idea that life, the universe, and everything in between has no inherent purpose. Nothing you or anyone else does matters in the grand scheme of things. Whether we’re random clumps of matter or comic book characters, it’s all ultimately pointless.

For many, that’s a scary notion. That’s why it’s only natural that people will cling to ideologies, religions, and simple hobbies to forge some semblance of meaning out of a meaningless universe. It often requires that we not care about the truth and simply accept the possibility of truth, which can be difficult when the universe constantly reminds us how harsh and unfair it can be.

For someone like Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty,” there’s no getting around the meaninglessness of it all. His approach and advice in navigating a nihilistic universe often boils down to not thinking about it. While that advice is actually more useful than it sounds, it’s not very heroic.

This is where Deadpool sets himself apart. The fact that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character establishes that he understands how meaningless his existence truly is. Everything he knows, loves, and holds dear is nothing more than the whim of comic creators who ripped his name and his appearance from an established DC character.

How does anyone deal with that kind of knowledge? Even the smartest, most capable characters in the entire Marvel universe, which includes gods, aliens, and alien gods, don’t have the insight that Deadpool has. It’s the kind of thing that would drive even a powerful mind insane.

However, Deadpool is not insane. He’s crude, vulgar, obnoxious, annoying, self-destructive, immature, and impulsive. He once made 372,844 pancakes for no reason. That’s absurd, but it isn’t insane. You could even argue he’s “super sane” in the sense that he’s more aware than most of how the world works.

That sort of awareness tends to inspire chaos in characters like the Joker or misanthropy in characters like Rick Sanchez. With Deadpool, though, that knowledge inspires something different. Instead of misery or clown makeup, Deadpool embraces this understanding and jokes about it.

He does all that while being a wise-cracking anti-hero who will help the Avengers save the world while also shooting a dishonest pizza guy. That may sound eccentric, but it also reflects the key component that establishes Deadpool as a nihilist hero.

Part of what makes a hero heroic is why they do what they do. Superman is often held up as the gold standard because he does the right thing just because it’s the right thing. He doesn’t need another reason. You could argue that’s the most important reason for any hero.

While Superman’s morality still works in a nihilistic context, I don’t consider him a nihilist hero because he operates under the assumption that his life, his role, and his actions have meaning. Deadpool knows this isn’t true because he knows he’s a fictional character. However, that makes his style of heroism more nuanced.

There are times when Deadpool’s actions are selfish and other times when they’re entirely selfless, often within the same story. In both his movies, he alternates between heroic and not-so-heroic actions fairly easily. There’s no internal conflict. He just does it, doesn’t bother with the particulars, and cracks a dirty joke along the way.

For other heroes, the reason for their heroic actions is often as critical as the actions themselves. To them, there is a larger meaning to their heroic roles. That’s why they’ll often hesitate or agonize over doing something for selfish reasons. That basically happens with Spider-Man every other issue.

That’s not an issue for Deadpool, though. He’ll be selfless and selfish, depending on the situation and his mood. If the world is in danger of being overrun by renegade space gods, he’ll step up and be a hero. If the world is not in danger, though, he’ll gladly take a few mercenary gigs and shoot some people for money.

In both cases, there’s no moral conflict. In the context of nihilism, there shouldn’t be because those details don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Whether Deadpool saves the world or makes a few quick bucks shooting a pick-pocket carries no significant weight. He does what he does because he chooses to. He even dares to enjoy himself along the way.

In a meaningless universe, you can be a selfless hero. You can be a greedy prick, too. It doesn’t matter either way. The only thing that matters, in the context of nihilism, is that someone chooses it because they want to and not because they think it serves some higher purpose. For someone who knows he’s a comic book character, those are the only choices Deadpool makes.

He’s willing to make jokes about that. He’s even willing to exploit it, as evidenced in the post-credits scene of “Deadpool 2.” I would even argue that entire movie cemented Deadpool as a nihilist hero because what he did rendered a great deal of the plot meaningless in the end. However, it still counted as meaningful to him because he chose to be both heroic and selfish at the same time.

There’s no question that there are characters who are more heroic than Deadpool. There are also plenty of characters who are more selfish than Deadpool, but still call themselves heroes. However, it’s Deadpool’s ability to be both and laugh at the meaninglessness of his existence that makes him the greatest nihilist hero.

Leave a comment

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Deadpool, nihilism, philosophy, X-men

Understanding (And Learning From) Lex Luthor’s Hatred Of Superman

supes-vs-lex

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and someone who enjoys shows like “Breaking Bad,” I’m genuinely fascinated by villains. Specifically, I’m intrigued by what makes them tick and why they walk the villain’s path. Their journey is distinct from that of a hero, but one that can be just as compelling.

In many cases, these villains have capabilities that allow them to solve many of the world’s problems. I’ve cited Dr. Doom as one of those villains who blurs the lines of villainy because of his intentions. Characters like Dr. Doom genuinely believe that their villainous actions are justified because it will lead to a better, safer, more prosperous world. Heroes also believe that too, which helps fuel their epic battles.

For a character like Lex Luthor, though, the line isn’t that blurry. He’s a villain, plain and simple. He’s selfish, callous, arrogant, cruel, and narcissistic to an extreme. If he existed in the real world, he would check every box for narcissistic personality disorder. In terms of personality, he’s the polar opposite of his nemesis, Superman.

That goes a long way towards giving Superman an enemy who stands against his heroic ideals. I would even argue that Superman couldn’t be the iconic kind of hero he is without Lex Luthor. At the same time, I also think Lex reveals something critical about humanity, morality, and superheroes in general.

That’s difficult to see because for much of Lex’s early years in comics, there wasn’t much depth to his motivation. He just wanted to dominate the universe and Superman was in his way. It’s basic and bland, but that was typical for the early era of superhero comics. Villains like Lex were mostly just obstacles for the heroes to overcome in their journey.

That changed in the late 80s and early 90s with the modern era iteration of Lex Luthor. Finally, Lex got more backstory and depth. He was still no Walter White, but these details helped set the stage for the kind of villain he became. It also helped establish why he hates Superman so much.

Whereas Superman landed on Earth and was adopted by loving parents, Lex grew up in a rough part of Metropolis called the Suicide Slums and was raised in an abusive household. Right off the bat, Superman gets lucky by having the best parents a child of any species could ask for while he’s unlucky enough to be born with the worst.

As a result, Lex had to be ruthless, manipulative, and cunning. Unlike other villains, though, he didn’t need much tempting. He didn’t agonize over his moral decisions, either. He just did it and didn’t feel a shred of guilt. That includes the role he played in the death of his parents.

That alone establishes Lex Luthor as the kind of ruthless villain who would oppose Superman for any number of reasons. However, as evil as that act was, it’s important to note the motivation behind it. Lex didn’t just kill his parents because murder makes him happy. He did it because they were an obstacle and an opportunity.

They were holding him back, but their deaths meant insurance money that he could use to strike out on his own and build something worthy of his genius. To him, the morality of his decision didn’t matter. Only the results mattered. That’s a critical detail and one that puts Lex Luthor’s villainy into a unique context.

Lex, being one of the smartest characters in the entire DC universe, doesn’t care much for things that are esoteric and obscure. He’s all about results that are tangible and measurable. That means things like truth, justice, and the American way are empty concepts to him. Superman champions those ideals, but for Lex Luthor, they’re just hindrances.

That kind of cold, callous approach to the world gives a unique substance to Lex’s behavior. He’s certainly not the first person to take such a materialistic approach to reality. Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty” does the same, but rather than misanthropic despair, Lex Luthor sees it as the key to producing the results he seeks.

Moreover, he has to produce those results without the god-like power that Superman wields. If Superman wants to move the Earth out of the way or destroy an oncoming asteroid, he doesn’t have to build anything or learn anything. He just has to flex his muscles, fly up into the sky, and destroy it with a single punch. There’s no tangible reason to his actions beyond it being the right thing to do.

To Lex Luthor, that’s not just an affront to someone who had to work for everything he ever gained. It’s an insult to his egocentric, results-focused worldview. Just saving the world because it’s the right thing to do doesn’t achieve anything. It does nothing to move humanity forward because nobody had to produce something of merit. It just allows them to continue in the same, unaltered state.

This gets to the heart of why Lex Luthor hates Superman. The extent of that hatred was fully articulated in one of the best modern Superman stories ever told, “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. If you only read one Superman comic, make it this one because it perfectly encapsulates the pure heroism of Superman and the cold villainy of Lex Luthor.

In one critical part of the story, Lex tells Clark Kent, who he doesn’t know is Superman, what it means to actually work for his power. Superman, for all his idealism, did nothing to earn his abilities. He just happened to be an alien who landed on a planet with a yellow sun.

It’s like winning the lottery as opposed to working hard for a fortune. One is built on hard work and skill while the other is just dumb luck. Beyond basic jealousy, though, Lex makes another critical point about the ideal Superman sets.

From his perspective, that lofty ideal diminishes the entire human race. By being this other-worldly savior who achieves all these impossible feats, Superman reveals how inept the human race is. More importantly to Lex and his massive ego, it shows just how feeble his achievements are, despite all the work he put in.

Being the extreme narcissist he is, Lex takes that as the ultimate insult. In terms of the bigger picture, it establishes that neither he nor humanity can achieve their full potential. In that context, it’s understandable why Lex dedicated so much time and energy to killing Superman.

I won’t get into all the ways Lex has tried and failed over the years, although one of his plots did involve him becoming President of the United States. Whatever his methods, I think there’s a larger lesson to learn from Lex’s hatred and for once, it goes beyond his ego.

A big part of what turns someone into a villain is this sense that the world isn’t fair, but could be made better with the right guidance. Lex believes he’s capable of providing that guidance and not just because of his ego. He is, objectively, one of the smartest and most capable human beings on the planet. However, it’s Superman who keeps Lex from making the world less unfair.

Superman believes in the merits of truth and justice. He inspires others to uphold these ideals, even without his vast power. That’s a problem for Lex, who builds much of his power on lies and treachery. To him, though, he doesn’t see that as wrong. He just sees that as the most efficient way to get results.

To uphold truth and justice, in his brilliant mind, is to prevent the world from progressing. Granted, progress in Lex Luthor’s mind means him being in charge, but that doesn’t necessarily undermine the implications.

Like Dr. Doom, Lex is ambitious in that he doesn’t just want to save the world like Superman. He wants to fundamentally change it and he’s willing to cross any line to achieve that. Killing Superman is part of that change, but so is becoming a billionaire and a future President of the United States. If a billion people die in the process, then that’s acceptable because it means humanity is stronger because of it.

There have been times in the comics where Luthor’s vision has manifested. In another critically-acclaimed Superman story, “Red Son” by Mark Millar, Lex has a chance to lead the world into a brighter future. By and large, he succeeds. He’s still an unapologetic narcissist, but he still gets the results he seeks.

Like all great conflicts between superheroes and their arch-nemesis, the dichotomy between Superman and Lex Luthor is stark. They’re two extremes on opposite ends of a spectrum delineating heroism and villainy. By being on those extremes, though, it’s easier to see the inherent shortcomings of both.

While Lex’s shortcomings are easier to identify since he’s an outright villain, he does help identify an important flaw in Superman’s idealism and one that extends to superheroes, as a whole. Superman is willing to save the day, but he’s not willing to cross any lines. He will only ever do the right thing and that means not sacrificing innocent lives or usurping individual freedom.

Those heroics will keep the world turning, but they won’t move society forward. Superman believes in inspiring humanity rather than doing it for them, but Lex Luthor believes his heroism achieves the opposite. It just makes people complacent and dependent on heroes like him rather than crossing the lines that he’ll cross to get things done.

At the end of the day, both in the real world and the world of comic books, we have to determine how much we’re willing to pay for the results we seek. Lex is willing to pay any price. Superman isn’t willing to pay a cent beyond doing the right thing. Most reasonable people, including other superheroes, fall somewhere in the middle.

In the pantheon of super-villains, Lex Luthor is probably the easiest to despise and the hardest to understand. Like Superman, he exposes another side of an ongoing struggle between doing the right thing and achieving more. As society continues to progress, achieving abilities rivaling that of any superhero, it’s a struggle we’ll have to confront.

1 Comment

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, philosophy, psychology, superhero comics

Why Superman Is An Icon And Why He Still Matters After 80 Years

action-comics-1000-vo

Take a moment and think about how many artifacts of popular culture have endured for 80 years. Even if you’ve got an extensive knowledge of culture or just spend a lot of time browsing Wikipedia, it shouldn’t take long to realize how short that list is. That makes the icons on that list all the more endearing.

Near the top of that list is Superman. Even if you’re not a comic book nerd and can’t stand to watch more than five minutes of a superhero movie, it’s impossible to deny the special place Superman has in our culture. He’s not just a comic book character. He’s not just a superhero either. He’s in a league of his own that transcends any one genre.

That became abundantly clear this past week when Superman celebrated his historic 80th anniversary with the release of Action Comics #1000. As an admitted comic book fan who goes out of his way to explore the deeper messages and implications of comics, this was a pretty big deal for me.

Now, I don’t consider myself as big a Superman fan as I am an X-men fan. I like to think I’ve made my love of X-men quite apparent on this site. However, I still enjoy my share of Superman content. Beyond the comics, I grew to love Superman through his animated series and the Justice League cartoon that was produced by Bruce Timm. To date, those and the Richard Donner “Superman” movie are the definitive Superman for me.

As much as I love those incarnations, though, I understand that Superman’s history is much broader than that. A character doesn’t endure for 80 years without having a rich history and Superman certainly has plenty of that. In that history, he’s evolved a lot in terms of style and portrayal. From battling Nazis in the early 1940s to ditching his iconic red trunks for a while, Superman has had his share of reinvention over the years.

Through all these changes, though, Superman has always embodied a specific set of ideals that helps cement his status as an icon. From his earliest days to his most recent movie version, Superman at his core is an inspiration. He’s epitomizes just how good a hero can be and how profoundly he can influence others.

Some call him the ultimate Boy Scout. Some call him the perfect goody-two-shoes. Some even go so far as to claim that his nauseatingly good nature that Christopher Reeves captured so perfectly in the movies makes him a boring character. Given the sheer breadth of his power, which include some truly insane feats, I can understand that to some degree.

At the same time, though, I would also argue that same annoyingly wholesome nature is part of what makes Superman something much greater than an overpowered superhero. I would even go so far as to say that’s part of what has helped him endure for 80 years and made him an icon that transcends comic books, movies, and heroics in general.

There’s a long, if not bloated, list of superheroes of varying degrees of power. Some are even more powerful than Superman. However, just having power isn’t enough, as any Batman fan will tell you. It’s how a hero uses that power and why they do what they do that helps define them.

By that standard, Superman is the gold standard. His heroism is very much the standard by which all others are measured. He has the power to do things that aren’t just incredible. They’re outright impossible. He still does them, though, because he’s Superman. However, it’s why he does them that’s more important.

Compared to why other heroes do what they do, Superman’s reasons for using all that power for good is as simple as it is profound. It’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t need someone to kill his parents. He doesn’t need to be bound by duty or driven by guilt. He just does the right thing because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

It’s so simple that it’s almost inane, but it’s profound in its implications. I even explored some of those implications when I explored the nihilistic implications of Superman’s morality, drawing comparisons to Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty” of all characters. Regardless of how strong those comparisons are, it doesn’t undercut the impact of that idea.

It’s a big part of what helps Superman inspire others. It’s very much a part of why he still matters today, especially in an era where every heroic character needs some sort of catalyst to become a hero, whether it’s a princess getting kidnapped or someone shooting their dog. Superman doesn’t need any of that. He just does the right thing with his powers because it’s the right thing. That’s all there is to it.

That might not seem like a big deal, especially compared to the more elaborate journeys that other characters go on the path of heroism. Why would someone even want to follow a journey of someone who just does the right thing from the start and doesn’t need to team up with any talking raccoons along the way?

The answer to such a cynical question comes back to inspiration. It’s something that has only become more valuable as we get bombarded by countless bleak headlines. Superman is capable of so much, both in terms of his immense power and altruistic persona. He has such an immense impact when he saves the world, whether by outsmarting Lex Luthor or snapping General Zod’s neck.

However, it’s how those actions inspire others that elevates Superman’s heroics. He doesn’t wear a mask. He doesn’t hide in the shadows. He lets people see his face. He smiles and talks towards civilians, fellow heroes, and even other villains, as Action Comics #1000 so fittingly explored. It’s not just enough to do heroic things. Superman seeks to inspire the heroism in others.

That sentiment is beautifully echoed through the iconic voice of Marlon Brando in Richard Donner “Superman” movie. Even today, after 80 years, they still help define the spirit of Superman.

Live as one of them, KalEl. Discover where you strength and your power are needed. Always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage. They can be a great people, KalEl, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.

These are the words of Superman’s biological father, Jor-El. They don’t just lay the foundation for a hero. They reflect the spirit that eventually becomes Superman. They don’t just encourage Superman to use his immense power to help people. They encourage him to inspire.

That inspiration, the idea that a being of such immense power can do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, is why Superman endures. It’s also why he matters now more than ever. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing other iconic heroes and people in the real world get corrupted by power. Superman sets himself apart, showing that it is possible to have great power and still do the right thing.

In a world full of cynical people who may be getting more nihilistic with each frustrating headline, that’s an important concept to preserve. Having power doesn’t have to corrupt someone in the same way that doing the right thing doesn’t require some elaborate motivation, be they dead parents or some failed prophecy. It’s possible to just do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

It’s not enough to just save the day. Superman gives others the hope, strength, and drive to make a better tomorrow. Say what you will about the ending of “Dawn of Justice,” but the breadth of the impact that Superman had on the world through his sacrifice was powerful. It shows why his greatest power is, and always has been, doing the right thing.

That spirit of incorruptible goodness was critical in 1938 and it’s just as critical now in 2018. I would argue it’ll still be critical in 2118, even if we’ve all evolved into cyborgs at that point. Doing the right thing for others in the spirit of pure, untainted altruism is a powerful message and one that Superman embodies to the utmost. That’s what makes him an icon now. That’s why he’ll be an icon for years to come.

6 Comments

Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature