Marvel Movies and Nietzsche; The World of Supermen
Through the course of ten or so films, I began to suspect marvel wanted to tell me something. Their movies were big budget “popcorn flicks”, and not moody character studies commenting on the nature of man though, so every film had just a clue or two. Individually these clues hadn’t much meaning, but taken in the aggregate they birthed an interesting idea into my head. The idea sat there for a while partially formed roiling and jumbling around until it sprouted a thesis. A thesis built around thinking of the Marvel movies as a sequel to the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche’s writings. The world of the superman embodied.
In a world of supermen autocracy is superior to liberty, however the proliferation of exceptional people will lead to chaos and destruction. Ultimately only genocide on a grand scale can cease the suffering.
The Iron Man movies affirm the superman portion of the thesis. They show Tony Stark as not merely an exceptional man, but barely a man at all. A new evolution of the human race. Iron Man watches over mere mortals. Each of the films pit our protagonist against supposedly matched odds (Tony v. industrialist, Tony v. genius, Tony v. Superhuman) only to reveal in the end that Tony Stark is altogether in a different league, beyond that, he is scarcely human.
Captain Americas, both First Avenger, and Winter Soldier offered a backhanded implication of the superiority of authoritarian society over freedom. The villains stated their case for wanting to control the world, to create order. Captain America doesn’t rebut them save to outright reject their tyranny. In the real world the reasons to reject the proposed dictatorial practices of Hydra are actually self-apparent. Marvel-verse however, is not the real world. The first conceit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the world contained genuine supermen (and superwomen), who are wiser and stronger than regular people. Super-people, whose ideas and counsel should possible be given dictatorial authority. In fact the Asgardians practice that way of life to great effect. Captain America gives no counter-argument to hydra’s peace and order save punches to the face. Viewers could reasonably wonder if everyone would be better off being ruled by smarter, better, wiser humans.
Like everything in the marvel universe these ideas come together in Marvel’s Avengers. The conversation Loki has with an elderly gentleman illustrates well the first principles of the thesis. In the exchange, Loki tells everyone to bow in reverence. The old man defies him, and says “we’ll never bow to men like you”, to which Loki replied, quite accurately, there are no men like me. Taking the “knee bowing” figuratively rather than literally, where people defer to the wisdom of a demonstrably higher being as opposed to physically bowing down, it made sense. It is possible that Loki was not the right ruler, but that didn’t invalidate the concept of an orderly world guided by the rule of a superior life-form.
To that point in marvels thesis I saw parallels to Nietzsche’s ideas of strength as the only true power, the superman realized, and the wisdom of a world ruled by the superman. Marvel didn’t stop there. They took Nietzsche’s thought experiment even further. The “evolution Nietzsche envisioned didn’t proceed to the ubermensch and stop. It continues.
The first phase made the case against free will in favor of rule by the supermen. The next phase revealed the lie of any type of rule. In Thor: The Dark World Marvel shows that Asgard, the utopian kingdom, still has formidable enemies. Unfortunately the film hints rather weakly at the solution. The story turns into a fight where the goals of neither side are fully explained.
In Thor: The Dark World Marvel fumbled some elements that made previous films hint so well at that interesting thesis. Namely, the antagonist’s goals are not clearly defined or explained from the villain’s point of view. Malikith needs to poses the Aether to return the universe to a state of “darkness”. However, darkness in this film was left entirely undefined. So much so that the viewer can’t possibly discern if darkness is the destruction of everything, or just the absence of light in the universe. In order to reconstruct this broken element of the movie Ina way that continues the reasoning from the phase one films, I needed to return to my thoughts of Nietzsche, and possibly I bit of Herbert Spencer as well.
Once Nietzsche’s narrative arrives at the world of the superman he presumed said superman would rule from thereon out. For the sake of the illustration Odin is the superman Nietzsche did not factor in other superman and the societies over which they rule. The precious and orderly society he envisioned is thrown onto chaos as it comes into contact with another society, with conflicting needs, and their own superman. Malikith smartly sees that there is no end to this situation and the preponderance of wars it will bring. Malikith surmises that peace and order can only exist if he destroys not only the Asgardians, but everyone save the dark elves. This situation leaves Malikith to rule over his dark elf kingdom free from the strife of wars and conflict with other cultures.
Through phases one and two the marvel films made some interesting statements, but it seemed they might not intend to follow up on the implications of those statements. The promotional material for the upcoming Age of Ultron film lacked certain telltale signs that they intended to continue their poignant line of thought to its bitter end.
The next step in creating lasting peace and perfect order for all needed to be homogeneity. In trailers and TV spots Ultron seem to desire radical change in the world of the type that would kill everyone, but the anger with which he seemed to express his plans didn’t convey a desire to homogenize. I hoped marvel wouldn’t resort to an ill-defined malice toward humanity as the source of Ultron’s bloodlust.
Preservation of humanity would serve as a better motivation. If Ultron could incorporate all human knowledge into himself while “deleting” the organic component that could serve as the ultimate in “self” preservation for humanity. Humanity could live forever inside Ultron. There could exist no more perfect order and peace than for all the disparate elements in humanity to literally come together as one. In this way Ultron wouldn’t be a mere superman to be usurped by the next, but a God in the most profound sense as yet illustrated in the Marvel cinematic universe.
These concepts, this thesis. I felt them being expressed throughout the Marvel films, but missing details here and there caused me to think these ideas were largely unintentional. The future Marvel films likely wouldn’t follow the through-lines from their most powerful ideas. The assertion that free will and order are at odds, the inevitability of super power proliferation, and the inference that only large scale genocide can allay the suffering caused by said proliferation. In subsequent films Marvel would certainly veer away from these interesting ruminations on free will and exceptionalism so I allowed my own imagination to mingle with the statement the movies had made thus far so as to bring the thesis to its natural conclusion.
I started to imagine where the movies would go next, if they wanted to, not loosely allude to the thesis I discovered, but fully embrace it. The philosophy of Nietzsche has no god and aspires only to the superman, but once the world’s seams begin to burst with a glut of supermen, to what does the world aspire?
I imagined film after film of chaos, war, battles, destruction, interplanetary conflicts like those shown in Guardians of the Galaxy. The theme that I would seed through phase three? Annihilation. The movies I’d liked to see were those in which powerful forces clash, causing untold havoc with the only way to stop the slaughter being total annihilation of one or the other. I saw this as the inevitable state of a universe filled with beings of god-like power. This type of annihilation would weigh heavily on heroes but it would “save the day”…at least until the next film. This cycle of greater and greater destruction could end if a power even higher that all these super-people existed, if there were a god in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thanos, plans to become that god.
In my version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Thanos’ aim is to remake the universe. Known only to Thanos (and possible a few other celestial beings) the universe is not singular, but a multi-verse. Thanos believed it possible to create perfect order, by destroying all the multi-verse and starting over through the power of the infinity gems. In each universe he enters Thanos gather the gems and uses them to unmake said reality.
I saw it. I sat in Kevin Feige’s chair, made the calls he made. My version of the MCU. The way I would conduct the Infinity War would entertain, but also solve several logistical problems as well. In comics characters are ageless, not so with the flesh and blood humans that pretend to be them in movies. Comic book continuity creates problems, both for storytelling and by making it difficult for new readers to jump into a story. The sheer length of this Marvel movie franchise seemed poised to duplicate the same continuity issues from the books. In my universe Thanos wins. He ends the marvel universe and moves onto the next. In this way I could restart the franchises people like and tell the stories in new ways, with new actors. This could feel significantly different from most Hollywood reboots and I could even keep a character or two around from the original universe. A few character live on to continue the fight against Thanos in the new universe. I’d end the Thanos story a film or two into this rebooted universe so we aren’t repeating his use as a central figure.
Going forward my Marvel Cinematic Universe would tell more insular stories like what-ifs and marvel team-ups.
Eventually I actually watched the age of Ultron film. I’d thought of that movie frequently during my imaginative foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I marveled at the films expert execution, but one scene stood out in particular because it showed me just how unequal my skills are to the task of directing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In a final conversation with his creator Ultron, the vision sums up every thought I’d had over weeks of pondering the MCU. He did this in one sentence when he says “humans are odd, they think order and chaos are somehow opposites.” That was it. With one line the director of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon, summed up all the complexity and shaded meaning I’d found in the MCU with more clarity and elegance than I could muster in volumes.
With that thought in mind I left thinking about what the Marvel Cinematic Universe was “saying” to more capable hands. Maybe I’ll get back to that unfinished Wu-tang painting.