The Ubermensch in this sense is another name for the superhero or superhuman. However the post also discusses the non-super-powered ubermensch.
“With great power comes great responsibility” ~ Uncle Ben, Spiderman
The Übermensch (German for “Overman, Superman, Superhuman, Hyperman, Hyperhuman”; German pronunciation: [ˈˀyːbɐmɛnʃ]) is a concept in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche introduced the concept of the Übermensch to contrast with the other-worldliness of Christianity, where man’s future is at the hands of an external force, or God. Instead, the ubermensch concept suggests that man himself has the internal capability of growth to advance to a state of superior humanness: evolving as individuals and overall into greater strength, intellectualism, longevity, health and form. As such, the ubermensch is proposed as the next step in human evolution.
The concept has also been adopted within spiritual circles with individuals attempting to obtain greater levels of spiritual independence or human enlightenment. An “overman” is a man or woman who overcomes the normal (sometimes called the herd mentality) way and is capable of forming new perspectives without enforcing those onto other people. As such some of our greatest historical and modern philosophers are ubermensch also.
Nowadays, with the development of our many comics, and movie franchises, the term is used overall to denote fictional characters of superior powers to those of normal humans: our DC or Marvel superheros, supervillains and mutants like the X-Men; or the fantasy heroes and villains such as found in Twilight or other Zombie, Werewolf or Vampire modern tales.
These superhero characters particularly, because they are noble of spirit and possess enhanced powers, have the ability to be master of their own fates, the domain of the ubermensch.
However, long before the term ubermensch became popular and long before superheros took over our comics, we had super-human types as heroes and villains fighting wars of good versus evil. Superheros have a basis in our ancient mythological and religious stories of gods, goddesses, monsters and demi-gods with physical and magical powers beyond those of normal humans. Some of these mythological figures, such as the Norse God Thor, or Amazonian Wonder Woman even find themselves transported from myth as popular superheros now.
Superhuman versus Superhero
So, we have to now attempt to differentiate between the superhuman (as genre) and a superhero. Ubermensch means superhuman, not necessarily superhero. Our fantasy and science fiction genres can often contain superhuman beings, either supernatural, aliens or mythical Gods, or monsters with some human traits. But they may not be heroic.
The superhero as genre contains many expected tropes such as a code name or superhero identity, and alter ego. But of importance is the word “hero”. These are characters who are first and foremost on a hero’s journey, despite possessing super powers.
Although strictly speaking the ubermensch means something slightly different, nowadays it also is used as an archetypal name to include that of superheroes, and super or meta (special human heroes). So, from this point on, we will be dealing with superheroes as character archetypes. However, just in case you want a ubermensch type character who is not a superhero, here are some quick characteristics –
The Ubermensch Who is Not a Superhero
The non-superhero ubermensch remains a superhuman. In other words, they have reached a level of spiritual, cerebral and physical enlightenment superior to normal humans. Above it all, they believe they are masters of their own fate, and are not ruled by a moral code cast down on them by the concept of a God or a society. They understand humanity, yes…
…But they won’t help it. Or hinder it. Unless they really have to. They will remain impartial, and consider humankind overall, not as a point in time.
TV Tropes, who suggest there are several possibilities for this kind of non-superhero’ed ubermensch. TV Tropes talks about a ubermensch character being either unfettered or fettered.
The Fettered Ubermensch allows himself to be fettered by specific moral codes such as having a sense of responsibility, honour and justice. When these and loved ones are threatened such fettered Ubermensch can become heroes. With their superior powers of some kind, you can see how they could become superheroes in less comic book forms.
The UnFettered Ubermensch has no binding contracts, morals or principles. They don’t go off the rails, however, turning into an amoral warlord or something. Instead this lack of being bound means they can commit themselves to a single goal completely, absolutely, and unflinchingly.
The UnFettered and Fettered Ubermensch have some relationships with other character tropes nominated at TV Tropes such as Above Good and Evil, or Moral Sociopathy, Pure is Not Good and Straw Nihilist. Take a read if you really want to develop your character with nuances and conflicts.
Generally the unfettered ubermensch are people who live outside of human society. They don’t judge or berate us, but they also don’t “be” with us. There may be certain humans who seek these ubermensch out for advice and study with them, but sometimes such people prefer to remain mostly alone and working on exactly what they want.
Sound familiar? Certain religious scholars as monks or hermits come to mind. And historically some of the world’s greatest inventors may also meet some of the ubermensch characteristics.
Remember, unfettered ubermensch generally remain impartial to the human problems or politics. These are the type of character who will not balk at sacrificing others or the now for the sake of knowledge which might benefit more people in a future.
I am reminded of my daughter coming home from school recently. She was disheartened because although the teachers were teaching about Leonardo Da Vinci’s great inventions and additions to mankind, they also have been teaching about Da Vinci’s tortuous medical experiments on live human guinea pigs. The teachers have taught that Da Vinci was not a nice man at all, in fact they have him as pure evil.
Can a ubermensch be evil yet still add value to human society? Can somebody noble in spirit and enhanced in mind still do evil things for the sake of ultimate goodness?
As you can see, even a non-superpowered ubemensch can bring up many moral questions and conflict within your story.
The Superhero Human Story
Moving back to a character type we are possibly more knowledgeable about –
How do we, as normal humans, see any form of universal story pertinent to ourselves in our mythical or superhero stories today? We can’t have those superpowers, or independence of philosophy, we can’t break our society’s rules and regulations without hurting others or judicial repercussions.
The answer comes from the story patterns which our fictional superhero’s live through: Superhero’s still fight the normal evil versus good battles found in any hero’s journey, and they still face extremely human challenges in juggling a “normal” life versus their superhero responsibilities. We don’t have superhero stories very often where the superhero sits away from human society up in a cave exclusively. Even when Marvel took Asgard up into another planet we couldn’t have the Asgardians simply sitting there as superior beings, Thor and others had to visit earth and fall in love with humanity.
A typical superhero journey also fits roughly in the hero’s journey, from origins to initiation into a new world, and eventual mastery of that world, mentoring younger superheroes, and the concluding retirement or returning to a more normal world, with a legacy.
Our superheroes also have human-orientated morals – such as Uncle Ben’s often-quoted reminder to young Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Our superheroes, through living as humans, must construct a duality of personas – their ‘normal’ human life, and a superhero persona complete with alter-egos, disguises and secrets to protect their normal lives and loved ones. These constructs aren’t atypical outside of fiction nowadays either. Consider Bono, Lady Gaga, and older time actors such as Cary Grant. All are created constructs for a public life as a celebrity on our stages.
Yes, while our superheroes must tackle concepts of dependent and endangered loved ones, concealing their true identities from the normal world, and are “brought down to earth” by more human sidekicks and mentors; any true ubermensch character with superpowers who has also fully embraced his own I am my own God ethics of independence is written as a super-villain rather than superhero.
Fictional superheros like Superman – who are created with too powerful powers which could take them into the realms of Gods – are quickly given their kryptonite so that we as readers can still think of them as vulnerable and more human. X-Men’s mutants and the television dramas The Tomorrow People and Heroes – all featuring enhanced humans with extra powers as the next evolution, but have those heroes (and counterpart villains) running scared of persecution, fearful reactions and abuse.
There is always a yin-yang balance also. A world can’t exist with solely super-villains or super-heroes. In either situation, normal humans (good and bad) would lose out. So, where a superhero exists, there are opposing and equal super-villains to fight. The hero’s journey continues with an equal villain to mirror that of the hero’s challenges.
Our superhero or ubermensch characters sit within archetypal story patterns which ensure that we, as human readers, can relate to them and their struggles, and therefore see ourselves in them.
The Superhero Genre
The Superhero genre is derived as a socio-political commentary of the times. The superhero metaphor has always reflected prevailing interests and anxieties.
In the late 1930s, Superman – celebrated for his Kryptonian heritage while seamlessly blending in with his fellow Americans – became an idealised immigrant narrative for the many people arriving in America to escape poverty and political unrest in Europe. Captain America and Wonder Woman arrived out of the 1940’s and World War inspired American patriotism.
In the 1960s, gamma-irradiated heroes like the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and Spider-Man were created in response to rapid scientific and technological development.
Marvel’s mutants 1963 The Uncanny X-Men gave us X-Men’s feared and hated race of Homo-Superior superheroes which initially served as a Civil Rights allegory, while later creators used the series’ premise to comment on gay rights, the AIDS crisis, and gender inequality.
In this respect, the superhero as ubermensch example, is a character who very much is part of the normal and human world.
Recognising the Superhero
- Superheroes tend to follow a Superhero Journey pattern –
- origin story (transformation from ordinary man to superhuman),
- initiation into the rules of our world as a superhuman,
- mastery of their powers and mentoring others into the world,
- then fighting on the side of normal humans against forces of evil,
- then possibly retirement (alone) and perhaps leaving a legacy.
- We very rarely see the arrival of a superpowered individual with complete mastery of his powers and self, as these types of ubermensch are difficult to understand or like from a reader’s viewpoint.
- Our superheroes are relatable because of their humanity – Superman shows that what makes a true hero isn’t the “super”, but in fact the “man”.
- Super powers and abilities that make super-heroes so unique are exaggerations of what men or nature can do naturally (because we recognise and understand these abilities) i.e. being strong, or being able to run fast, or centred around light, fire, weather or gravity. For this reason, many superhero characters created by different companies have similar appearances, powers and even names.
- As such there are some sub-archetypes of the fantasy modern superhero. There are many superhero archetypal lists, but here are some general categories to get you thinking. See below for these.
- Our archetypal superheroes generally must live and maintain a normal life amongst the normal humans they hero for. This means that they require an alter-ego or disguise to appear normal, and an entire story arc to support this normal life.
- Unless you are going down an alternative world route, superheroes don’t tend to be paid. It’s all volunteer heroism work, so you will recognise a series of challenges in earning an income versus being called to perform a feat of heroism.
- To make them relatable, you will often have a human sidekick close by. This is somebody who may be undergoing mentorship of their own newly found powers by the superhero, or a non-powered sidekick who is in the know of the superhero’s fantastic world.
- Finally, beware of the stereotypical tropes out there –
- the poor orphaned boy who turns into a superhero
- origins from being bitten by a radioactive anything or falling into a vat of radioactive waste (how many vats of radioactive waste have you seen lying around lately?)
- super-villains who constantly tell their captured superheroes exactly what their evil plans are
- putting superior intellects into wheelchairs
- and many more…
Sub-archetypes / stereotypes:
Some very general superhero types:
- The Android or Robot (eg. Vision, Red Tornado) – note these robot creations are written with a heart.
- The Animal or Nature Wrangler (eg. Squirrel Girl, Ant Man, Cat Woman, Poison Ivy)
- The Animorph (eg. Black Panther, Tigress, Rhino)
- The Brick (e.g., Superman, Captain Marvel, Hulk, Thor, Wonder Woman, The Thing)
- The Cosmic Guardian (Aliens and Outsiders) (e.g. Silver Surfer, Thor, Green Lantern, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian Manhunter)
- The Detective (eg. Batman, Sandman) – superheroes who have a lot of tools and superior technology to analyse and locate criminals. As a superhero they will also go out to hunt and fight these criminals.
- The Energy or Elements Projector (e.g., Cyclops, Black Lightning, Photon, Magneto, Green Lantern, Storm, Aquaman).
- The Flier (e.g. Silver Surfer, Superman, Hawk-Girl, Astro Boy) – wings or some other mode of flight
- The Gadgeteer (e.g., Doc Savage, Spiderman, Batman, Tom Strong, Star Man).
- The Ghost or Invisible (eg. Invisible Woman, Ghost)
- The Immortals (eg. Wolverine, Black Widow) – characters who never age and have superior healing powers, thanks often to modern medicine or science.
- The Martial Artist, Ninja or Acrobat (e.g., Batman, Karate Kid, Bronze Tiger, Daredevil, Nightwing, Green Arrow). These heroes have no real superpowers, but enhanced athletic and weaponry use skills. Because of their advanced tools, they are often Millionaires or Super-Rich.
- The Mentalist (e.g., Phoenix, Professor X, Barbara “Batgirl” Gordan as Oracle). – mental superpowers such as ESP, prognostication, second sight and/or superior intelligence.
- The Metamorph (e.g., Mr. Fantastic, Metamorpho, Goliath, The Atom, The Hulk, Mystique).
- The Mystic (e.g., Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate, Scarlet Witch, Zatanna, Jean Grey).
- The Mythic (e.g. Wonder Woman, Thor, Captain Marvel, Hercules)
- The Paragon (eg. Superman, Captain America) – heart-extraverted, these are heroes who are best at everything but also they inspire other heroes with great leadership qualities
- The Past Knights (eg. Wonder Woman, Captain America, Flash Gordon) – these are superheroes who have come from a past time or life, but still remain with morals and standard codes of behaviour from those times.
- The Patriot (e.g., Captain America, Super-Patriot, US Agent).
- The Knight In Shining Armor (e.g., Iron Man, Cyborg).
- The Speedster (e.g., Flash, Quicksilver, Johnny Quick).
- The Super Soldier or Enhanced (eg. Wolverine, Captain America, The Winter Soldier, Red Skull, Hell Boy) – they were once normal (even nerdy) humans, but through science and experiments, have superior bodies and powers.
- The Team or Hive Heroes (eg. Sailor Moon with the other Sailors, The Power-Rangers) – these are heroes with singular powers who must team up and combine powers for more strength.
- The Vigilante (Zorro, The Phantom, Dare Devil, Dead Pool) – fighters with masks.
- The Weaponmaster (e.g., Green Arrow, Taskmaster, Batman).
- The Woman Warrior (e.g. Wonder Woman, Valkyrie)
Superheroes as above also generally fit into a few meta-archetypes such as:
- The Avenger – He doesn’t want justice, he wants blood. Criminals are subhuman and need to pay. (Eg. Punisher, Wolverine.)
- The Protector – Some people fall through the cracks and need looking after. This guy watches out for them. Sometimes because the system has failed. (eg. Zorro.)
- The Boy Scout – Truth, Justice and the American way. Even criminals have lives worth saving. (Eg. Superfriends version of any superhero.)
- The Champion – This hero upholds ideas, but not to the extreme of the Boy Scout. The ideals change, but are generally considered noble and upstanding ideals. (Eg. Superman.)
Example Superheroes ?
Above are many examples of standard comic book and movie superhero types. But there are many more well-known fictional characters who fit one or more superhero archetypes without normally being considered as superheroes.
Consider Sherlock Holmes, who fits the mentalist and super-detective categories, and often breaks society’s rules. Or Dr Who, who is an alien protector of earth, with enhanced intelligence, tools and technology. Both wouldn’t be so successful without human sidekicks to make them relatable.
Robocop is an interesting example. Created from a normal human, with superior technology allowing superior fighting skills, but Robocop is not normally considered in the superhero genre, although once he re-finds his human memories, may well be considered ubermensch. Similarly, before Robocop came ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’ – were those prosthetic-enhanced agents not superheroes? And Inspector Gadget?
And if we are talking about technology as an originator, could Knight Rider be considered superheroic? Although a pun on the lead character’s name, the knight aspect is certainly there also, with (then-named) David Hasselhoff’s character holding many heroic and noble characteristics of the old-time Knights of The Round Table.
What about Star Wars? Are the Jedi, or other users of a mysterious universal “force” ubermensches? Or at least superheroes, while Yoda gives a more applicable ubermensch display.
And is the Lord of the Jungle, Tarzan, who can command animals, and has enhanced wild-man swinging skills, a superhero?
Highlander was one of my older favourite movies about an accidental or magical created immortal. The immortality and fighting powers meant the Highlander and his cohorts couldn’t really be hurt. But the same concept of invulnerability to being hurt seems to be found in many of our kid’s cartoons such as Road Runner or Bugs Bunny. Not to mention the non-ageing and incredible healing abilities found in The Simpsons.
Are Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger and Ron Weasley superheroes? If you believe that superheroes can have magical wizard powers, then yes, all wizards would fit the bill. Is Maximus from the movie Gladiator a superhero? If you considered his slightly superior fighting skills, and his noble and inspiring personality, then perhaps yes, he fits the superhero bill also.
And how about the super spies or agents like James Bond or Jason Bourne? Or others in governmental-type fighting organisations (like the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)? They possess superior detective, analyst, weaponry, athletic and fighting skills compared to most humans I know, but aren’t super-powered.
Super spies, magical wizards and gladiators aside, what makes the final examples above superheroes may be the fact they are amazing, and fight and have won battles against amazing odds and villains. Whether this makes them ubermensch is another matter.
Carrying on, we have The Dark Knight where both Batman and The Joker follow ideals which are separate from that of Gotham City. The question of playing God is the moral theme in the latest Superman vs Batman movie also. Tyler Durden from Fight Club speaks pure ubermensch. Disc World has a character, Commander Samuel Vimes of Ankh-Morpork, who follows his own ethics. Many criminals in Disc World, as last man standing, have an understanding of the ubermensch mentality.
And of course, several eons-old vampires lead ubermensch lives.
Other Names, Associates and Origins
- Other names: superhero, superhuman, meta-human, overman, post-human, transhuman
- Associations: sidekicks, super soldiers, super spies, wizards
- Ubermensch tropes: unfettered vs fettered, associations: Above Good and Evil, Pure is not good, and Last Man (the last character on earth who is aware there is no God or rules).
- Shadows: the shadow of the superhero is the super-villain – somebody with the same origins, powers and skills who takes a criminal or darker path for themselves.
Part of 2016’s Character Archetype Series (A-Z) @ Hunter is Writing.