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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

My daughter’s Latin teacher told me this joke over a pitcher of beer:

While an angel is giving a tour of heaven, a new arrival sees someone in a leather jacket and shades slouching in a corner and acting cool.

“Oh my God,” he asks, “is that Bono?”

“No,” says the angel, “that’s God. He just THINKS he’s Bono.”

Everybody at the table cracked up. Bono is bigger than God. Even God thinks so. It’s a good joke, even without the beer. But I swear I’d heard it before. Was it Lennon who said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus? Or was that the other Lenin? The one who called religion an opium for the masses?  (Or was that Groucho Marx?) Either way, Nietzsche made the joke first. Except his punchline isn’t half as good. “God is dead” never gets a laugh.

The comic book Superman was Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s adolescent response to Hitler, but his namesake, “the Superman,” was Frederic Nietzsche’s adolescent response to Darwin. Nietzsche, slouching in a corner of the 19th century with his shades on, saw that the world no longer needed supernatural forces to make sense of itself. And if God’s dead, it’s up to humankind to replace Him. Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton made the same leap. The year Nietzsche introduced his ubermensch, Galton coined the term “eugenics,” the pseudo science of human-controlled evolution. They both envisioned the rise of the planet of the supermen.

And, apparently, so does Bono.

I finally gave in and downloaded the U2 soundtrack to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to listen to on my daily jogs. A lot of rock ballads belted out in well-enunciated Broadway style, no surprises there. Patrick Page’s Green Goblin thankfully muscles in around the halfway mark, usually leading an ensemble of toe-tapping supervillainy. Nietzsche and Galton sing harmony.

It turns out the Goblin’s “life’s work” is “enhanced genetics” and “super-human kinetics” directed toward the creation of “new men,” a “new species.” The military wants a “new breed of Marines” (same as Captain America’s old handlers), but the Goblin’s “designer genes” lead him into a much bolder “do it yourself world” in which human beings become the “masters of creation,” claiming “powers once reserved for the ancient gods.”

Man wants to evolve himself into God.It’s as if U2 were adapting Also sprach Zarathustra for the stage.

As the fates would have it, another Green Goblin (James Franco played him in the first, soon-to-be-extinct Spider-Man films) assumes the same Frankenstein role in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s the lure of the superman (this time in the form of super-intelligence) that puts his research on the fast track and results in (spoiler alert!) the creation of a new species and the extinction of humankind. What Nietzsche and Galton were singing about over a century ago.  Except without the cool CGI.

Neither of them read Frankenstein very closely. The first superman was bred in Mary Shelley’s writing laboratory, looking not like a stitched-up corpse but a towering Greek god (the original illustrations depicted him in tunic and sandals). Unlike James Franco, Shelly’s mad scientist realizes his mistake in time and prevents his creation from breeding, because “a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.” Nietzsche and Galton and the Nazi eugenicists who followed them made that terror their goal.

Reviews of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark do not prophesy the rise of a new breed of musical anytime soon.  And while “Rise Above” makes a nice superstar spectacle on American Idol, a superhero is still an odd creature to put to song. But then most musicals are. Shelley’s novel was so big, the Victorians made a musical out of it too. An act of hubris even Bono wouldn’t attempt.

(Next Monday: Spider-Man vs. the Superman, Round 2)

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