“I teach you the Superman! Mankind is something to be overcome…The Superman is the meaning of the earth.”
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
By the time Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first employed the term in a 1933 self-published short-story entitled “Reign of the Superman,” Nietzsche’s Übermensch had been stripped of its original philosophical meaning and entered into the parlance of science-fiction. It is this latter tradition from which Siegel and Shuster inherited the term. It was only by coincidence that an emerging German political movement at the time had returned ad fontes to the great German ethicist and appropriated Übermensch for their Aryan ideal. And it was only after Hitler’s rise to chancellorship that the two Jewish boys from Cleveland had revised their Superman character into a humanitarian hero. Thus began the first and greatest of numerous clashes for the meaning of the term “Superman” in the hearts and minds of the global masses.
The central conflict has always been which half of the nom de guerre to emphasize: the super or the man? Channeling Nietzsche and challenging the “lesser” races, the Aryan superman regarded mankind as “something to be overcome.” Landis’ Luthor shares similar sentiment in issue five of American Alien: “I figured you were a conqueror… or maybe even a weapon. I thought you were a post-human, a ‘Superman.’” For Luthor, that which is super is necessarily a weapon with which to conquer humanity.
Writers other than Landis have been less cynical regarding the super being superior to Man in actuality. Morrison’s Man of Tomorrow demonstrated not just moral fortitude but moral certitude as well, and in fact derives his strength from such. For him, the genius of the idea of Superman is a being in which right makes might. It is an inverse of Nietzsche in some ways, but parallel in others. It is not humanity but human nature, with all its flaws and foibles, that the Superman has come to overcome.
Landis’ Superman, conversely, shares those flaws and foibles, lacks that moral certitude. Clark self-describes his alter-ego, with full sincerity, as “just a nice guy with lots of spare time.” He is neither the messiah of Morrison or even the perfect paterfamilias of Silver-Age society; he’s a boy whose self-doubts can’t be covered by the mask he wears, sure of neither himself nor his actions, wanting to do the right thing without knowing what that is exactly.
Landis is hardly the first to hold this interpretation, emphasizing Clark’s humanity over his superhumanity, warts and all. The “Man or Superman?” dynamic has been debated for decades by writers and readers alike, though with the exception of Morrison the emphasis in the last fifteen years has shifted strongly in favor of emphasizing his humanity, which also accounts for the increased infatuation with retelling his origin story and early years, such as in Smallville, Birthright, Secret Origin, and here in American Alien. A younger Superman still in his formative years is expected to have the same struggles and insecurities as even old readers, and thus appear more relatable. Even I, a fully grown man who’s for years studied ethics and morality at the feet of some of the leading philosophical and theological minds in the country, oftentimes find myself lacking not only moral fortitude but certitude as well. While I aspire to the Superman who has those traits, I relate to the Clark in whom they’re yet developing.
Moreover, modern society has become increasingly morally relativistic. The moral certitude that Superman once demonstrated presumes a moral realism to which many readers no longer subscribe. Thus, the Superman of ages past did what he knew in his head to be right, whereas the Superman of Landis et al. does what he feels in his gut to be right. Such leads, of course, to situations similar to the scene at the end in Luthor’s office, Superman having been mislead there by heated emotions, opening himself up rightly to accusations of assault, trespassing, and vandalism. Even in endorsing the notion of Superman as merely the “good guy with lots of spare time,” Landis demonstrates the shortcomings of such a hero; he doubts himself because he oftentimes is wrong.
That Clark takes for himself the moniker of “Superman” following this conversation with Lex is not a denial of the flawed human nature that led to this failed confrontation, or even a declaration that he’d since then surpassed such shortcomings, but rather a deliberate subversion of Luthor’s misanthropy. It is his affirmation that he is a super Man. It is through his appropriation of the term that Clark seeks for “Superman” to overcome the Overman of Nietzsche, the Nazis, and Luthor.