In today’s post, I am assuming that you have read, watched, or are at least somewhat familiar with the Watchmen comics or movie. If not, there are spoilers ahead. If so, I will try to do the comics justice, but they are a complex and beautiful work, so it is very possible that I will leave something out or fail to see a connection that might be obvious to someone more familiar with the work. Either way, hopefully you are still able to entertain some of the ideas that I have proposed here.
For the past two posts, I have been building up to this point. If I haven’t made it clear yet, which there is a good chance I haven’t, I’m trying to show how in literature, focusing on science fiction, the Ubermensch is approached in a tragic way, but still viewed by the majority of humanity as a villain. After giving it more thought, I have chosen to explain it like this, short-form:
The Ubermensch views himself first as a prophet, ready to save humanity from themselves. He is critical of any institution that puts anything above reaching one’s own full potential. His goal is to fully own one’s existence.
The writers, at least the ones I have mentioned, portray the Ubermensch as a tragic hero, whose flaw is that they cannot connect with humanity, and thus, are unable to save them. Since their actions are incomprehensible to humanity as a whole, humans fear them, and eventually develop a hatred for them.
Finally, because of this, humanity views the Ubermensch as a villain. They view the willingness of the Ubermensch to go to any means to achieve a goal as immoral, especially when violence is involved, as it is with Odd John and what will be discussed in this post — Watchmen.
Before we delve into the Watchmen, I feel like I need to further establish an idea — that the Ubermensch fully embodies the phrase “the end justifies the means.”
For the Ubermensch, it does not matter what “means” are used to reach an “end” because sacrificing any mean would be to cheat oneself out of achieving the “end”. Even if the end in question is something good or benevolent, like, oh let’s say … world peace, it does not matter what means would be used to achieve this (this is important for later on).
So let us begin here with the comic-book series, Watchmen. Quick note: the movie and the comics have slightly different endings, with very different implications. I’m going to focus on the comic.
Now, I realize that in the earlier posts I was building up to some big reveal of Dr. Manhattan, the big blue naked guy, as a type of Ubermensch. And in a way, he is … and isn’t.
First let’s talk about how Dr. Manhattan is, or at least can be, an Ubermensch. If we look at Dr. Manhattan as a character from a literary standpoint, he does the same thing as Zarathustra and Odd John. He, at least for a period of time, detaches himself from the rest of humanity after becoming uninterested and unconcerned with their affairs.
He also shows a belief in, or at least entertains a different morality than that of humanity as a whole. We can see this through his actions in Vietnam and the climax of the actual plot of the Watchmen in which he agrees to keep Adrian Veidt’s (Ozymandias) secret of how he brought about an end to nuclear aggression between the two world superpowers by eliminating half the population of New York City and giving them a common enemy.
That is about where it ends though. When we begin to look at Dr. Manhattan in a philosophical way, he is something far beyond the Ubermensch. In this way, he isn’t an Ubermensch, he’s more of a god. But, as you will see, we can and will go back and forth with this.
There is a character in the Watchmen that almost fully embodies the Ubermensch — Adrian Veidt, a.k.a Ozymandias.
Veidt possesses a superior intelligence, just like John Wainwright and Zarathustra. He uses this intelligence to devise a plan that stop a nuclear war and bring about “world peace.” However, his plan has extreme means that he believes justifies the end, in that it involves killing millions of people. John Wainwright does something similar in Odd John through killing the inhabitants of an island so that he can claim it for his community of like-minded individuals. It is a much more selfish goal, yes, but the point still stands: to the Ubermensch, the end always justifies the means.
This also suggests that Veidt has a view of morality that is beyond the understanding of most humans. He is also a master manipulator, as that is a major part of his plan. He is able to manipulate multiple people throughout the comic, including our dear quasi-Ubermensch, post-human god-thing, Dr. Manhattan. Wainwright also manipulates multiple people throughout Odd John to help reach his goals.
So where does the villainous aspect come into play? Well, assuming you are a regular human and not an Ubermensch, the previous paragraph makes it pretty obvious. As humans, we see the loss of life and are appalled. This is especially true in the case of Odd John, where the goal seems to be a selfish one.
Depending on how you read Watchmen, Veidt can be a villain, or a hero. Do the ends justify the means? Depending on how you read Odd John, Wainright can be a misunderstood tragic hero, or a diabolical being who got what he deserved.
This is why it is easy to make the Ubermensch into a villain. We are uncomfortable with their level of comfort in making drastic decisions to achieve something.
However, even Veidt still ends up questioning his decision, doubting the choices he made. He asks whether or not he did the right thing “in the end,” to which Dr. Manhattan replies, “Nothing ever ends.” Here we see another aspect of the Ubermensch. Lack of faith in humanity, the inability to be saved. It is shown through Veidt in his doubt, and Dr. Manhattan in his response. If Veidt’s plan failed, did the end still justify the means? Would he go from being the savior of the world to the world’s greatest enemy? Was his inability to connect to the whole of humanity his tragic flaw?
I want to end this long-winded, convoluted delve into the rabbit hole with a question. It is a question I asked myself when reading Odd John, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Watchmen. Is the Ubermensch the next step for humans, or are we right in viewing them as villains? What do you think? Do the ends justify the means for you, no matter the cost?
Do you see the world as a “normal,” content with how it is? Do you see is as a John Wainright or Adrian Veidt, with little faith in humanity?
Is the Ubermensch the tragedy, or are we?
Pop back in a week to see which rabbit hole I jump into next.
There is a lot I chose not to cover in this series on the Ubermensch. It is quite possible that I will revisit this in the future to talk about the things I left out (both on purpose and out of ignorance once the internet yells at me for getting something wrong). While you might not agree with what I have written above, hopefully it has at least sparked some discussion.