The cynic will say religious leaders were never superheroes (or superheroines), but, of course, they were. The precise nature and source of their superhuman powers may be lost in antiquity, but there is no doubt that popes, archbishops and other divines once mesmerised the world with their mythological quests and miracles of salvation. And there’s also no doubt that they inspired generations to emulate their holiness and follow a life of good deeds.
When Pope Francis met Spider-Man, it was a heroic moment, quite meaningless to many; an opportunity for a caption, maybe. But it was a meeting of two costumes; one masked, the other pointedly not, even during a global pandemic. Neither has real superhuman abilities like the power to fly or scramble up walls, and yet one fights for justice in a world of make-believe, and the other is a demigod of radiated transcendence and vicarious participation. Who is which in this encounter will depend on your psycho-spiritual formation, or your level of cynicism.
Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel, Batman, Superman and Green Lantern all manifest their superpowers in the real world, usually to destroy the forces of darkness. They don’t drink, they don’t do drugs, they don’t abuse people, they don’t steal or sleep around. They are archetypes of heroic virtue, role models of sacred values, contending against the darker forces within ourselves, which some might call sin.
The mortal Pope as superhero must radiate his frail virtue in a world of darkness, and so he wears white. The immortal Spider-Man as superhero fights against supervillains with bulging muscles and a square jaw, and so he wears a work of art. Both can teach us what it is to aspire to moments of greatness, but only one reaches into postmodern reality. Who is which in this encounter will depend on your psycho-spiritual formation, or your level of cynicism.
There is a sacred humanity in the fictional superhero: they have divine powers wrapped in tenderness and compassion. Spider-Man here isn’t berating Pope Francis for his human weakness or for sowing spiritual confusion; he places his hand tenderly and reassuringly on his arm, which is what popes usually do when loving their neigbour and manifesting Christ in the flesh. When Pope Francis met Spider-Man, it is the latter who becomes the holy one; the image of the invisible God.
Superheroes persist in the public consciousness because we want to believe in them and their archetypal lives of virtue. They teach us with ideal moments of justice and truth; a type of sanctity which leads to global transformation. They may have been violently irradiated or poisoned with Kryptonite, but their powers are akin to those who are possessed by the Holy Spirit, and their mission transcends barriers of race, sex and social distinction. Their raison dêtre is to be seen, for without being seen they cannot be awesome, and without being awesome they cannot be heroes, and without being heroes there is no cult.
And then there is humble servanthood and mutual love.
Religious leaders don’t usually sell the Big Issue, but that’s the interesting thing about superheroes: some are nerdy high school students, some are reporters for the local newspaper, some are railway engineers or scientists, and some are multi-millionaires living in luxury mansions… and you never actually know what they do by day.