The Slatest

The Best Photo We Didn’t Use This Week: The Pope Joins Forces With Spider-Man

A man dressed in a Spider-Man costume hands Pope Francis a Spider-Man mask.
Alberto Pizzoli/Getty Images

Slate’s homepage editors spend a lot of time looking for editorial photos to put on our site. Those searches sometimes yield unexpected results: random, perplexing, and mesmerizing photos that don’t belong on the homepage, but that are too good not to share. Every week, we’ll share the weirdest photo from the wires.

What does the pope have in common with superheroes? Your answer might depend on your religious affiliation, but one thing is clear: They both have an affinity for eye-catching costumes.

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In a recent installment of this column, I chronicled the pontiff’s repeated struggles with his cape blowing in the wind and suggested “there’s an opportunity here for Francis to experiment with some sleeker silhouettes or modern alterations to his look.” Well, whom better to pair up with than that canonically bold (and capeless) dresser, Spider-Man? Maybe the pope could learn a thing or two from Spidey’s dramatic yet pragmatic style.

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In this June 23 photo from Pope Francis’ weekly general audience at the Vatican, Spider-Man gives the pope a Spider-Man mask to match his own. The man under this particular spider-suit is Mattia Villardita, an Italian man who dresses up as the web-slinger to cheer up sick children. Villardita told the AP, “It was very exciting because Pope Francis immediately understood my mission.” He explained that he gave the pope a Spider-Man mask “as a sign, to tell him that through these eyes I daily see pain from sick children in hospitals.”

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Pope Francis’ meeting with Spider-Man—which, for the record, did include a cape malfunction—isn’t the first collaboration between the Roman Catholic Church and the Marvel universe. In the 1980s, Marvel released comic books about St. Francis of Assisi, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa. It all started with Gene Pelc, known as “Marvel’s Man in Japan,” who was tasked with licensing Spider-Man for Japanese television. One day while Pelc was at the Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo, a friar approached him about adapting St. Francis’ story into a comic book to commemorate the 800th anniversary of his birth. Pelc pitched the concept to Marvel, and the resulting 1980 comic book, Francis: Brother of the Universe, was such a hit that when Pope John Paul II visited Tokyo in 1981, his entourage received several copies.

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Following the St. Francis comic’s success, Pelc said, “The next step was pretty obvious to me, being Catholic and being Polish.” With the support of the pope himself, Marvel began working on a comic about Pope John Paul II. Published in 1982, The Life of Pope John Paul II sold approximately 1 million copies, and a Marvel executive flew to Rome to deliver a leatherbound volume to the pope. In 1984, Marvel published its last major Catholic-themed comic about Mother Teresa, which won a Catholic Press Association award.

Pope Francis’ life has also been dramatized in several non-Marvel comics, but this recent brush with superhero stardom suggests a more intimate partnership. The way Spidey earnestly offers the mask, it’s almost like he’s passing on his great responsibility and deputizing the pope in derring-do. Will Francis follow in Peter Parker’s footsteps as part of the Spider-Verse? Will his association with Spider-Man inspire a fashion revamp? He wouldn’t be the weirdest to wear the mask at this point.

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