What do Superman and Spiderman have to do with Mormon history? Nothing at all. But maybe something about the two characters relates to the way people look at historical figures.
Everyone knows Superman. He is simply the most powerful superhero ever created. Invulnerable to almost everything, his list of abilities includes flight, speed, strength, heat vision, x-ray vision . . . the list goes on. His private life also seems pretty sweet. He was raised by two stead parents (although in some versions Pa Kent dies when Clark is young), has a good career, and in recent years is married to the love of his life. Director Richard Donner went so far as to present Supes as a Christ figure in the 1979 film, with Jor-El (God the Father?) sending his only son to earth to help mortals realize their potential for good.
Many early DC heroes are also larger than life: Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess, with powers, weapons and gifts from the Greek Gods themselves (plus she can really fill out that costume!). Batman, despite his psychological issues and lack of super powers, has seemingly unlimited financial resources. Others were similar: rich, with god-like powers and very heroic. Practically too good to be true.
Then there’s Spiderman, a decidedly less perfect hero. Peter Parker’s parents are gone, and even his Uncle Ben dies early on, leaving him with only Aunt Mae. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains powers including strength, speed, agility, wall-climbing, and “spider-sense.” Depending on the version of the story, he may also shoot web from his arms (in others he creates the web mechanism and materials). Impressive abilities, to be sure, but nothing compared to Superman. He also struggles with issues like unemployment, unpopularity, and girl problems to a much greater degree than his DC counterparts. He’s a real person, dealing with real problems, plus he fights crime.
Other Marvel heroes are similarly flawed. The mutant X-Men are freakish pariahs. The Fantastic Four bicker. And the Hulk is essentially a monster with an anger management problem.
These heroes reflect the eras in which they were born. In the late 1930s, the United States was exiting the Great Depression and entering World War II; out of this vulnerability came these perfect DC superheroes to confront the evils of the world (Hitler, poverty, and corruption to name a few). In the 1960s, when the country had become skeptical of the establishment and technology, everyday down-to-earth superheroes like Spiderman emerged from more humble backgrounds, exhibiting a more reluctant heroism.
So, what does all this have to do with the Church?
The individuals who have run the Church for years are, for the most part, members of a more black and white generation that created more perfect, less subtle heroes in comics and movies and even in the news. Individuals of this generation not only led the Church, but also ran the departments and programs. Did the way they viewed heroes impact their presentation of historical figures?
As the next generation takes the mantle, will they have been influenced by the types of heroes they have embraced? You may never see a Primary program reference the Kirtland bank failure or a Roadshow on Joseph Smith and the occult, but might there be a time when issues like these are discussed directly in the curriculum? In the information age, it might be a good way to inoculate those who will find out later and feel shocked, confused, or even betrayed.
I realize that the real Joseph shocks many people who have been raised on the perfect (Superman) version, but I find the human (Spiderman) version much more accessible. Spiderman and Joseph overcame similar struggles (a humble upbringing, unemployment, a less than perfect family, girl trouble, and a healthy dose of unpopularity) to become reluctant “heroes.” Joseph’s foibles and the role of prophet are not mutually exclusive to me. Yet, his Superman traits are often emphasized: his strength, his courage, his ability to dodge bullets and his unflinching moral rectitude. While those qualities may be accurate, they are not the whole picture.
What about you? How do you like your church leaders, both historical and current? Like Superman (nearly omnipotent and perfect, above reproach) or like Spiderman (real people with real problems and flaws)? Is it realistic or even healthy to expect perfection of them, when we aren’t perfect and we’re taught that only one Man ever was?