The Young Pope Nails the Concept of the Supervillain

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And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling cardinals! Photo: Eva Hill/Vulture

Minor spoilers for The Young Pope below.

Much ink has been spilled over the years about the classical origins of the superhero. Though the noun itself has only been in use since the early 20th century and its association with costumed crusaders only dates to the introduction of Superman in 1938, the concept of a do-gooder with abilities beyond those of workaday humans is, of course, as old as storytelling. More often than not, scholars of the Western canon cite demigods like Gilgamesh and Achilles or outright deities like Thor and Jesus as proto-superheroes. But while watching HBO’s ecclesiastical-intrigue saga The Young Pope, it occurred to me that there’s a person — well, an office — that should be placed in the superhero tradition: the pope.

According to doctrine, popes are folks who were born normal and suddenly find themselves imbued with mystical powers that obligate them to save humanity. Like Flash or Green Lantern, when one pope falls in his battle against sin, the mantle is passed to a new champion. (And hey, Captain America has nothing on the pope’s costumes.) But in the case of The Young Pope, the superhero archetype we’re witnessing is that of the supervillain. In fact, Jude Law’s chillingly focused Pope Pius XIII (née Lenny Belardo) is more terrifying than any of the onscreen menaces in mainstream superhero fiction today. The cabals of tentpole strategists at Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., and Fox would do well to take notice of show creator Paolo Sorrentino’s explosion-free narrative of nigh-sociopathic verbal brutality.

The key to The Young Pope’s understanding of superhero fiction’s mechanics is how eagerly it buys into the mythology of the papacy. It’s easy to imagine an alternative approach to the story, one centering around a cynical pontiff who elbows his way through the Vatican while regarding the archaic suppositions of papal mysticism as means to an end, mere smoke and mirrors to win over the rubes in St. Peter’s Square. But Sorrentino swings aggressively to the opposite pole: His Lenny frightens underlings, followers, and would-be usurpers with his firm belief that he truly is God’s representative on Earth, someone to whom the Divine has granted authorities and abilities that make him more than just a man.

Take, for example, his long-delayed first homily to the faithful at the conclusion of the second episode. If Lenny were just a political operator seeking power, he would take that opportunity to whip the crowd into an adoring frenzy that would allow him to angle against his in-house foes by demonstrating his popular mandate. Instead, he declares that the time has come for Catholics to double down on leaps of faith. “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he shouts. What’s more, he says they are to take literally the notion that a pope possesses the magic we call holiness. “I am closer to God than I am to you,” he rails. He is, in other words, superhuman. When an adviser tells him that the new Papa has surprised and overwhelmed the faithful, Lenny calmly rebukes, “God overwhelms. God frightens.”

So, too, should the nasties in superhero stories, but all too often, they don’t. Do you really feel threatened when Loki snarls or haunted after Magneto monologues? Not really, as interesting as their depictions might be. There is precious little grandeur in them, largely because their motivations and foibles are so mundanely human and worse, predictable. They want to take over the world, but a combination of hubris, strong-willed heroism, and some sci-fi MacGuffin ends up felling them; end of story, on to the sequel. Lenny, on the other hand, is terrifying because his aims are inscrutable and his weaknesses nearly nonexistent.

There is nothing conventional about Lenny’s approach to hard-core antagonism. His employees keep waiting for him to unveil some kind of master plan, but they come up empty at every turn. Wealth? Nah — when he’s told that his doctrinal obscurantism is driving down Church revenues, he says he couldn’t care less. World domination? Not remotely on the menu: “We are cement without windows, so we don’t look to the outside world,” he muses to his quaking cardinals after scrapping the entire concept of evangelization. He wants “fanatics for God,” but he sees no purpose in using them for a Christian jihad. What does he want? We’re denied the relief of finding out.

Moreover, none of the voices of reason (they’re all pretty venal, so calling them “heroes” would be a bit much) can figure out how to meaningfully punch him. Time and again, those who despise what he’s doing to their beloved Holy See think they can leverage him with secrets from his past; those attempts roll off of him like Holy Water on wax paper. A rival asks for opposition research on Lenny and learns that his “moral conduct” is “irreproachable,” that there’s “no gossip, no insinuations … no love affairs, nothing.” Appeals from mentors and friends leave him wholly unfazed; he repeatedly informs them that his papal selection by the Holy Spirit makes him fundamentally different from the human he once was. Even attempts to defeat his fundamentalism with realpolitik fall short when he demonstrates that his intellect allows him to use pragmatic, earthly logic to achieve his heavenly goals.

What becomes clear is that the only thing predictable about Lenny is his ability to make anyone and everyone feel like crap. He has a counter to every good point you might offer about why he should back down on his hard-line approaches to homosexuality, abortion, ecumenicalism, and any other issue those who oppose him hold close to their hearts. They tell him to be more flexible, and he (with no small amount of accuracy) points out that there is nothing less flexible than religious law. You knew the rules when you got anointed, so what the hell are your grounds for arguing, you moron? He makes a convincing argument that attacks on his ideology are just shamefully hypocritical attacks on the concepts and institutions that Christians claim to hold dear.

Like a sadistically illiberal Batman, Lenny is prepared for every eventuality, and can use intellectual judo to knock you out from any position. This, of course, is one of the superpowers that Catholics nominally invest in the pope, one more potent than heat vision or super-strength: infallibility. He’s always, always right. That uncanny deftness at opposition is the core of what makes him as horrifying as the great supervillains of the comic-book tradition. He makes you doubt and hate yourself, which is a far more painful experience for a viewer than just looking at some broken bones and energy blasts.

And that leads us to the secret sauce, the fundamental truth of supervillainy that the shepherds of the world’s most lucrative genre have forgotten. Everyone calls Lenny “Holy Father,” and that second word is crucial, because Lenny is an Oedipal nightmare, a primordial dad who will never be proud of you and calmly, plausibly argues that your entire life has been a waste. He is, in this way, not unlike the best comics depictions of Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor; Heath Ledger’s filmic Joker; and TV’s last great supervillain, Mads Mikkelsen’s stunningly capable and mentally devastating Hannibal Lecter. They’re like verbally abusive papas whom you can’t impress or successfully defy — they’re always smarter, more prepared, and more confident than the hero could ever be. A disapproving parent is everyone’s Ur-villain, and Lenny acts as one for all who dare speak to him.

Though The Young Pope occasionally flirts with the idea that its title character might actually have metahuman capabilities, that’s entirely beside the point when it comes to the craftsman’s lessons the show offers for those who build superhero narratives. What matters is that he believes he is better than us, and everyone is doggedly unable to prove otherwise. When we see an Avengers or X-Men flick, we’re accustomed to rolling our eyes at a bad guy’s foolish pride, but we stop rolling them over the course of Law’s performance, because his pride starts to seem decidedly un-foolish. In other words, we start worrying that this pope, loathsome though he may be, can’t actually lose — and when was the last time you felt that way about the antagonist of, say, an Iron Man film? And even if he does lose, hasn’t he already damaged the viewer enough by sowing doubt about our own virtuousness? When the show is at its best, it turns us all into the eternal stereotype of the self-flagellating Catholic.

Lenny also, like all the great super-baddies, has a gift for soliloquy, and there’s one he delivers to a secular politician midway through the series that resonates metatextually. “In the ‘60s, the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kinds of heresies — all except one: Power to the imagination,” he quietly sneers. “In that, they were correct. The only problem was, they had no imagination. And neither do you. But God and I have plenty. God and I are simply dripping with imagination.” He is — as always — correct. We’d all have a lot more fun at the multiplex if those who scribble about spandex paid attention to his homilies.

The Young Pope Is a Supervillain Story