Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith says that Catholic teaching offers support to the self-styled superheroes fighting crime from Yeovil to Seattle

The concept of the superhero is one that is surprisingly familiar. Everyone has heard of Superman, Spiderman and their less plausible brethren. Superman, the first of the breed, dates from 1932 and is such a successful character that he is known even to those who have never read a comic strip, or indeed been to a cinema, which are the two media through which he has captured the imagination of an age. Presumably invented for children, he succeeds equally with adults.

A harmless piece of entertainment, Superman stories can also be the vehicles for serious themes. Superman himself has been subject to literary and cultural analysis by people as eminent as Umberto Eco.

Spiderman, who dates from 1962, has also made the leap from comic book to screen, and to my mind repays careful theological study. Like Superman, he seems to be a Messiah-figure, Christ-like in his dedication to the service of others, and prepared to sacrifice himself for the general good. Spiderman is an exemplar of what theologians call oblative love.

Both Spiderman and Superman have supernatural powers, which perhaps points to humanity’s desire to see miracles.

But what about real-life superheroes? These are people, like you or I, quite lacking in supernatural powers, who dress up in superhero costumes, masking their true identities, and who tread the mean streets at night looking for those who might need their help, and, of course, fighting crime. So, for example, in the town of Yeovil you might meet “Shadow Ninja”, a real-life superhero (or RLSH as they more snappily term themselves), who could get you out of a spot of bother if you need his help. RLSH’s have their own organisation and have been featured in media reports around the world.

What can we make of the phenomenon of men dressing up in silly costumes and patrolling the streets in cities across the United States and Europe, looking for trouble, or hoping to prevent it?

The first reaction might be to think that these people have simply read too many comic books and seen too many films, and that their nocturnal habits reflect the same excesses that one might spot at a Star Trek convention or (just to be fair) at a Jane Austen conference. Fandom can be taken to ridiculous lengths.

But one should not rush to dismiss this form of vigilantism. Just as the character of Superman draws on religious precedents, the RLSH phenomenon calls to mind the knight errantry of the Middle Ages (or what we assume to have been the knight errantry of that period).

In fact, there probably never was a time when knights set out on adventure, frequently obscuring their identity behind a visor, seeking out those in distress whom they could rescue, and seeking to right wrongs. The legends of the Round Table exist in a never-ever land that resembles no society that has ever existed. There never were people like Sir Lancelot and Sir Percival who dedicated themselves to the service of damsels, or the poor, or who went on quests. But – and this is the key point – there was a time in English history when the ideal of such knight errantry was deeply appealing.

But what have the knights errant of the High Middle Ages to do with the RLSHs of today? Just as the people of Edward III’s time found inspiration in the Round Table legends, today’s people have found inspiration from the popular cultural figures of our own day such as Superman and Spiderman. The comic book and film characters have given people the language they need to express a longing that is constant in the human heart, namely to do good, and to feel the thrill of adventure in doing good.

But a note of caution is necessary. The world of Superman and Spiderman, though superficially like our own, does not in fact exist, and the RLSH of today lives in a rather different world to that of Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Aren’t social problems on the streets better left to the police?

And here of course we get to the nub of the question, and an indication of why the RLSH movement is so quintessentially American: who should deal with problems on the street, the power of the state or ourselves? In Seattle, for example, a RLSH called Phoenix Jones, masked from head to toe, confronts drug dealers in nasty neighbourhoods and has on occasion faced them down. By confronting them and not being intimidated by their threats, he has forced them to move on.

Again, in the notoriously sleazy Washington Square in New York City a RLSH called Dark Guardian (real name Chris Pollak) dresses in stab-proof garments and shines a powerful torch into the faces of drug dealers and yells: “This is a drug-free park!” Of course the police should be doing these things, but do we really want to live in a society where everything is the responsibility of the police and nothing is left to ordinary citizens? Surely the police should be there as a last resort and the real enforcers of good behaviour should be all of us?

One enters morally questionable territory were the RLSH to use force. Some are armed with Mace and Tasers, and in a society where there is a right to bear arms this may be acceptable. Their use in self-defence is, from a Catholic point of view, also acceptable, provided the force is proportionate to the threat to life and limb. But in Britain those who engage in self-defence often end up on the wrong side of the law; it is worth noting that Catholic teaching is far more liberal on this matter than the restrictive law of the land.

Moreover, even dressing up in a costume in Britain, never mind carrying a weapon, could be construed as threatening.

One fears that in Britain shining light into the face of a drug dealer and shouting at him might be deemed a criminal offence. But if this is the case, the law is lopsided, and not in the favour of the victim.