We are no longer in a “superhero movie age” I think. It no longer feels like a trend. People have been predicting the death of the genre for years, without a single dent in any box office to back it up. Maybe, in a post-apocalyptic future, people will tire of shadow puppets with tiny shields and hammers. For now, the premise “superhero” is simply a storytelling device in any filmmaker’s toolbox. It’s a genre of speculative fiction that is so popular it requires a great deal of creativity to make something new and interesting.
The Boys from Amazon tries to say something about our obsession with the superhero. It’s dark, comedic, well-acted and at times insightful. It’s really fun, and I binged hard. But it also does not provide any meaningful comment about my obsession. For let’s be clear, I am part of the problem. Had superheroes existed in our universe as in The Boys, my apartment would have been decorated in The Seven kitsch.
The Boys follows Hughie (Jack Quaid) after his girlfriend dies. She becomes collateral damage when a superhero called A-Train literally runs through her. A-Train is a member of The Seven, a group of superheroes managed by the evil corporation Vought. They push merchandise, make movies, make public appearances, and occasionally save people. Hughie vows revenge and teams up with Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) to stop The Seven. At the same time he might be falling for the newest member of The Seven, Starlight (Erin Moriarty).
The universe of the show never explicitly tells us how superheroes were revealed to the world, or the exact changes to society they brought, but we get an impression. And it’s not like in the movies, let me tell you. It’s more like if Marvel had actual superheroes starring in their movies. A throwaway line tells us Vought has been pushing superheros to the American people for at least fifty years.
This reveal, among others, weakens the show in my opinion.
The show positions itself brilliantly in the first few episodes. I think Eric Kripke is great at establishing a universe. Seeing “collateral damage” in such a personal way hammers home that this show is about the consequences of superheros. The ultimate argument for Stark and the Sokovia accords. We see a support group for people who have suffered from being saved. The people are manipulated by marketing into something beyond sports stars. They even pretend to be religious symbols. All of them are utter hypocrites of course.
However, the full impact on crime, people’s beliefs, diplomacy, and other areas are barely explored. The main goal of Vought is to pass a bill to let superheroes into the military, but why do they operate inside the corporate world of the US? Why did they not, fifty years ago, “privatize world peace”? Or at least, go to whatever country that bids the highest. In our own globalized world the show feels so US-centric as to be a little dumb. The Marvel universe is often criticised for not showing normal people’s lives, and it’s a shame a show that seems to want to answer that very question simply does not.
Homelander, a perfect Captain America/Superman wannabe who “in real life”, is a sociopath. He appears at first to be a “what if Superman was a douche”, but he’s held on an unrealistic leash with unrealistic loopholes. His relationship with his handler, Madelyn (Elizabeth Shue), is disturbing and fascinating in its own right, but is not adequately explained. Why does Homelander bother having a “job” as the leader of the Seven? He could rule a country, build a religion, be gifted an island, whatever his narcissistic brain could conjure up. His motivations aren’t clear. He wants popularity and adulation, sure, apparently by making sure Vought’s shareholders are happy? His true personality is also way too obvious. He shouts at random crew members and drops his sparkly smile while the camera is still rolling, relying on editors to make him look good. Think of how many people would know the truth. We hear rumours about our normal celebrities’ antics on set. Do you think Homelander’s rages would remain secret? This defeats the purpose of having a “secretly” awful superman. The show is so focused on how the heroes are all image obsessed, accept when we need to make a joke about how douchy Homelander is to some random crew member.
On to Starlight. Her story is about reconciling her image of the superhero with her new reality of working as one. She is the next generation, star-struck and overwhelmed by her celebrity status. She at first glance she seems like the audience surrogate into The Seven, but it turns out she’s not new to the spotlight at all. She’s been in superhero pageants her whole life and she immediately challenges the corporate line with barely any internal struggle. And most importantly: she, like all the rest, was not born a superhero, but made.
I think I get what the show was trying to say with Compound V. It’s all fake! It’s a corporate cash grab! No one is a hero because of their powers, but because of who they are as a person. I felt cheated. The Boys presented itself as a satire of our adherence to Marvel’s “corporate line”, as well as our celebrity culture. Marvel movies taken as a whole convey the message that an elite few are needed to save the world, nay the universe. Heroes are mostly born with an innate greatness inside them, and the world needs these few to accept their calling to save the world. No one else can do it. Having it be a drug sidesteps the question. What should our reaction be to superheroes? Simple, just stop the drug makers. What, superheros can be assholes? Well, of course, because this weird drug was put into some random people. No fateful call to action needed.
Instead of really challenging the Marvel ideal, or disabusing us of the notion that anyone should be able to hold such power or responsibility, the show just sort of has fun with the premise. What if heroes were actually stooges for their corporate masters? What if they were cynical celebrities? The show asks these questions, but never moves beyond poking at them. They tease us with ridiculous situations like Homelander having a childish tantrum or the Aquaman guy chatting with lobsters.
Poor Aquaman guy. I think nothing illustrates my frustration with this great show, and I do think it’s great, is how they handled the character The Deep. He is the butt of the joke, and a sexual predator. He is acted brilliantly by Chase Crawford. He is our Aquaman, and like Aquaman he is ridiculed for his powers. Aquaman has long been the butt of jokes, and DC had to cast Jason Momoa to make him badass enough for a campy adventure movie. But The Deep never goes… further. He is simply what Aquaman would be if all the jokes were true. And his own sexual assault is treated as a joke. His scenes don’t go anywhere, nor to they say anything insightful.
The Boys is a fun show. I was hooked on the plot and the characters. It’s the Always Sunny in Philadelphia / SuperFriends crossover I always wanted. Everyone’s a little shitty and no one learns anything. The only thing I wish was that it had more to say about our new reality. Superheroes are not going away anytime soon, and I hope The Boys stick around too.