By Pablo Lacalle
Amazon’s smash-hit superhero satire The Boys, based on the eponymous graphic novel by Garth Ennis, took the world of streaming by storm upon its release in 2019. Now, having just completed a fresh victory lap with its stellar second season and a third on the way, the most irreverent, gruesome, graphic and depraved series on the air since Game of Thrones whimpered to a close, The Boys shows no signs of stopping in its meteoric ascent in popularity. But what exactly makes the series so refreshing as a work of darkly ironic commentary on the superhero genre itself? Subversive takes on the world’s most beloved spandex-clad icons are not exactly something new, and have become prevalent in tandem with the comic book industries growing supremacy over the box office (Disney’s Marvel franchise alone seems to gross a neat billion dollars for every new Avengers film it releases). The Boys succeeds, aside from its visceral set-pieces and its constant flair for one-upping itself in how much degeneracy one episode can show on screen, through its examination of how the world of superheroes affects us outside of fiction, and how it's changing the role of popular culture itself.
Anyone familiar with The Boys will undoubtedly pick up on the uncomfortably blunt commentary the show engages in in relation to current society. Its main antagonist Homelander (played astonishingly by Antony Starr), is the pure personification of American arrogance, jingoism and irresponsibility: a parody of Superman with an added dosage of psychopathy, clad in a stars-and-stripes cape, the twisted God among men spends much of the series slaughtering, bullying and intimidating those that incur his ire. He is also lazy, petulant, entitled and frequently lashes out with his immense power to overcompensate for his own personal insecurities and fears of emasculation. If the literal flag of the USA draped across Homelander’s back, or his very name, doesn’t give you an idea at the message the character represents, I don’t know what else to say. Alongside this demented übermensch, is Season 2’s standout antagonist Stormfront (Aya Cash): a media-savvy super heroine with legions of fanatical online supporters, who also happens to be an essentially ageless Nazi. Stirring up outrage with concerns of “super-terrorists” attacking America and pouring over the borders, the character's bitter remarks on being exposed as an ex-member of the Third Reich hit a little too close to home. Up until that point, millions have been ecstatic to jump on her protectionist, racist and xenophobic bandwagon; it is only the word “Nazi” that gave them cold feet.
By shining a spotlight on the antics of nigh-unkillable beings revered to on a level bordering on worship, The Boys makes a none too subtle but important connection between the ludicrously corrupting nature of power. and its subsequent influence. But alongside the depressing take on the superhero as a symbol of authoritarianism, not liberty, as we have come to expect, is also a much warranted jab at how superheroes nowadays shape our culture. Dominated by billion dollar corporations, superheroes have lost their edge. They have become an increasingly infantile product, stripped of any hint of risk or ability to provoke and challenge perceptions, instead appealing to generic, trite and politically correct demographics. The times of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which forced readers to take a deep dive into the implications of vigilantism and its power to attract more than just tight-wearing Boy Scouts, with a supporting cast of superheroes guilty of torture, war-crimes, hypocrisy, racism and gross abuses of power, are over.
The Boys takes this a step further: not only does it focus on how a world where men could punch through steel and beam fiery death from their eyes would naturally breed more figures in the vein of Homelander than the perpetually honest and well-meaning Cap America, it's a disturbing look on how reprehensible the strategies to sanitise superheroes are. In the world of The Boys, the super-powered crimes of its villains are only possible due to the extensive work of the corporation that owns them - Vought Enterprises. Vought is shown working tirelessly on the images of its “supes”: they have movie deals, product endorsements, action figures, cereal boxes.
Their every word and action is tailored and dissected to be as inoffensive as possible, with startling cynicism. New female recruit Starlight (Erin Moriarty) has her costume changed to an extremely revealing number under the guise of feminist empowerment, regardless of her reluctance to show so much skin. The overall message takes precedent over the particularities of the individual. Upon being forcibly outed by Homelander, Wonder Woman-esque Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) is hastily re-branded as a lesbian icon (BraveMaeve being the chosen slogan) despite her protestations that she is actually bisexual. Vought’s reasoning? That the American public find ‘lesbian’ to be a more “definite” sexual orientation. In Season 2, The Deep (Chace Crawford) a character with a heinous history of female harassment, re-legitimises himself by shooting a nail-bitingly saccharine PSA replete with him telling a creepy man, “that’s not cool” (possibly a jab at Gillette’s controversial commercial which took a similar approach).
It's a dark look at the machinations of “performative wokeness” as it has been called on the Internet - attempts to appear superficially inclusive and socially conscious masquerading a general lack of genuine care for the issues, aside from their value as branding to hide the smell of dirty laundry. Disney, one of The Boys’ recurring punching bags, is an especially egregious offender. Think of the claims of LGBTQ representation in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that boiled down to a blink-and-you’ll-miss it kiss by two female background characters, the removal of African-American John Boyega from posters advertised in China, or the companies constant self-congratulations on the Mulan remake’s role as transgressive, despite its filming in partnership with authorities involved in the ongoing genocide of Uighyur Muslims in Xinjiang.
Superheroes are a form of escapism, like all fiction, but there is a limit to how far we can retreat into fantasy. As the modern day mythos of our popular culture, superheroes should serve as ideals to strive towards, but also never abandon the elements of societal critique and introspection that they offered. Captain America was punching Hitler all the way back in 1941, and even gave up the mantle during the Watergate Scandal as Marvel’s way of reflecting the loss of faith in American politics. The squeaky clean, colourful CGI of the MCU is harmless, but it shouldn’t become the norm, and it shouldn’t set a precedent for pop culture to be mired in disingenuous marketing that refuses to give the audience enough respect to dare to challenge them. It is the current state of superheroes today that contributes to the derision heaped by many on popular culture as lacking substance or even intellectual value. The Boys triumphs as a sharp burst of fresh-air, and dares to show that even on an Earth where men can fly, society still has its warts.