In the history of superhero media, 2019 will likely go down as one of the greatest years of all time. This year included three superhero movies that grossed over a billion dollars, including the first female-led superhero movie to gross a billion dollars and one that became the highest grossing movie of all time. Whatever the future holds for the genre, there’s no doubt that 2019 will go down as a banner year.
Regardless of what the James Camerons of the world think, superheroes have made their mark on the pop culture landscape. They’ll likely keep making their mark for years to come, especially after Marvel’s latest announcements for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, in the same year that superhero media achieved some of its greatest success, something comes along to utterly deconstruct it.
Whereas a movie like “Avengers Endgame” showed us just how great superheroes can be, a TV show like “The Boys” shows us just how depraved they can be. Being a comic book fan long before this golden age of superheroes, I already knew that. I followed the original comics when they came out in the mid-2000s. Now, thanks to a new TV show, everyone can experience the story that gave superheroes the ultimate gut punch.
I’m not going to lie. I was genuinely surprised when I heard Amazon Prime was going to make this show. This is not the kind of story that you can turn into a Disney-approved, PG-13 spectacle for mass consumption. In anything, “The Boys” goes out of its way to explore the kinds of things that would make the censors at Disney and the MPAA throw up.
This is a story that does not hide the brutal violence, intense trauma, and unchecked hedonism that often seems unavoidable in the context of the narrative. Writer and co-creator, Garth Ennis, has a long history of embracing those darker elements of the genre. He did it with “Preacher” and his run on “The Punisher.” With “The Boys,” he took it to another level and beyond.
The world of “The Boys” is not unlike the early days of the MCU. The over-arching story tries to incorporate the fanciful ideals of superheroes into a real-world context. It doesn’t use fictional cities like Metropolis or Gotham. It doesn’t ignore how superheroes would affect society, government, or the economy. The many flaws of the real world are just as relevant in this world.
As are the sentiments about reality, in general.
From here, “The Boys” doesn’t necessarily portray a worst-case scenario for superheroes, but it comes pretty damn close. The “heroes” of this world are the Seven. They include the likes of Homelander, Black Noir, Queen Maeve, A-Train, and the Deep. They’re basically derivations of the Justice League, but in terms of heroic ideals, these characters have none of that.
The Seven conduct themselves as superheroes for the masses. They’re admired, respected, and idolized by many, just like their counterparts in the MCU. However, that heroic zeal is both a lie and a scam. Their entire image is built around a marketing ploy, courtesy of Vought American Consolidated, a defense contractor who incorporates superheroes into their arsenal.
Trust me. It’s even more corrupt than it sounds.
With that corruption comes greed, treachery, violence, and depravity the likes of which Batman would find too grim. These heroes basically get to smile for the cameras, enjoy the benefits of celebrity, and still conduct themselves as self-serving narcissist behind the scene. They can do whatever they want, get away with it, and still be beloved. It’s a recipe for all sorts of disasters.
On top of that, some of these characters are outright psychopaths. Homelander is a mentally unstable sadist who commits many vile acts throughout the comics, including rape. The TV show captures only a fraction of his depravity, but it’s more than enough to highlight the underlying message of “The Boys” and why it’s such a powerful story.
In essence, “The Boys” is the ultimate satire of the superhero genre. It’s entire narrative is built around exploring, exposing, and denigrating the ideals on which all superhero media is built upon. It’s not done for humor or comedic effect, either. The theme of “The Boys” is dead serious in showing how a world with superheroes becomes so depraved.
This is where the Boys themselves come in. They include Billy Butcher, Frenchie, Mother’s Milk, the Female, and Hughie. They both witness and directly experience the breadth of the Seven’s corruption. They take it upon themselves to expose these heroes for who they are.
However, their motivations aren’t entirely heroic. These characters often come off every bit as damaged, petty, and vindictive as the heroes they actively oppose. They don’t stick to high ideals, either. The Boys are brutal, albeit in a more focused and pragmatic sense.
It gets ugly.
It gets violent.
It gets downright traumatic.
It also gets the damn point across.
If “The Boys” has a unifying message that unites both the comics and the TV shows, it’s that superheroes can only ever make things worse in the long run. That ideal of a perfectly altruistic savior in the mold of Superman just doesn’t exist and wanting it to exist can be downright dangerous.
The people behind the scenes with the Seven feed into that. The government, big corporations, and the media glorify these heroes because the people latch onto them. They want these heroes to be the idealized figures that they read about in comics and see in blockbuster movies. They buy into it and both the Seven and the organizations that manage them keep selling it.
It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that only amplifies the corruption. The Boys dare to battle that corruption, but with the understanding they’re fighting a losing battle. They can attack, expose, and frustrate these superpowered sociopaths all they want. They’re never going to destroy those rosy ideals on which the entire genre is build upon. At most, they can just make them pay a price for their egregious misdeeds.
It’s hardly proportional to the many atrocities the Seven commits, but that’s kind of the point. These are superpowered beings who can only be hurt so much, even by other superheroes. The Boys can never punish them in a way that feels equitable, compared to the injustices the Seven inflict. That doesn’t stop them from making an effort and making it better than most would expect.
The right tool for the right job.
How they go about this and how the Seven reacts is a long, tortured story that has many shocking moments that are not for kids or the faint of heart. The trailer for the TV show offers a hint of that, but there are scenes from the comics that even the lenient censors of Amazon Prime wouldn’t dare put on film. I won’t spoil the bloody details, but if you have the stomach, I highly recommend you check out the comics.
More than anything else, the “The Boys” is a brutal reminder that the ideals behind superheroes are probably the most fanciful part of the genre. In a real world full of corruption and collateral damage, superheroes can be far more dangerous than the threats they confront. It’s almost impossible to be a superhero without becoming a self-absorbed asshole to some extent.
Even the Boys, who actively battle the superheroes that fuel this fantasy, never come off as entirely altruistic. They’re simply more respectable and less narcissistic. In that dynamic, nobody can ever come off as truly heroic. There’s just too much room for corruption and ego.
While “The Boys” wasn’t the first comic to satirize superheroes, it’s definitely the most complete. “Watchmen” may get more praise and respect, but even in that story, the heroes still try to act like heroes in their own perverse way. What characters like Ozymandias and Rorschach do is framed as something heroic, even if it gets violent and brutal. There’s none of that with “The Boys.”
In an ideal world, even assholes will find a way to be heroic under the right circumstances. Tony Stark proved that in “Avengers Endgame.” However, in the world of “The Boys,” there’s no such thing as right circumstances. If anything, the entire superhero genre has it ass-backwards. Heroes will inevitably find a way to become assholes and if nobody stops them, then they’ll just push their assholery to new heights.
“The Boys” is a unique comic in its own right, but the TV adaptation is coming along at just the right time. I would even argue that this kind of satire is necessary in the current cultural landscape. We need something like this to remind us that the ideals of superheroes are still ideals. Like most things in the real world, ideals tend to crumble when subjected to scrutiny.
At a time when people are consuming the ideals of superheroes at an unprecedented level, it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective about the genre. A satire like “The Boys” may never have the same impact as anything from the MCU, but it’s still a story worth telling, if only to remind us that great power can also breed greater assholes.