Tag Archives: TV Shows
The following is a video for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s a bit of a shift from my previous videos. In this, I try to dissect certain TV tropes from some of my favorite shows. For this video, I’m breaking down how capitalism manifests in two distinct characters, namely Montgomery Burns from “The Simpsons” and Bob Belcher from “Bob’s Burgers.”
I’m very curious to see what kind of response I get here. If you like what you see with this video and want to see more like it, please let me know. Thanks and enjoy!
Every now and then, a narrative trend comes along that I neither care for nor understand. I get why many trends catch on. I’ve even been caught up in a few. I remember when stories about asteroid impacts became popular, as well as romance stories that relied on best friends falling in love. Some lasted longer than others. Some burn out. I think “Friends” alone killed the whole friends-falling-in-love-gimmick.
However, certain trends seem to catch on for all the wrong reasons. I’m not just referring to the gimmicky tropes of every sitcom attempting to rip off “Seinfeld,” either. These are narratives that attempt to troll the audience in hopes of a bigger reaction, as though that can somehow take the place of a compelling story.
Lately, the trend that I’ve found particularly frustrating is the idea of subverting expectations. It’s become a major buzzword in recent years, but not for good reasons. It became a big deal after the fan reaction to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and only intensified with the final season of “Game of Thrones.”
Now, I don’t want to get into extensive discussions about those emotionally charged subjects. I’ll let the fan bases continue to debate that in whatever way they see fit. Instead, I want to take a moment to look at this trend, note how it can be done well, and highlight why recent attempts are misguided and counterproductive.
While subverting expectations sounds cunning on paper, it’s one of those concepts that’s difficult to make work. The concept is simple. You take an audience’s expectations about a story, build up some narrative tension, and then go in an unexpected direction that changes and enhances the impact of that story.
It sounds simple, but it’s not. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s downright toxic to itself. I would argue that neither “Star Wars: The Last Jedi“ nor the final season of “Game of Thrones” succeeded in that effort. However, one movie did succeed in this effort and it did so back in 2010, long before this trend even began.
That movie is “Megamind,” a film I’ve praised before for how it parodies the superhero genre. There’s a lot more I can say about this underrated gem, but this is one element that I feel is more relevant now than it was when the movie first came out. To date, I’ve yet to see a movie subvert expectations as well as this one.
The way “Megamind” goes about this is not at all subtle, but it’s still powerful. It’s in the premise of the movie. It asks what happens when the evil genius supervillain actually defeats the handsome, square-jawed superhero? What do they do afterwards? Why did they pursue this goal in the first place?
The first 15 minutes of the movie do an excellent job of setting up the basic, generic premise of every superhero narrative since Superman. Metro Man is the hero. That’s how he carries himself. That’s how others see him. That’s how he’s perceived. Conversely, Megamind is the villain. That’s how everyone sees him. The prison warden himself says it before the opening title screen. He’ll always be a villain.
Everything is in place for a traditional hero-versus-villain struggle. Old concepts like justice, hero worship, and public perception come into play. Then, in the first real battle we see between Megamind and Metro Man, the unthinkable happens. Megamind, despite his grandiose boasting and casual bumbling, defeats Metro Man.
It’s not framed as some M. Knight Shamalyan twist. It’s not an attempt to shock the audience. It’s not some minor plot point, either. In fact, the rest of the movie is built around this sudden subversion of standard superhero stories. Every event, choice, and character moment stems directly from this subversion. It’s not just a minor element of the plot. It is the plot.
What makes it work is how this subversion helps tell a very different kind of superhero story. It’s not just about flipping the script for the sake of novelty. It makes a case that superhero narratives are capable of doing much more than simply having the hero save the day from the villain.
Throughout the movie, Megamind finds himself playing a part in every tried and true trope we’ve come to expect in a superhero movie. He starts off being a villain because that’s what he assumes he’s meant to be. He starts questioning that assumption because by defeating Metro Man, he finds himself without a greater purpose. In pursuing that purpose, he find out that those assumptions had serious flaws.
Such assumptions weren’t inherently right or wrong. It was a matter of digging a little deeper into the concept of heroes and villains, finding out along the way that the role he thought was right for him wasn’t the one he ultimately wanted. By the end, he still dresses like a villain. He’s still not nearly as handsome or powerful as Metro Man. However, he still chooses to become Metro City’s greatest hero.
This subversion of expectation works because it’s used to build a story rather than just tweak a few details. Moments like the revelation about Rey’s parents being nobodies or Arya Stark killing the Night King had only minor shock value, but they didn’t really factor into the larger plot.
If someone other than Arya had killed the Night King, then it wouldn’t have changed much in terms of how the last few episodes of “Game of Thrones” panned out.
If Rey’s parents turned out to be someone important in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it wouldn’t have substantially altered how the events that followed played out. Rey still wouldn’t have joined Kylo.
Ultimately, those subversions just felt like trolling. These details that people thought were important just turned out to be tricks or ploys meant to get a reaction. It comes off as both dishonest and insincere. They might not have been intended as such, but given the fan reactions, I can understand that sentiment to some extent.
You thought all those prophecies about Jon Snow and the Night King meant something? Well, that turned out to be a big waste of time.
You thought Rey’s parents would impact the course of the movie? Well, that was just a complete waste of time, at least until “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” changed that.
At times, it felt like the story was tempting people to get engaged and then slapped them in the face the second the plot went in a different direction. As a result, it didn’t feel at all surprising or engaging. It just felt insulting.
Contrast that with “Megamind.” At no point does the plot attempt to demean the audience or anyone who enjoys the traditional superhero narrative. The subversion is in the synopsis. That same subversion is used to build a larger story that fleshes out characters who started out in generic roles, but ultimately embraced a different role.
This shift never feels forced or contrived. It’s not done just to get a cheap thrill or to stand out. At its core, “Megamind” uses the concept of subverting expectations to tell a better story than it could’ve told if it stuck to the traditional superhero narrative. That’s why it works.
Unfortunately, that’s also why other recent attempts keep failing. Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a comic book, or a video game, the concept has been used in a misguided effort to do something different. Subverting expectations has become synonymous, to some extent, with doing something new and bold. The importance of telling a compelling, coherent story is never more than secondary.
I get the importance of trying new things, especially when that genre has been played out in so many forms. However, doing so does not mean taking audience expectations and defying them in a way that feels blatant. At best, it just makes the story confusing. It’s just different for the sake of being different. At worst, it insults the audience and makes them feel denigrated for enjoying that narrative in the first place.
It can be done and done well. “Megamind” is proof of that. It doesn’t just subvert expectations for the superhero genre. It dares to build a story around it and even have a little fun with it along the way. It doesn’t at all take away from the genre it parodies. It just uses it as a foundation to tell a unique story.
No matter how many expectations you subvert, there’s no substitute for a quality story. “Megamind” gives us that and the undeniable charm of Will Ferrell. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.
Time, age, and hindsight have a way of changing how you see things. The attitudes and perspectives you have when you’re 35 are bound to be different than the ones you had when you were 15. It’s just part of life, as you get older. The world is such a different place through the mind of a teenager than it is to an adult.
This manifests in many ways, but the one I’ve found most revealing has to do with the way I see old TV shows that I watched in my youth. Some shows age better than others. I recently cited “Chuck” as one of those rare shows that seems to get better with age. Most shows don’t get that benefit. Some age so poorly that there’s no way they could ever air today.
Thanks to the joys of being quarantined, I’ve had a chance to re-watch and re-visit some of the shows I loved in my youth. Shows like “Chuck” have only reaffirmed why I loved it so much. Other shows evoke a different reaction. One such show is “That ’70s Show.”
When I was a teenager, this was one of my favorite shows. In terms of TV sitcoms, it checked all the right boxes. It didn’t try to revolutionize the genre. It kept things simple, using 70s aesthetics and proven sitcom tropes to make an entertaining show. It never got too extreme. It never tried to cross too many lines. It just tried to have fun with a certain time period and a cast of colorful characters.
Most of the characters were lovable in their own right. My personal favorite was Fez. Some of the best lines in the show came from him. However, one character often stood out even more. In many ways, he was the show’s primary antagonist. He was Red Forman and when he wasn’t threatening to put his foot in someone’s ass, he was a frequent obstacle to whatever scheme the kids had conjured.
In many respects, any sitcom that involves a cast of teenagers needs a character like Red. He embodies the hard-nosed, uncompromising, uncool authority figure. Most of his roles revolve around stopping the kids from doing what they’re doing or punishing them as soon as they get caught. In that context, he’s easy to root against most of the time.
I certainly did when I watched the show in my youth. In fact, Red was one of my least favorite characters in the show because he was just such a hardass. He didn’t have any of the charm or likability as other sitcom dads. Al Bundy might have been a lousy dad, but at least he was funny. Red was rarely funny, his foot-in-ass remarks notwithstanding.
Then, after watching a few episodes recently, I found myself looking at Red Forman differently. I also saw the teen cast differently. While there were certainly times when Red was an unambiguous asshole, those times were a lot less frequent than I remember. In fact, I came to appreciate Red a lot more as I watched the show from an adult perspective.
In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why. When you’re a teenager, authority figures are often barriers to all the things you want to do. They’re the reason you can’t stay out late at night, drink beer, smoke pot, or hook up with your significant other. They enforce the rules that keep you from having all the fun you want to have. They’ll rarely explain those rules. It usually comes down to them being the parent and you being their kid.
This certainly plays out in “That ’70s Show” throughout many plots. I remember watching those same plots as a teenager and rolling my eyes whenever Red Forman got involved. Then, after watching them again, I found myself siding with Red and not just with respect to who deserved a foot in the ass.
When Eric, Fez, Kelso, Jackie, and Donna do something stupid, it’s rarely because of the rules or the authority figures who enforce them. More often than not, they do what they do by choice. They don’t think things through. They think about the consequences to their actions. They are, after all, immature teenagers in the 1970s. They’re more inclined than most to do stupid things for stupid, selfish reasons.
Red Forman may not be the best when it comes to helping them mature, but he’s not wrong for calling them out on it. Most of the time, they are on the wrong side of the dumb-ass equation. Their efforts to eat, drink, have sex, and avoid responsibility are all products of their own immaturity. Someone like Red needs to be there to remind them of that.
Is he the best father figure for helping teenagers navigate their immaturity? No, he isn’t.
Is he better than most of the bumbling dads who tend to populate most TV shows? Yes, he is and he’d kick the asses of most of those dads.
As a teenager, I had a hard time relating to Red Forman. As an adult, I can’t help but respect him. He is surrounded by a lot of dumb-asses and a wife who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown every other day. The fact he hasn’t put his foot in more asses is a testament to his restraint.
If you need more proof, please see this series of clips. If you haven’t seen the show in a while, then you may find yourself remembering Red more fondly than you thought.
Red Forman may be a hard-ass. He’ll never be father of the year or the first person you invite to a party. However, in a world of dumb-asses, he’s a beacon of order. For that, he deserves our respect.
The greatness of a TV show is often measured in how endearing the characters are. Whether it has dramatic themes like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” or over-the-top comedy like “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” TV shows thrive and fail by the strength of their characters.
A show like “King of the Hill” is a good example of this and not just because it has plenty of great characters. The personalities and stories of characters like Hank Hill, Boomhauer, and Luanne are all endearing in their own unique way. I’ve even gone out of my way to praise Hank Hill on multiple occasions for his work ethic and his unique approach to masculinity.
However, “King of the Hill” is unique in the sheer range of characters it offers, with respect to likability. Characters like Bill Dautrieve and Khan Souphanousinphone have definite flaws, but do plenty to warrant respect. Peggy Hill is a textbook narcissist, but still does plenty to balance it out. Dale Gribble is a paranoid idiot, but he’s still a loyal friend and just fun to be around.
There are also a few characters who are just assholes most of the time. While the show goes out of its way to balance everyone to some extent, there’s only so much you can do with characters like Cotton Hill and Buck Strickland. I could say a lot about those two, in terms of how they impact the themes of the show, but I’d like to focus on a character who has confounded me over the years.
Of all the colorful characters that make “King of the Hill” one of my favorite shows of all time, Bobby Hill is the one I’m most conflicted about. I’ve always had mixed feelings about him. I can watch one episode where I have no sympathy for him, but in the very next, he’ll come off as one of the most respectable characters in Arlen.
Some of that might have to do with me, as a viewer. When I started watching this show, I was younger and had a lot more in common with Bobby. We were both overwhelmed by the prospect of growing up. We often felt beleaguered by school, adults, and puberty. I related to him a lot more than I did with the adults in the show.
Then, as I re-watched those same episodes as an adult, I saw Bobby in a different light. I had a hard time sympathizing with his struggles in certain episodes. At times, he came off as some immature kid trying desperately to avoid responsibility and hard work. In one episode, he became a full-fledged panhandler.
At the same time, Bobby had moments where he genuinely shined. While I would argue that the series finale was his finest hour and the culmination of his growth, he also had other moments in which he stepped up to do something awesome. He was, in my opinion, the most confounding characters in the entire show.
Now, after having watched and re-watched every episode of “King of the Hill,” while also having the benefit of my own personal growth, I feel like I can appreciate Bobby’s character in a new way. In terms of the bigger picture, Bobby Hill represents an important theme in the show. Specifically, his story revolves around someone torn between adulthood and childhood.
While “King of the Hill” has many themes, Bobby’s were often tied to his youth and that youth was often the catalyst for his misadventures. When the show begins, he’s 11-year-old. By the time it ends, he’s 13-years-old. These are some formative years in a boy’s life and the show takes full advantage of that.
In the first several seasons, Bobby definitely carries himself as a kid. His behavior is distinctly childlike, from using his dad’s golf clubs to hit dog shit to taking part in a camping trip in which he accidentally kills an endangered animal. Then, over the course of the show, his stories evolve. He starts getting interested in girls and sees the effects of puberty on his best friend. At times, he’s more than a little overwhelmed.
In some cases, he wants to be an adult. He even enjoys the maturity and status that comes with it. In others, he actively avoids it, clinging to his childhood and the carefree innocence that it entails. Granted, there are times when he just wants to be lazy. At one point, he states outright that he prefers taking baths because he doesn’t like standing for so long.
However, there are plenty of other instances in which he sees the rigors of adulthood and doesn’t find it the least bit appealing. It doesn’t help that he’s had some very unpleasant experiences with the adult world, which includes one in which he ran out onto a racetrack because of an asshole boss. After an experience like that, who wouldn’t long for the more sheltered life of childhood?
To some extent, it’s not entirely Bobby’s fault that the adult world is so overwhelming. His laziness doesn’t help, but there are times when Hank’s uptight parenting skills actively contribute to the problem. The only reason he had that aforementioned job at a racetrack was because Hank tried to teach him a lesson about hard work and it taught him the wrong lesson, entirely.
On top of that, Peggy often babies him in ways that reinforce how much easier and carefree it is to be a child. Whether it’s cutting his hair or giving him one of Hank’s old trophies, she often makes childhood feel a lot easier and safer, albeit indirectly. Bobby gets so many mixed messages throughout the show that it’s easy to see why he’s often so conflicted.
Like most themes in “King of the Hill,” the nature of the conflicts fluctuate. There is a sense of progression for certain characters, but there’s also a general consistency over the course of the show. Joseph and Luanne are very different by the final season when compared to the first season, but Bobby’s journey is left somewhat ambiguous.
By the end of the show, he finds a skill and a passion that he wants to pursue. In the same way Hank has a passion for propane and propane accessories, Bobby discovers a passion for grading the quality of steaks. It’s a passion that requires both hard work and a level of maturity the likes of which he hasn’t pursued before. It also makes for a powerful moment when he and his dad finally get to share in a mutual interest.
At the same time, he still carries himself like a kid. Even within that final episode, he gets overwhelmed by the pressure placed on him by other adults. While he managed to overcome the pressure, there’s still a sense that he’s not entirely ready for the adult world. At the very least, he’s not quite as reluctant to pursue it.
Bobby Hill’s journey, struggling between childhood and adulthood, is just one among many compelling plots in “King of the Hill.” His journey has many setbacks and absurdities, but it still feels real and relatable. For an animated show that includes eccentric characters in fictitious settings, it’s quite an achievement.
Hank Hill often says his boy ain’t right. On some levels, that might be true. In the grand scheme of things, however, the show demonstrated that Bobby Hill was as right as he needed to be when struggling between childhood and adulthood.
Every so often, I get news that excites me like a kid in a candy factory. It doesn’t happen often these days. As adults, it’s hard to get too excited when bills, the news, and traffic do plenty to dampen your spirits. Then, it happens and your world is better because of it.
This past weekend, I got a much-needed dose of that excitement. At Disney’s annual D23 Expo, Marvel Studios announced that they’re making a live-action Ms. Marvel TV show for their Disney+ streaming service. As someone who has praised Ms. Marvel’s comics and her contributions to female superheroes, I freely admit I jumped for joy when I saw this.
I know the news surrounding Disney hasn’t been good lately, given what has been happening with Spider-Man. I also know they’re in a bit of a transitional period after the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame.” Despite these issues, Marvel Studios and their Disney overlords still want to make money. They’ve got plenty of high-profile movies on their slate, but this could end up being a bigger deal.
I say that as an unapologetic fan of Ms. Marvel and all things Kamala Khan. I also know that Disney is looking for any possible edge to promote their new streaming service and take a bite out of the market share that Netflix currently dominates. I admit I wasn’t planning on subscribing. Shows about She-Hulk, the Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Moon Night sound fun, but not enough to justify the cost.
That all changed with Ms. Marvel. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the only reason I’ll be getting or keeping a Disney+ subscription. There’s a lot to unpack with this announcement. I doubt I’ll cover all of it here, but for now, I’d like to take some time to articulate the extent of my excitement.
To that end, I’d like to share five things I hope to see in this upcoming series. Kamala Khan is one of those characters who can capture the heart, soul, and spirit of the superhero genre. Her entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t be better. These are just some of the things that could make it even more marvelous.
Number 1: The (Many) Quirks That Make Kamala Khan Lovable
Any TV show, comic book, movie, or video game involving Kamala Khan must make its first priority to capture the essence of what makes her so endearing. Being a superhero is only small part of her overall story. What makes Kamala great is the many little things that define who she is.
She’s not just a teenager who gets superpowers and decides to start fighting criminals. She’s a self-professed fangirl. She loves playing video games, eating gyros, and writing fan fiction. These quirks are small, but numerous. They’re real things that people in the real world can relate to. That makes it easy to understand and appreciate her passions.
When I first read about Kamala in “Ms. Marvel #1,” I immediately grew to like her. She came off as the kind of girl I would’ve been friends with in high school. She presents herself as someone who behaves how you would expect a teenage girl to behave in a world where superheroes existed. She has a good family, a good heart, and an adventurous spirit. How can you not love that?
She’s also an outsider and not just because she’s a Pakistani Muslim girl living in Jersey City. Like most teenagers, she’s uncertain of her place in the world. She struggles with real issues, even before she gets superpowers. Those issues stay with her, even as she develops her superhero identity. It makes her easy to like and even easier to root for.
A TV show can’t just focus on her beating up bad guys and making witty one-liners. Plenty of other superheroes already do that, some better than others. It has to highlight, if not belabor, the distinct traits that have helped make her one of Marvel’s most successful female characters. There’s a lot to love and with a TV show, there’s plenty of room to explore it.
Number 2: Relatable Teenage Melodrama (Compounded By Being A Superhero)
Along with the traits that make Kamala Khan so lovable, there’s also the unavoidable battle that is teenage melodrama. Everyone faces it. Superpowers don’t make you immune to it. The last two Spider-Man movies have made that abundantly clear. A TV show provides more time and flexibility to flesh out that melodrama.
In the first few issues of Ms. Marvel’s comic series, which I highly recommend, she deals with a lot of teen angst and uncertainty. In fact, that sentiment is the very thing that prompts her to defy her parents and sneak out at night to a party that would ultimately end with her getting superpowers. In a very literal sense, teenage melodrama helped make Ms. Marvel who she is.
She’s not sure of where she fits in. She clashes with her parents. She argues with her friends. She also is starting to have feelings about other boys, which have made for some wonderfully sweet moments. She deals with all of this on top of being a superhero.
Like a young Peter Parker before her, these different aspects of her life often clash. One tends to undermine the other and it does plenty to overwhelm her at times. That often brings out the best in her and any TV show would be wise to present those moments.
Number 3: The Family And Supporting Cast That Help Make Her Who She Is
Like every major hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ms. Marvel’s greatest strengths often stem from her supporting cast. Tony Stark wouldn’t have achieved what he did without Pepper Potts. Carol Danvers wouldn’t have accomplished what she did without Nick Fury and Goose the Cat. Kamala Khan is no different.
In “Ms. Marvel #1,” we learn plenty about Kamala’s supporting cast. She has two loving parents who tend to be overprotective of her. She has an uptight brother named Aamir, who tends to intrude into Kamala’s personal life more than most siblings. She also has a friend/love interest in Bruno who had a front-row seat in seeing her become Ms. Marvel.
Each one of these characters helps shape Kamala into who she is, before and after she gets her powers. They support her, but they also complicate her efforts. While none of them have to die for her to be the hero she strives to be, they all make their on contributions to her story. In the same way Superman’s parents guided his heroic journey, Kamala’s friends and family informed hers.
Unlike Superman, Kamala endured a pretty rocky road to establishing herself. However, at no point did her creator, G. Willow Wilson, give the impression that her friends and family were just background decorations. They all care for her. They worry for her. They all want what’s best for her, even when they’re rarely on the same page.
A TV show featuring Kamala has to capture at least part of that family/friend dynamic. Even a fraction of Kamala Khan’s supporting cast from the comics can do plenty to make for a rich, engaging TV show.
Number 4: The Struggles (And Triumphs) Of A Growing Hero
There’s no getting around it. Kamala Khan screwed up more than once when she started off her superhero career in the comics. While she managed to save one life the first time she used her powers, she ended up getting shot the second time. Even before that, she struggled to master her powers in ways that were both understandable and hilarious.
It’s a critical part of every superhero’s journey. With new challenges come new struggles. Some of those struggles devolve into outright failures. Even the best heroes fail sometimes and Kamala had more than her share in the comics. Any TV show that tells the story of her journey cannot and should not gloss over those struggles.
With Kamala, however, the struggles matter even more than the triumphs. While many heroes may lament at their failure, Kamala tends to get a lot more animated. She’s passionate about what she does and has a tendency to wear those passions on her sleeve. It’s part of what makes her lovable. It also reminds everyone that she’s still a teenager. She’s still growing and maturing.
One of the things I love most about Ms. Marvel comics is seeing her grow with each passing story. The first dozen issues had more growth for Kamala than the last 100 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Along the way, there were missteps, heartbreaks, and victories. They all just made me want to root for Kamala even harder and if a TV show can accomplish that, it’ll do plenty to justify a Disney+ subscription.
Number 5: A Vision For Young (Idealistic) Heroes In A World That Needs Them
From the beginning, Kamala Khan connected with fans like me because she radiated this ideal spirit that a lot of people once had in their youth. Time, age, and watching too much news has a way of crushing that idealism over time, but most of us still remember why it was so important to us.
As Ms. Marvel, Kamala carried herself as the kind of young, idealistic hero that many of Marvel’s traditional heroes grew out of years ago. The comics, themselves, became jaded as the very act of heroism gained major complications, both from events within the stories and influences from the real world. That’s part of what made Kamala a breath of fresh air.
She might be young, naïve, and impressionable, but she’s also exactly what we need right now. The MCU just suffered some devastating losses. The world, as a whole, is still recovering from the events of “Avengers: Endgame.” This world still needs heroes. Even though it still has plenty, it doesn’t have someone like Ms. Marvel.
She can be the hero that emerges from the chaos of this broken world and shows what dedicated heroes can accomplish. She can show everyone that, even in the face of heavy losses and broken hearts, there’s a place for pure, uncorrupted heroics. You don’t need to be a billionaire playboy genius philanthropist, either. You can just be a teenage Pakistani American girl from Jersey city.
I cannot overstate how excited I am for Ms. Marvel to get her own show. I imagine I’ll be writing about it a lot once it comes out. There’s a lot I hope to see for this show, the comics, and the MCU. If Marvel Studios can capture even a fraction of what makes Ms. Marvel great, then the future of that world and ours will be that much brighter.
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.
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.
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.