Whether it’s the usual romanticizing or thorough deconstruction, you’d think that, at a certain point, all narratives regarding a particular genre of storytelling would have been covered in the cinematic medium by now, as if we possess the hubris to delude ourselves that any well of resources will become finite. After all, original ideas for any source of formulaic genre fiction, or persistent thematic undercurrent within, occur with the same frequency these days as genuinely good news about the state of the world. But, then again, it really is only a matter of time. The passing of decades and generations means changes in politics and its discourse, business, technology and perhaps even common morality, thereby providing fertile ground for reaching and grasping new understandings of even the most omnipresent extensions and avatars of pop culture. How exactly could they be reshaped by unforeseen societal advancements and regressions?
The superhero subgenre is no exception, and is perhaps even especially the case here. Shifts in life’s various professional sectors, as well as the ethics of representation, have fundamentally changed how we mythologize and idolize our heroes, not to mention our culture’s collective perspective of the physical and more esoteric entities they have long symbolized. Our storytelling is functionally the same as it was when the same tall tales of heroics were devised as Westerns, and yet in many respects it has contextually moved beyond its predecessors. Films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther represent part of the way in which we begin moving forward as long-suppressed minority voices are given their overdue platform, while Marvel has used its standalone Captain America series to recontextualize the hero’s position in the modern era as a metaphorical stand-in for distinctly American concepts of honor, patriotism and domestic politics.
If anything, one could argue that our more commonplace examples of superhero cinema have greater room to grow narratively, particularly the more producers and their hired hands reconfigure how traditional modes of storytelling interact with the public in accordance to the predominant behaviors and attitudes of the day. There’s seemingly little left to critique or satirize with the sort of blatant cynicism that creatives like Mark Millar did for “Kick-Ass” or Alan Moore reserved for “Watchmen” and his “Miracleman” series. Amazon Prime’s new television series The Boys, however, proudly stands up and declares that thanks to the passage of time, there is indeed some madcap, verging on edgelord-ish ground yet to cover… so long as most of your pessimism is essentially the same pessimism once peddled before you.
Before continuing, I ought to clarify that I did like The Boys and enjoyed my time with it, though that last sentence and the bulk of what’s to come may communicate otherwise. It is, however, so achingly similar in its overarching concept to “Watchmen” – that if superheroes existed in the real world, they’d be plagued with the same moral failings and aberrations as any other human – that a change in contextual scenery is all but required. The Boys’s source material originated in the mid-to-late 2000’s, in the thick of the Iraq War and just before the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but development into a television series for a modern audience meant transposing certain elements and themes to fit the present day, thus further establishing the main conceptual difference between it and “Watchmen.” Whereas Moore’s titular Watchmen were despised by the public, with their frequently reckless vigilantism representing an embodiment of conservative ideology and authoritarianism in the midst of the Cold War and the ever-looming nuclear threat, The Boys instead asks “What if our heroes were equally narcissistic, self-destructive, jingoistic, sexually predatory and overall sociopathic, yet were universally beloved?”
Such is the case with most of the individuals comprising The Boys’s Avengers knock-off The Seven. Most of them are some variation of an asshole, but they have adequate public relations and legal teams supporting them to spin every casual fuck-up or callous disregard for collateral damage and avoid costing them goodwill and cultural omnipresence. Not only that, the Seven belong to Vought International, a powerful and wholly corrupt enterprise that manages their brands, plasters their images on national advertising, owns their merchandising rights, scripts their films/speeches/public appearances and seems to hold a monopoly on the very concept of domestic defense. Under Vought’s, and more specifically company vice president Madelyn Stillwell’s (Elisabeth Shue) stewardship, the Seven seem more concerned with profit point spread and market share than serving and protecting the masses who idolize them, though they’ll just as happily smile and wave for the cameras when required. Meanwhile, the company itself merely cares about maintaining its pseudo-benevolent image and how well each hero polls with key demographics.
In case you weren’t aware – though of course you were, because the show doesn’t play things too subtly in this regard – The Boys has a bone to pick with the current state of mass entertainment’s prioritized commitment to the superhero tidal wave crashing down upon consumers and their disposable income. Such has long already been lamented by numerous cultural critics with a justifiably skeptical eye toward massive corporate conglomerates and their less than cunning efforts to increase influence and profit margins, and as such, any perceived sharpness in genre criticism and cultural satire is further dulled by what is, functionally, the same cynical philosophy underpinning “Watchmen”: that the myth of the do-gooder superhero is one of outdated intellectual value and remains especially incongruent with the historical realities of America and perhaps fellow Western late-capitalist, democratic nation-states as geopolitical entities, butting up against their respective, perpetual self-mythologizing as the guardian angels of democracy. Admittedly, this is all perhaps a symptom of the source material being adapted for an era its creators could not foresee, and yet it seemingly can only contribute to a marginally deflating air of “been there, said that.”
There’s certainly apt commentary to be found in Vought using its super-powered employees of symbolic Americana and the power of analytics to quite literally make up stories sustaining overarching ideological narratives of justified state violence and American interventionist foreign policy, but there’s nothing particularly subversive about The Boys from a political or sociocultural stance. It offers plenty of thoughtful and timely observations throughout its eight-episode run, such as mass culture/big business’s fetishization of female superheroes or other empowered female figures and their simultaneous marginalization (often through sexual violence), the poisonous qualities of self-justified vengeance, the ethics of the self-indulgent masculine anti-hero and their subsequent portrayal, brand vs. personal identity, the uncomfortable relationship between big business and the politicians representing their interests or, implicitly, the ethics of surveillance when primarily governed by entities looking to maintain particular narratives, and honestly, that’s almost it. Even in the show’s update and adaptation for television, subversion seems to be something that eludes its creators in lieu of content that’s more ‘edgy-for-its-own sake’ than provocative, particularly in its occasionally petulant tearing down of the superhero mythos and its questionable-at-best handling of sexual violence. It begs a particularly thorny question: does satire need to be subversive and/or provocative to have value?
The answer ought to obviously lean in the affirmative direction, right? The entire point of satire is to, by its very definition, use humor, irony and exaggeration to expose and ridicule the stupidity and vices of any individual, society, corporation and government; to lampoon their shortcomings in such a way that, ideally, the veil of self-mythology is permanently pierced, never to be mended. But what ought we make of successive sources peddling one particular target of satire when their predecessors only made the soap box big enough for themselves? Anything that is ‘subversive’ is something that effectively upsets the established order and its institutions, and there can certainly be a joint effort made across various media, but the established order can only hang upside down but so much. The Boys certainly effectively uses irony and exaggeration to caustically spear the superhero tradition and its subsequent absorption into the carnivorous corporate machine, no doubt made all the more compelling by its ensemble’s committed performances, but again, how do its arguments significantly differ from something like “Watchmen” apart from context?
They don’t, and when considering The Boys’s place in the broader modern superhero pantheon, the total picture only seems bleaker. When “Watchmen” was devised, it was Moore’s reaction to not being able to use a stable of lesser-known Charlton Comics heroes that would soon enough be swallowed into the DC schematic, and thus he, with artist Dave Gibbons, redesigned their protagonists as dark mirror-images of said respective Charlton counterparts. Today, it’s perhaps fair to say while “Watchmen” has seen its reputation grow – to some varying extent – beyond traditional comics fan and press consumption, most, if not all of the Charlton heroes who inspired them remain in obscurity. Meanwhile, The Boys’s super-abled antagonists represent a very specifically directed pastiche of more immediately recognizable – and marketable – DC and Marvel comics heroes. Not to mention, within a text that will undoubtedly only be regarded as a smaller-scale, niche offshoot of the predominantly hopeful, effectively globalized superhero bubble, in spite of its platform on the video streaming service of (yet another) scarily omnipresent multinational company.
There’s something depressingly poignant about The Boys in that difference. By this first season’s end, the titular ‘Boys,’ in addition to Erin Moriarty’s genuine Samaritan Starlight, clandestinely revolting against the Seven only accomplish so much, taking out some powerful individuals leading Vought and the Seven, but without doing enough to tarnish their respective images – only Chace Crawford’s reprehensible, complicated The Deep has his reputation justifiably smeared. Antony Starr’s Homelander, and Vought perhaps by proxy, continue onward as if these developments were minor bumps in the road, with the show suggesting their enduring public status by the final episode. Likewise, the show itself progresses through its narrative with the subtle air of a text that maybe implicitly knows there’s only so much it can do to upset the current established order of digital streaming and superhero media as the most profitable arms of the expanding post-national entertainment oligopoly. Where “Watchmen” may have, for its time, been the superhero comics industry’s ‘Clown Prince of Crime,’ The Boys feels more like the court jester satisfying the needs of its rulers.
And yet, it’s difficult to argue that The Boys is devoid of value. Repetitious critiques may assuredly become tiresome at a certain point, especially given a particular frequency, but a sharp difference in context might be just enough for The Boys to stay afloat. Perhaps more important than that is the realization of a new generation possibly being able to better internalize certain ideas and concepts through more immediately recognizable avatars for persons, entities and events that have constructed a version of the world they’ve progressively known instead of learned. Each generation has their touchstones, familiar or deconstructionist, and while “Watchmen” retains a timeless quality even today in its savagery against self-mythologizing and all things even remotely authoritarian, The Boys has the potential to at least become the former, assuming future seasons can dig deeper into the major themes and nuances that have formed the bedrock of its cultural outlook, as well as the deeply complex psychologies of its characters on both sides. For now, it’s a fun romp through an alternative mindset, flawed as it may be on occasion, that reminds us – even if we didn’t need it – of the dangers in following self-righteous, narrow-focused ideologues; a sentiment much of this generation can easily relate to and find productive catharsis in right now.
Admittedly, part of me does feel a little dirty about voicing any sort of optimism, primarily because this is exactly the kind of property with the inevitable potential to attract the worst kind of toxic fanboy who merely consumes for its external aesthetics and qualities and, after all, represents one more extension of the superhero fixation built to sustain the many anti-competitive monopoly-hopefuls who gain from their exploitation and cultural influence. It is also fair and necessary to point out that because of the derivative nature of some of its criticisms, the show’s success and thus its effectiveness as an example of satire predominantly hinges upon solid performances, compelling characters, tightly-wound writing and focused direction, all of which it often enough has in spades, rather than the arguments it makes, which is a matter of concern. But, diegetic and metacontextual cynicism can only take a project so far if it cannot propose a brighter alternative, which The Boys seems to offer by its end. For all its nastiness, the show does take a brief moment during its first season’s final episode to express that hope for a better future doesn’t have to be a pipe dream. For what it’s worth, it actually makes me feel as though this genre still has something left to say.