Superheroes rule the box office, comic book sales charts, toy aisles, the lunch box market, and just about every pop culture conversation imaginable. We are so accustomed to costumed crime fighters that it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we’re already seeing media trying to subvert the superhero tropes. In 2019 alone we’ve seen both a TV show and a film about evil superheroes.
This summer’s Brightburn showed us on how brutal and sadistic an evil Superman might be, but Amazon’s new summer series The Boys is even more dire, imagining the ramifications of superhero commercialization. The series, an adaptation of Garth Ennis’ comic of the same name, starts out by applying the lack of accountability on celebrities in our world to superpowered humans. Our protagonist Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) witnesses speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) literally run through his girlfriend, turning her into a high-velocity puddle of blood and guts. A-Train no repercussions; he’s above the law and his corporate overlords cover up the whole affair.
After losing his girlfriend, Hughie gets involved with a guerilla-style group of people looking to make superheroes accountable for their actions, who call themselves The Boys. The group is led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), who every single superhero is a threat and should be eliminated. And he has good reason to believe that. In the first episode alone, Butcher takes Hughie to a crazy superhero sex club where anything goes. In episode 4, the series’ amalgamated version of Captain America and Superman, Homelander (Antony Starr), even sabotages a hijacked passenger plane and kills everyone on board.
The superheroes of The Boys aren’t just depraved and sadistic monsters, they’re cogs in the machine that is the multibillion-dollar conglomerate called Vought American, run by Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue). The company has its hands in law enforcement, the military, news stations, even the entertainment industry, making TV shows, comics, movies and all kinds of merchandise based on their group of superheroes The Seven, this world’s version of the Justice League.
Vought’s protection of ts brand and The Seven is so strong that it has caused A-Train to take an enhancing drug to keep being the fastest man alive, despite knowing it would kill him. Their marketing team also got enraged when the newest member of The Seven, Starlight (Erin Moriarty), saved a woman from being raped without recording the assault for evidence before. The show reveals that even crime patrols are meticulously planned out by Vought, including where and when the heroes are going to catch the bad guys and produce the best news coverage.
The original Garth Ennis comics focused more on the shock-value of The Seven’s depravity, especially when it comes to Homelander. In issue #40, The Boys receive a series of photos of Homelander engaging in necrophilia, mass murder, as well as eating babies. The TV show changes the extremity of his actions; the violence and rape are dialed down, Homelander’s Superman-like origin of being an alien who landed in the U.S. is tweaked, and the Vought corporation takes a vastly more prominent role.
In the comics, Vought-American has been around since WWII, always seeking to incorporate superheroes into national defense. While they still control the monopoly on superheroes, the corporation doesn’t become hugely important until later in the story, and even then, the comic is more focused on the political side of the corporation. The Amazon series, however, digs deeper into the company’s inner workings controlling every aspect of The Seven’s lives, and the company’s intentions of forcing superheroes into the U.S. military. The change of Vought’s main official from James to Madelyn Stillwell also came with a bigger role for the evil company woman, who finds new ways each episode to abandon ethics and get what the company wants.
Because of this antagonist reversal, The Boys places a bigger part of the blame for the crimes committed by The Seven on Vought and society itself, and humanizing the previously one-note villains in the process. Those who start the show as power-hungry psychopaths are revealed to be moral weaklings who became victims of an abusive and greedy corporation. A-Train, for instance, started the show by running through a literal human being, but the show still devotes time to exploring the speedster’s insecurities. Despite even his fellow heroes begging him to get off the stuff, he takes the deadly enhancing drug Compound V in order to stay the fastest man alive or lose his job and his life. The Deep (Chase Crawford), who sexually assaults Starlight in the first episode, is slowly humanized by focusing on his stupidity but also his selfless attempts at saving sea life from theme parks. Even beyond The Seven, Madelyn is illustrated as a victim of the spinning wheels of power, forced to do her boss’ bidding to further advance the company’s plans to control the military.
Then there’s Homelander. If we’re supposed to believe something, it is that the guy who led all passengers on a plane fall to their deaths will remain the main villain, especially once Butcher reveals that Homelander raped and killed his wife. Still, The Boys wants viewers to find humanity in the evil Superman. Throughout the show we get a sense that Homelander is essentially a child, with a strong Oedipal-complex obsession with Stillwell and an intense feeling of jealousy towards her infant. Episode 6 gives us the first bit of insight into Homelander’s childhood, which he spent in a cold, isolated and windowless room surrounded by scientists. Though the comics also have Homelander grow up as an experiment, the show gives it a more melancholic and sympathetic tone that is meant to make us feel for the mass murderer. He is not just jealous of Stillwell’s child because he wants attention for himself but is envious of Madelyn’s maternal caring for her child — evil Superman just wants a mom.
The Vought corporation of the comics is showed to be bad at everything but marketing. During WWII they developed fighter planes that had a design flaw that apparently killed more Allied pilots than the enemy, then they made an assault rifle that failed to protect the soldiers they were issued to and resulted in a massacre in Vietnam. Somehow they still manage to be incredibly successful at selling their flawed products, all the way to corporate-owned Superman. Meanwhile, the Vought corporation of The Boys TV show seems to be incredibly effective at their work. They control every aspect of pop culture, building The Seven as the most important public figures in the country and extending their influence to every industry in the United States.
By giving more focus to Vought as an almighty corporation and giving superheroes like Homelander reasoning for their actions, The Boys seeks to humanize even its most deplorable villains. While the message of the show could easily be interpreted as “superheroes are evil, and power corrupts,” the conclusion is ultimately more nuanced than that, arguing that power reveals what is already there, which isn’t necessarily nature, but nurture. Homelander and The Seven were not good people before they became superheroes, but Vought and the cult of celebrity turned them into psychopaths.