The Boys, Amazon Prime’s latest exclusive series, takes place in a world where superheroes are real, and they are managed — or maybe controlled is a better word — by a corporation called Vought.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for The Boys comic and the Amazon series.]
Sometimes things get a little out of hand, and an innocent is reduced to a fine, bloody mist when a super-fast hero slams into them on the way to doing ... something, but that’s what Vought is there for. A $45,000 check and a non-disclosure agreement can make it all go away, and everyone wins. Anyone who says you can’t put a price on a human life hasn’t been paying attention to any of human history, after all. There are no new ideas here.
The Boys benefits from a strong cast, what had to have been a large budget, and a tone that confidently bounces between horror and humor. “What if superheroes were bad?” isn’t exactly a new idea, but this is one of the best mainstream takes on the idea I’ve ever seen.
So why does it feel so bad to watch the show?
The problem isn’t the sex or the blood
The Boys features any number of scenes that can be hard to watch, from the casual sexual assault that happens when a new superhero joins the organization to an underwater hero who finds himself not knowing how to stop a sexual encounter in which a woman wants to put her entire fist into his gills.
An enterprising superhero-killer ends a fight with an invisible hero by taking a punch to the jaw, spitting his own blood into the air to outline his opponent, and then trapping him in an electrified cage before trying to figure out how to kill the hero. If someone’s skin is bulletproof, and they don’t need air to breathe, how do you kill them? An answer is found, and it’s predictably bizarre and graphic.
But this is all par for the course when a show wants to be edgy, and it barely registers as either a selling point or a weakness in a post-Brightburn world. If the characters and the writing work, they’re going to work with or without the violence and sex. Any public figure, much less a superhero, can do just about anything and make enemies among the “normal” folks of the world.
But our two male heroes are inspired to action by violence against the women in their life. In one case, it’s a rape, in the other, it’s death by distraction. Human lives mean nothing to these heroes, and that opens all sorts of interesting places for the story to go. Why keep the violence so gendered? I’m sure some folks will argue “because it was in the comics,” but it’s not like The Boys doesn’t take other, larger liberties with the original work.
So none of these issues makes the show particularly different than most movies and TV shows that try to deal with the darker side of superheroes and the people who may pull their strings. What makes The Boys next to impossible for me to enjoy in 2019 is its relentless, soul-deadening cynicism.
Believing in anything makes you a sucker
The Boys takes place in a world where you are a sucker for believing in anything. Those superheroes that are there to save you? They’re the tools of a huge corporation that’s focused on money and control. Heck, your death may work in their favor depending on the situation, so even failure could turn into a success. There is no one involved in the cultivation or management of superheroes who seems to care about the people they’re supposed to be saving.
There’s even a religious superhero called Ezekiel who charges $15,000 for access during spiritual revivals, complete with baptisms performed by Homelander — the show’s version of Captain America/Superman — thrown in for good measure. A superhero with a direct line to god, who believes he was chosen to have theses power? Of course you should trust him! He’s also having sex with multiple men at secret superhero clubs while preaching the power of conversion therapy, but no one needs to know about that.
There’s a scene halfway through the season where two heroes, Homelander and Queen Maeve, realize that there’s no way to save a crashing plane. Homelander is forced to walk back through the people, trying to convince them that everything is OK, before explaining to Queen Maeve why he’s unwilling to save anyone in that situation. He can’t have witnesses that know the bungled rescue is his fault. It would look bad!
He later uses the plane crash as an argument for letting superheroes into the armed forces, because for-profit, unkillable soldiers on America’s payroll that look after corporate profits on the battlefield is such a great idea.
That federal agent you’re trying to help? He’s just a vigilante. That nice young man who liked you before you were a superhero? He’s there to bug your meeting room. That breakdown you had over your own sexual assault during a speech at a religious convention? It felt like honesty to you, but your organization is already using it to recraft your image into something more progressive, and thus, more marketable. Nearly every relationship on the show is built on lies, personal agendas, and reinforced through seemingly unbreakable power structures. You’re either one of the chosen, or you’re a mark being manipulated with empty slogans, bread, and circuses.
Many of these ideas already existed in some form in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but The Boys presents a reality where Hydra is unnecessary — this version of SHIELD was always run by fascists with an eye toward the bottom line. If you can’t get a politician to vote your way, why not seduce him with your shapeshifter and “fake” pictures where he’s in bed with another man? Being corrupt in southern politics may be a given, but being gay? That’s a sin the voters will actually care about.
And this makes the show an incredibly hard sell during the Trump administration, when everything is done for a profit, out in the open, and no one seems to really care about it that much. The Boys was a cynicism overdose even before this weekend, with its two mass shootings, each of which spawned the expected promises of “thoughts and prayers” from the politicians who could do something about it if they actually gave a shit.
The Boys at least presents a reality where the people who amass wealth and power are smart and plan a few steps ahead, while the real world is drowning us in images of people who seem to wake up every morning with their shoelaces tied together but still somehow manage to come out on top, both in terms of control and profit. If The Boys wants us to think that things are worse than we had assumed, reality in 2019 feels like it keeps reinforcing the idea that things are worse than we can even imagine. Boris Johnson, as a character, would never fly in a comic book. Too unrealistic. Too nihilistic.
So maybe it’s not even the cynicism that makes the show so hard to watch, maybe it’s the fact that right now the show seems to believe that it would take a cape and an impressive jawline to manipulate the world for the good of the few. Doing so requires neither of those things, nor do you need any kind of special ability to do it well outside of a lack of shamelessness. It’s very possible that the show is so hard to watch not because of its bleak outlook, but because these days that outlook already seems outdated.
The Boys can’t really act as a warning, because to many of us it already feels like things are as bad as they’re portrayed on the show. Right now, right here, it just doesn’t seem fun to watch something that looks and sounds like a fire alarm that’s going off in the middle of an inferno.