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How The Boys became the antidote to cynical superhero stories

A subversion of subversion

Amazon’s The Boys questions the heroism of smiling, powerful people in capes, just as its comic book inspiration, created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, does. And that approach is not new.

Books like Watchmen, publishers like Milestone, and characters like Jessica Jones and more have all examined what superheroes can look like when they face the constraints of a less fantastic setting. But the idea of superheroes confronting real societal issues is baked into the genre: Superman thrashed a spousal abuser in his very first comic.

But there’s something missing in many modern superhero stories; ones that just focus on being even more cynical instead of breaking new ground. These days, Chronicle, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Brightburn, and other stories across various media, have followed suit in subverting the idea of the glowingly good superhero.

And while Amazon’s The Boys looks like it should be just another dark superhero story, the TV series expands and elevates that narrative. It puts us under the microscope along with its superheroes, commenting on our part in allowing corporate systems to excuse corruption and predators. But The Boys doesn’t give in to the lure of giving up.

Like the best of its cynical superhero ancestors, The Boys says that hope, not superpowers, is the first real step towards changing the world.

The Boys on the page

The comic book series The Boys gives readers a world where a superhero team known as the Seven secretly includes rapists and murderous psychopaths among its members. A government funded group, affectionately called “the Boys,” is authorized to frighten these costumed champions, holding them accountable if they cause more harm than good.

Artist and co-creator Darick Robertson remarked that the dark, and at times controversial, narrative didn’t intend to tear down existing superheroes or mock the premise behind such champions. Rather, the series meant to underline that people with power must also have strong morality and empathy.

Homelander puts a hand on The Deep’s shoulder during a pep talk at the Seven’s home base in the live-action version of The Boys. Jan Thijs/Amazon Studios

Homelander, the leader of the Seven, looks like a combination of Superman and Captain America, but lacks the humanity of either. According to Robertson in an interview with Business Insider, “If you have the costume and the power but none of the character, you still don’t have Superman’s greatest power, which is self-control. Homelander doesn’t even take the costume off. And that reveals a lot.”

The Boys grows up

The Amazon series The Boys understands this idea very well, but goes further, making it part of a larger narrative commenting on society’s stunted growth and warped priorities. Amazon Studios’ version of the Seven is more insidious than the comic’s, as Homelander and others rely on gaslighting and blackmail to protect their investors’ money, their careers and their reputations. It’s a criticism of celebrity worship, and of the sort of systemic shields that surround abusers as frequently exposed by movements like #MeToo.

As we see corporate execs struggle to ensure the Seven have successful movie deals and aren’t exposed as the criminals they are, Amazon’s The Boys doesn’t just ask, “what if bad people had superpowers?” but “What if Disney and Warner Bros. owned actual superheroes? What might they do? What would stop them from going too far?” That’s a powerful premise when we not only see constant cover-ups and scandals in the news, but also more and more properties and media warred over by an increasingly small number of companies.

The Amazon series doesn’t glorify the Seven for having power and lacking strong accountability. They may have powers, but they are emotionally stunted, weak people who never actually get what they want in a meaningful way, despite their resources. The Boys series also leans heavily on the idea that using the methods of villains to fight villains is not entirely justified or without cost.

Hughie Campbell, played by Jack Quaid, joins the Boys’ after a traumatic loss, and is only further injured and traumatized when he begins following the vengeful path of his new leader, Karl Urban’s Billy Butcher. He starts to heal when he honestly processes his experiences rather than pushing them aside.

Along with Hughie, the heart and soul of the show is Annie January, AKA Starlight, played by Erin Moriarty. In the first episode, she asks a question without irony: “Since when did ‘hopeful’ and ‘naive’ become the same thing?” When she later joins the Seven, awful things happen and her illusions are shattered. But before the first episode is over, she reaffirms herself as a fighter — demanding accountability and insisting we all make the world better. Throughout the first season, she is given many reasons to give up, but continues pushing for change. The show seems to say our hopes depend on ideals and willpower rather than Billy’s cynicism, brutality, and inability to accept possibilities beyond his experience.

Superheroes have always been a little bit serious

When Superman debuted in an all-ages comic book in 1938, there was no overt reason for readers to take him more seriously than Mickey Mouse. Yet his very first story showed him not just stopping crime but addressing wrongs done by people in authority and citizens without empathy. He exposed that courts had convicted an innocent person, stopped a man abusing his wife, and discovered a senator hoping to profit from war. Ever since, many superheroes have lived in a strange world between playful cartoons, scientific romances, and our own grounded reality.

Superman listens in on a senator and a lobbyist plotting to personally profit from war in Europe, in Action Comics #1, DC Comics (1938).
From 1938’s Action Comics #1.
Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster/DC Comics

In the 1960s, many comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko showcased heroes who struggled to stay heroic while dealing with depression or the temptation to give into selfishness rather than live up to lofty ideals. By the 1970s, mainstream comics explored heroes falling from grace or reexamining their lives and motives. Even veterans like Superman became more aware of the increasingly complex world, worrying that helping too little meant people would suffer but helping too much would make him a benevolent dictator.

The 1980s picked up this ball and ran with it. In 1982, Alan Moore’s Marvelman reboot (published in the US under the title Miracleman) showed us superhumans too emotionally immature to ever be proper heroes, with one becoming a destructive psychopath and the other resenting his human frailties and the world around him so much, he decides to just take over Earth. In 1985, Mark Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme featured superheroes who became dictators. Despite good intentions, their lack of checks and balances lead to alarming solutions and mind-control. In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen presented costumed vigilantes as ineffective people with naive or self-serving motives. The two people with the most power to affect real change both lose their humanity in time.

These stories gave their villains complexities without praising them, and showed that darkness might be inevitable, but wasn’t acceptable. And they inspired many more creators to do their own deconstructionist views on superhero fiction.

Grant Morrison and Chas Troug had the title character of Animal Man suffer great tragedy, then discover the power of being fictional (an idea Morrison revisited in works such as Flex Mentallo, The Invisibles and Multiversity). Milestone Comics used characters such as Icon, Rocket, Static, and the Blood Syndicate to subvert typical superhero archetypes by focusing on the experiences of people of color.

Joe Illidge oversaw the Catalyst Prime family of comics that gave a grounded, science fiction take on what it could mean to have superhumans suddenly appear in today’s world. The sarcastic and seemingly cynical Jessica Jones was introduced as a former superhero who quit after a traumatic violation, later becoming a private investigator who regularly mocks masked do-gooders and idealists while still risking her life to help others.

But some inspired creators didn’t seem to offer any new insights in their own stories or see value beyond the grim and gritty atmosphere of the 1980s deconstruction takes. Their work focused on trying to out-grim, out-dark, and out-violence what came before, sometimes even glorifying villainy as a power fantasy. It’s a bit like thinking Tyler Durden was right in Fight Club, or watching Jaws and concluding a sequel will be successful if you make the shark bigger — rather than noting how audiences responded to the character arcs and direction.

In a 2009 interview with Wired, Alan Moore said, “... looking at the superhero today, it seems to me an awful lot like Watchmen without the irony, that with Watchmen we were talking very much about the potential abuses of this kind of masked vigilante justice... But that was not meant approvingly… things that were meant satirically or critically in Watchmen now seem to be simply accepted as kind of what they appear to be on the surface.”

Amazon’s The Boys adaptation paints morality and ideals as more important when the world gets darker, not less. Billy wants to hurt super-people and is locked in a cycle of increasing losses. Hughie and Starlight want to save people, and might beat the odds together. That approach is relevant and pushes the narrative further than reminding us yet again to fear bad people having power, a reality we see every day in the news. There is a rise in the desire and nostalgia for characters with good intentions that embrace passions and dreams rather than cynicism, because many of us want to connect with earnest emotion and unapologetic ideals to counter the weight of the world.

Cynicism is a great tool in storytelling, but limiting and pointless if done for its own sake. Simply saying a person with the powers and resources of a superhero could also be selfish and evil is not very dramatic or subversive. We already know that. It’s called a super-villain. In a world that says your efforts are pointless because the game is rigged, imagining a better world is rebellion.

“Hopeful” and “naive” are indeed different things, as Starlight said. I look forward to seeing if The Boys’ second season can show us why.

Alan Kistler is a sci-fi/comic book historian and transmedia personality who moonlights as a consulting nerd, actor, and narrative writer. He is a contributor to Wonder Woman Psychology and author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. He is determined to one day write and direct a movie featuring Krypto the Superdog.