Our superheroes have always reflected the spirit of the times. Superman first appeared in the 1930s, its creators were the children of Jewish immigrants, and by the time of the Second World War, the Caped-Kryptonian was an avid anti-fascist, battling Nazi sympathisers and even going as far as to throttle Adolf Hitler himself. In the 1960s, the great Stan Lee brought us the X-men comics which had obvious parallels with the Civil Rights Movement; its two central protagonists – Professor X and Magneto – were clearly cyphers for the reformist preacher Martin Luther King and the more radical militant Malcolm X, while the mutants more broadly presented as a repressed and persecuted underclass whose struggles were recognisable to anyone battling US apartheid.
But our own period, and with the rise of neoliberalism, the way in which the superhero has shaded into the politics of the affluent and powerful seems almost absolute. Consider Marvel’s Tony Stark, played to manic intensity by Robert Downey Junior. Twitching, feverish and brilliant, he is a high-grade weapons manufacturer, a capitalist billionaire and technical savant – think Bill Gates on steroids – equipping himself with his Iron Man suit in order to destroy the baddies with the type of military hardware and drone technology which, in the real world, has left Middle-Eastern populations decimated and much of the region reduced to a smouldering wasteland.
Indeed the Marvel films often glamorise power so gratuitously that they get to the point where they feel almost apolitical; just never-ending scenes of carnage whereby the ‘good guys’ battle the ‘bad guys’ and the whole thing has more the feel of a video game rather than a consciously worked out plot. All of which makes Amazon’s series, The Boys, an incredibly welcome proposition. The Boys is set in a new age of superheroes or ‘supes’, a selection of people who have been ‘born’ with super abilities and have banded together in an elite group – ‘the seven’ – in order to fight crime based on good old American values of justice, tradition and decency.
But from the outset, the façade of ‘the seven’ begins to crack. In a perfectly crafted opening scene we are introduced to the awkward and gangly Billy Joel fan, Hughie, who is talking to his girlfriend by the side of the street; they share a tentative, sweet moment, the type of everyday but precious banter which young lovers engage in when faced by the daunting and wonderful prospects of their own future. In the same instant, his girlfriend explodes into a billion particles of bloody spatter. Hughie is left holding her severed hands in his own.
It transpires that one of ‘the seven’, A-Train, has been using ‘compound V’, a performance enhancing drug which helps him maintain his place as the fastest man in the world, and more significantly, helps him maintain his position in ‘the seven’, a position which is determined by viewing figures, corporate sponsorship and merchandise sales all of which drive him to obsessively shape and sculpt his body to a high-octane maximum capacity through the most extreme physical and chemical means. Souped up on the drug, A-train has lost control, and simply ploughed through an innocent bystander, destroying Hughie’s life in the process too.
But in the testosterone-saturated atmosphere of ruthless individualism and brutal corporate competion, the young superhero has developed a callous self-interest which goes along with his superstar status; he feels no sense of guilt, instead he jokes about the woman he has killed observing with puerile adolescent glee how, as his body drove through hers, he ended up swallowing one of her teeth.
Even though it is clearly a fantasy context, it’s difficult not to think about the young men who are often elevated in our own reality through their sporting prowess, subject to both untold wealth and fame and also such brutal competition. Young men with a twinned sense of entitlement and rage which sometimes sets the basis for brutal acts of violence: What was Oscar Pistorius other than a real-life ‘supe’ created by both corporate power and the roar of the crowd, warped into something monstrous by the sheer weight of our own expectations?
Young women more generally do not fare well in this brave new world of superheroes. Annie aka ‘Starlight’ is a devout Christian girl filled with hope who has spent her whole life dreaming about being in the seven and using her powers for good. When she finally makes it into ‘the seven’ her illusions are shattered in the most brutal of ways; one of the heroes she has looked up to as a teen, uses her vulnerability and newness to compel her to give him oral sex, threatening to end her career if she refuses him. She acquiesces. It is a hugely uncomfortable and troubling moment, for again shades of the real world intrude, the Harvey Weinstein crimes in particular loom large here, but there are also more subtle ways in which Annie’s expectations are destroyed.
She discovers, for example, that the superheroes of ‘the seven’ have crafted back stories which are set into motion by PR gurus and publicists and which have nothing to do with their authentic inner lives. The impetus to their heroics is nothing more than a pantomime determined by experts who calculate what particular speech or storyline is most guaranteed to appeal to public ratings.
In a bitter twist, when Annie exposes publicly the superhero who sexually assaulted her (‘the Deep’), he makes the kind of simpering and scripted apology which is not directed at her at all, but rather toward the broader public in a PR endeavour to minimise the nature of his crime – ‘I realize my behaviour has caused Starlight a great deal of pain…I sincerely apologise…at the time I believed that our encounter was consensual, I now realise I, erm, misread the moment’. It is the type of staged, scripted and cringeworthy apology we have become familiar with in the aftermath of Metoo, delivered by powerful men desperate to protect their interests.
The most powerful man of all, however, is Homelander, a creation both brilliant and sinister. Homelander is the leader of the seven; with his red cape and blue tights, his super strength and x-ray vision he is a clear simulacrum of Superman, and pushes the same patriotic values and allegiance to the American flag as his DC comics counterpart. And yet, Homelander suggests the dark-side of American nationalism rather than its wholesomeness; behind the limpid blue eyes, coiffed blonde hair and all-American homeliness, there lurks a rapist and a psychopath, someone whose military prowess and super strength provides him with an innate sense of superiority over the population he is supposed to serve, considering them as little more than weaklings and sheep, incapable of prosecuting their own best interests.
Abroad, he pursues the project of national power with murderous relish, and when he is caught carving up an innocent black villager in some unnamed Third World country with the laser streams from his eyes, and when the murder is recorded on camera – one feels that the façade has cracked absolutely. But the company is able to transfigure Homelander’s crime by evoking the type of atmosphere which provides a nod to the Bush era War on Terror and, of course, Trumpism whereby foreigners were scapegoated and the fear of the ‘other’ infiltrating the traditional (read white) homelands of the American body politic was ratcheted up to its zenith. Memes flood the internet showing images of the destroyed Twin Towers counterpoised to the images of destroyed buildings in the Middle East underpinned by the slogan ‘Better there than here’. Pictures are shown of the lantern-jawed superhero looking strong and resolute with the words ‘opinions don’t kill terrorists’ superimposed in the background. ‘Freedom’, Homelander assures us, always ‘comes at a price’.
In this way, the brutal war crimes Homelander commits are transformed into the necessary and heroic measures required to protect US civilians and the American way of life. The shocked critics of such murderous violence are themselves reshaped by the social-media narrative into politically-correct luvvies, high on their own sense of liberal self-righteousness such that they remain indifferent to the safety of ordinary Americans (another meme features a hysterical young liberal woman with a shocked, open-mouthed expression and the words ‘Superheroes invaded my personal space!’) Before long, a whole swell of support emerges around Homelander, a sort of ‘Make Superheroes Great Again’ movement, and the ominous message on the part of the writers couldn’t be clearer; this is how fascism begins, this is how it takes form.
The Boys is remarkably entertaining but it is also highly political, providing a creative meditation on the way corporate interests and imperialism, elite power and sexual abuse, drug abuse in sports and the relentless drives of economic individualism, the cult of celebrity and the forces of the free market – are all knotted together in the huge outlines of a greater and more systematic whole. One might even call it capitalism.
Filming for Series Three of The Boys started earlier this year.