The dark secret at the heart of the hit “What if superheroes were actually bad?!” Amazon Prime series The Boys is that it’s not a TV show about superheroes who are bad, actually.
Sure, on the surface it seems to boast an edgelord disdain for the world of tights and flight — its advertising campaign leaned pretty heavily into this leading up to its first season. Sure, the show’s core antagonist Homelander, a pretty blatant amalgam of Captain America and Superman, is a bona fide psychopath with an Oedipus complex more intense than his American flag cape. And sure, Karl Urban’s antiheroic Billy Butcher sure does uh, hate the hell out of “supes” (and perhaps rightfully so!).
But don’t get it twisted. The Boys isn’t a show about superheroes gone bad, especially not in the wake of its Season 2 premiere. It’s a show about the real-life rot at the core of modern superhero culture.
The show doesn’t treat its superheroic characters with the disdain nor fearful reverence so many other entries in the subgenre do, the sort that forces you to engage with the idea that people having superpowers could be a bad thing. It’s far more concerned with introducing characters like A-Train, Maeve, and The Deep to you as scumbags and then taking the time to show you how they ended up that way (albeit without making excuses for, say, A-Train killing his girlfriend). Spoiler alert: The real villain was capitalism the whole time!
Homelander may function as the show’s loudest antagonist but the first three episodes of Season 2 hammer in an idea introduced in the show’s first run, that being that the real bad guys lie on the board of the sinister Vought corporation. Vought is an omnipresent conglomerate in the world of the show, part Amazon (*eyes emoji*), part Disney, part Big Pharma, and part Lockheed Martin (or at least, aspirationally part Lockheed Martin — getting supes hired out by the military is their endgame).
Being in the business of superheroes would seem to be an inherently altruistic endeavor. Funding a team of heroes who saves the world on a regular basis? How could that be amoral? Quite easily, the show posits. After all, Vought’s business isn’t built around saving the world. It’s built around superheroes as public figures. We see time and time again that The Seven regularly does more harm than good and in fact, is often only used to cover up mistakes made by Vought or the government. The spin, that’s Vought’s business: leveraging public opinion via rigged news stories, propaganda films, and merchandising to make sure their stock stays rising. Homelander of all people says it best in Season 2, Episode 3: “We’re not [their] partners. We’re [their] product.”
It’s a grim condemnation of monopolistic corporations at large, and an apt one at that. Disney, it posits, isn’t in the business of making good movies. They’re in the business of making movies that make money and allow for further opportunities to make money.
While the show is hardly the first to point out that Big Corporations Are Bad, it’s the “superheroes” of it all that really drives the point home in a unique sense in 2020. Caped Crusaders and Last Sons and/or Daughters of Krypton may not patrol our streets or skies in real life, but you can hardly pass through a 7-Eleven these days without seeing one of the Avengers on a bag of chips or a Wonder Woman cutout advertising an energy drink.
Superhero media is the end-all-be-all form of entertainment, providing a percentage of box office income and TV viewership these days that, were it to vanish entirely, would cause both industries to crumble. While Vought strives to get involved in the U.S. military, in real life, superheroes are already there. There’s an ongoing dialogue about concerns regarding the films often partnering with branches of the military to entice new recruits. It’s not limited to film, either — one of the strangest comic book controversies in recent memory involved Marvel attempting to partner with arms manufacturer Northrop Grumman for a branded comic series.
The Boys even seems to take a jab at the modern superhero industrial complex’s aversion to allowing queer characters to be represented onscreen. Maeve, the show’s Wonder Woman stand-in, is revealed to be a closeted queer woman in the show’s first season, keeping her sexuality under wraps for the sake of good PR (and, as she reveals in the second season, because she legitimately fears for what Homelander might do to her ex-girlfriend if he were to find out about her). It’s hard to watch scenes examining Maeve’s identity as a queer woman without calling to mind the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s refusal to include queer characters in its films for over a decade to both please conservative company chairman Ike Perlmutter and to make sure its films aren’t deemed unfit to be screened in censorship-heavy countries that make up a hefty chunk of the worldwide box office.
Are the supes of The Boys largely a**holes on a power trip? Absolutely. But the show never lets us forget who set those power trips into motion — literally, as it turns out Vought is responsible for creating superheroes to begin with and then letting them get away with literal murder. As such, it never feels cynical toward the idea of superheroes. If it did, it wouldn’t anchor half of its emotional weight in Erin Moriarty’s Starlight, one of the few genuinely good and moral supes in the show. It wouldn’t root A-Train’s myriad of issues in his growing up in poverty and not knowing how to handle the wealth and power with which Vought supplies him. It wouldn’t paint Maeve as having dissociated from her day-to-day out of self-preservation. No, The Boys knows that if you want to find the real bad guys, all you have to do is follow the money.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.