Gareth Smith looks at the subversive new superhero series from Amazon, The Boys, which depicts the corporatization of crime-fighting.
“What if superheroes were bad?” is not the hot take that it might once have been. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen (1986-7) explored moral culpability, political interference and the dangers of unchecked power within the superhero mythos over thirty years ago and its influence in popular culture continues to be felt. Films, television shows and, most bizarrely, a sing-alongblog starring Neil Patrick Harris have all dissected the assumed ‘goodness’ of caped crusaders and the precarious lines that separate them from their enemies. In a cultural landscape already saturated with amoral avengers, Amazon Prime’s recent series The Boys might not appear to break any moulds. However, its exploration of superheroes as products, economic entities shaped by the demands of the market, feels particularly timely.
Based on the graphic novel by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, The Boys depicts a society in which, much like ours, crime-fighting means business. The corporatisation of ‘supes’ has been achieved with ruthless efficiency by Voight Industries, a vast and lucrative organisation that manages a team of heroes known as the Seven. Led by the Captain America-esque Homelander (Antony Starr), the Seven are hiding a plethora of dark secrets behind their family-friendly personas. While cold-blooded CEO Madelyn Sitwell (Elizabeth Shue) tries to manage their reckless behaviour, in steps small-town crusader Starlight (Erin Moriarity). Still naively believing that being a superhero is about helping others, Starlight quickly learns her dream job is essentially a cash cow.
Similarly disillusioned is Hughie (Jack Quaid), who, recently bereaved thanks to the dangerous actions of a supe, is encouraged by the maverick Butcher (Karl Urban) to join his band of vigilantes and engineer the downfall of the Seven. Urban’s accent flies so far and wide across the globe that it’s almost a superpower in itself, but his charisma and deadpan humour add much-needed energy to a show that possesses an initially anaemic protagonist in Hughie. As the series progresses, the escalating behaviour of both supes and their enemies cause the fates of Starlight and Hughie to become increasingly entwined, as each question their loyalty to factions that previously offered them hope.
The corporatization of crime-fighting isn’t the most novel idea (the website TV Tropes has a page dedicated to examples of the ‘Corporate-Sponsored Superhero’) but an eight-part series allows The Boys to examine this concept to a greater extent, fleshing out an entire world in which the very limits of heroism are dictated by the economic and political interests of big business. By drawing close parallels with familiar figures – most of the supes are a hair’s breadth away from copyright infringement – The Boys encourages an exploration of our current preoccupation with superheroes and the vested interests that help to shape them. Adding in plenty of snarky humour, superfluous gore and violent set-pieces means that the show can’t be accused of taking itself too seriously, but its underlying themes are relevant, nonetheless.
The supes are outsourced to various causes throughout the series, increasing the ire of Hughie, Butcher and the Boys. Their potential utilisation by the military dominates several episodes, echoing similar storylines in both Watchmen and recent Marvel films. They’re also used as figureheads for the Christian right, paraded at evangelical festivals and made to promote conservative causes. While taking a swipe at bigots is always good for a laugh, The Boys misses a trick by failing to show how Voight might have tried pandering to other demographics – particularly the LGBTQ community. Large multinational companies are often keen to sponsor Pride events or change their logo in order to appear progressive, but such gestures are viewed with cynicism by those who argue that increasing profit margins, rather than reducing inequality, is the end goal. Depicting Homelander in a rainbow cape while his colleagues are hired to denounce same-sex marriage would have been a more accurate representation of the ways in which big businesses often play both sides to keep customers coming back.
The Boys also focuses gender and race within superhero culture, topics which filmed adaptations are frequently accused of bungling. As its title suggests, the series is primarily focused on male characters and, when ‘The Boys’ do eventually recruit a female member (Karen Fukuhara), she is given plenty to do but very little to say. Starlight’s storylines often depict misogyny within the Seven – such as needlessly revealing costumes and sexual objectification – but these momentary engagements feel like afterthoughts within the overall arc of the show. The significance of race is also underplayed, which might be another missed opportunity when numerous superhero franchises have been accused of ‘white-washing’ the few roles that they offer for ethnic minority actors. Perhaps the second series, recently announced by Amazon, will develop these ideas into a more incisive critique.
The Boys is entertainment first and foremost, but the fact that economics play a huge role in dictating the superhero representations that we consume cannot be easily ignored. Racial diversity and female-centred storylines in Marvel films have been a long time coming and their recent presence, while a progressive step, appeared only once they seemed sufficiently profitable. Similarly, openly LGBTQ characters are usually featured in scenes that can easily be cut for international markets. The recent revelation that Marvel CEO Isaac Perlmutter is one of Donald Trump’s biggest donors underlines that, while claiming to endorse a range of liberal values, superheroes are always beholden to the economies that produce them.
The Boys is an Amazon original series, which is perhaps proof that much of its satirical bite is ultimately toothless. The skewering of ruthless corporatism is undermined by the fact that it’s produced by a company regularly criticised for its own dubious business practices, suggesting that critiques can easily be assimilated back into a brand’s product. The Boys (both within its fictional universe and as an example in itself) highlights that superheroes are big business and, much like the companies that own them, can adapt to the changing needs of their consumers.
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Isobel Roach reviews the second season of Amazon Prime original The Boys, as the themes of power and corruption continue to be served up with plenty of violence and comedy.
Gareth Smith is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.