Some Thoughts on The Boys

As of Season 2 episode 6.

[There are spoilers for The Boys ahead; if this sort of stuff bothers you, then I'd advise against reading this before watching the show. Also, I must preface this text by saying that I'm no huge superhero fan and I haven't read the comic the show is based upon, so details on the genre might well be wrong. Sorry! - F]

It has become somewhat cliché to talk of superheroes as the new universal text of capitalism. They work as a stand-in for the way the USA sees itself in the world - a supposedly benevolent force against "evil", "crime" and "tyranny", that acts for good even if it sometimes blunders around. Inside the superheroes' universes, most people are supposed to love them, unless they are "evil" or selfish villains; just as most people, in the average US citizen's mind, are supposed to love or envy the USA for its "great freedoms" and such. This is, of course, utter nonsense, but a convincing ideology nonetheless.

Given the kitschy patriotic fervor that animates franchises such as The Avengers and the like, it's not surprising that movies and shows that aim to subvert the genre are popping left and right. Movies like Ant-Man and Deadpool provide their audience with ironic anti-heroes, characters that are pathetic or repugnant and normally have no business being heroes, as far as traditionally the genre frames itself. Even if there used to be some space for left-wing critiques of society within the genre, such as those written by Stan Lee (Spiderman, X-Men, and the like), left-wing critiques of the genre itself seem to be few and far between over the years.

The work that looms over all attempts to critique the genre is, of course, Watchmen (the comic), written by Alan Moore. Moore, a self-described anarchist - an oddity within writers of the genre - sought to imagine how superheroes, with or without powers, would actually be if they existed in the "real world" - and the very elaborate narrative he spins shows them, at best, as a bit too gung-ho for violence and fame; at worst, psychopathic and paranoid - messed up broken people beating lumpen-proletarians left and right in order to feel better about themselves. Watchmen is a bitter and cynical critique and after its publishing the genre was never quite the same, many times embracing the "superheroes can be messed up people" aesthetic in Frank Miller's works and the like, producing a hobbesian "every man for himself" world that resonated well with neoliberalism's grip on the planet.

What does all of this has to do with The Boys? Well, it's quite simple: the show quite openly styles itself as "realistic", the way superheroes would be if they existed in "real life". "The Homelander" (A Superman stand-in, spectacularly played by Antony Starr) is a sociopath with mommy issues; "A-Train" (The Flash, played by Jessie T. Usher) is a steroid junkie; "The Deep" (Aquaman, played by Chace Crawford) is an abusive piece of shit with self-esteem issues; and so on and so forth. They comprise, along four others, "The Seven", a superhero team managed by a corrupt international megacorporation, Vought, that has made them into brands and cultural icons, and plastered their faces all over the place, in products, billboards, movies, etc. A neoliberal version of the Avengers, if you may.

The Boys prides itself in its "no punches pulled" attitude; blood and gore explode in hyperdetailed renditions in order to produce a visceral feeling that yes, these are actual people dying. Beyond the superheroes, which are framed mostly as the villains of the show, there is a small band of guerrilla-type plucky heroes - "Billy Butcher" (Karl Urban), a sort of Punisher-style character that seeks revenge for his presumably dead wife who was raped and vanished by Homelander; "Hughie Campbell" (Jack Quaid), the audience stand-in, a regular dude with a regular job that watches his girlfriend get run-over by A-Train and explode, and then gets sucked into the anti-"Supe" (the show's derogatory term for people with superpowers) activities; "Mother's Milk/MM" (Laz Alonso), a family man that used to work for the FBI in activities against superheroes; "Frenchie" (Tomer Capon) as the criminal with a heart of gold and explosives extraordinaire; and "Kimiko" (Karen Fukuhara), a victim of child trafficking by a paramilitary force that got forcibly transformed into a superperson. The crew then tries to sabotage and destroy Vought by whatever means possible, and we are supposed to root for them in their quest against injustice.

In their mission to destroy the apparatus of super-powered tyranny, the heroes go through emotional and sometimes even poignant moments; superheroes are shown to be human as well, merely part of the system. In weaving such a story The Boys tries really hard to be a "mature" tale, one where actions have consequences, where anything can happen, where morality as such is questioned. And it fails spectacularly at it.

The Boys is too unsubtle; its allegiance is first and foremost to enjoyment. The gratuitous violence and titillation subverts the show's own somewhat radical message and reveals what it truly cares about - giving its audience spectacular enjoyment through very impressive CG work. It is, as Adorno perhaps would have put it, a contradiction within the form and the content of the work. The content of The Boys is quite critical, perhaps even anti-capitalist - evil corporations, manufactured terrorists, people turned into brands, etc.; and yet, its form is reactionary - the same fantasy of every single super-hero work: the awe in the face of super-powers ("holy shit that dude just melted the lady's eyes!!"), the rigid narrative of "good versus evil" (even if the superheroes are in the "evil" camp), the violence for pure enjoyment without critique.

This calls to mind as well Mark Fisher's critique of corporate anti-capitalism in Capitalist Realism:

In fact, capitalism realism [that is, the cultural and ideological mode of late-capitalist neoliberal society] is very far from precluding a certain anti-capitalism. After all, and as Žižek has provocatively pointed out, anti-capitalism is widely disseminated in capitalism. Time after time, the villain in Hollywood films will turn out to be the 'evil corporation'. Far from undermining capitalism realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it. [...] [This] exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called 'interpassivity': the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.

Indeed, The Boys attempts to have its cake and eat it too - to attempt to produce a subversive piece of art but also have all the elements of the genre that make it enjoyable. Is that wrong, per se? Not really. But it produces an inferior work in comparison to, say, Watchmen. Whereas in that work glorification is far more subdued, most characters are morally repugnant and shown to be so (the most popular character and the most superhero-like is the paranoid conspiracy-minded reactionary Rorschach, which tells a lot by itself), the story is a narrative slow-burner with texts inside texts and very ambiguous moments. It might be unfair of me to compare the Watchmen comic (and not the Watchmen movie, which is just a piece of crap for the exact same reasons as I've excoriated The Boys for) with the The Boys TV series, but I'll be honest: I tried reading the The Boys comic and it was such an outlandish edgy piece of garbage that I just gave up. It's rather impressive that a show as smart as The Boys was inspired by that pile of steaming garbage, so that's a positive point, I guess.

In the end it just feels a bit hollow. Perhaps the show is as it is because of the necessity of splashy CG for it to sell well, and that's understandable. Still, it just feels like a missed opportunity to not treat its audience like idiots addicted to screen violence. All in all, I kind of like The Boys, to be perfectly frank; it does what it does quite well, with spectacular action scenes and some very very good acting sometimes. It just feels like it could have been so much better. Perhaps as the rest of the episodes come out I'll change my opinion and if so, I'll change this piece; for now, this is my verdict.