(I actually wrote this post back in September and realized recently I hadn’t posted it. Here it is).
I like a deconstructionist superhero narrative. I like a story that tries to look behind the superhero genre and actually create real characters out of the archetypes that form our images of the superhero. WATCHMEN is still one of my favorite superhero stories. Superheroes like Spider-Man, the X-Men, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones are my favorite because they seem like real people. In some of my writing, I like to create superhero stories that treat the superheroes as real people and explore their needs and wants.
Superheroes in the “real world”, with flaws and issues, is a subject I find intriguing. A show like THE BOYS would seem to be entirely in my alley of interest. And it definitely was. I’ve been curious about the show since it premiered. I binge-watched it over the course of about 3 evenings.
There are aspects of THE BOYS which I enjoyed. As mentioned, these superheroes are also real people and they have interests, and flaws, and character quirks. These superheroes exist in a corporate-driven world, which treats them like property to be molded and marketed and sold to benefit the corporate interests. It’s a blend of sports heroes and movie characters, and the show does an excellent job of having the superheroes be images to be marketed (lunch boxes, store displays, movies, tv shows, school visits, public appearances, etc.). I find this totally “realistic” in a believable yet disappointing yet inevitable way.
There are also levels of superheroes, in terms of ability and prominence. Some superheroes have almost no ability (I recall someone who could make flowers grow). Some superheroes grow spikes out of their arms and are solid hand to hand fighters but end up doing soft-core sexy superhero movies (Popclaw). Some are supremely power and end up part of The Seven, the top superhero group in the USA. (Maybe even the world, but we never get any information about that.)
THE BOYS is about two people who become involved with The Seven. The first is a young man, Hughie, whose girlfriend Robin is accidentally killed by superhero A-Train, the “Flash” equivalent of The Seven, who run through her in the street. The second is a young woman from the Midwest, Annie, who is a superhero with the name Starlight and ends up being invited to join The Seven.
Hughie ends up teaming up with a vigilante named Billy who is out for vengeance against The Seven because his wife, who worked for the corporate entity behind the Seven, was raped by Homelander, the “Superman” equivalent who leads the Seven.
Annie quickly discovers that being a part of The Seven is not at all what she thought it would be. She is manipulated into sex by The Deep (the Aquaman equivalent). She is lecherously spied upon by the invisible man. She discovers that Homelander is a controlling megalomaniac. Queen Maeve (the Wonder Woman equivalent) is burned out and disenchanted with everything about being a superhero.
Hughie and Annie meet innocently and fall for each other and begin a relationship. During this, Hughie continues his vigilante actions against the superheroes, ending int he death of Translucent. Eventually all is discovered, and the first season ends with relationships torn asunder, characters dying, and the rules seemingly changed
Again, a deconstructionist superhero narrative with many interesting aspects.
But where the show THE BOYS falls down for me is where so many shows and narratives fall down for me nowadays. The narrative is designed so that you end up “rooting for sociopaths” (a phrase I heard on Pop Culture Happy Hour).
Most of the characters of THE BOYS are sociopaths. More specifically, most if not all of the male characters are sociopaths. Homelander, The Deep, Translucent, Black Noir, Hughie, Billy. They are all maladjusted, dangerous, people who don’t care about others but just care about themselves and their needs and their wants. The women of THE BOYS are there to be the moral centers of the show, to soothe and forgive the actions of the men (Queen Maeve, Starlight). Or they are there to be murdered and revenged or manipulated or exploited (Billy’s wife, Hughie’s girlfriend, PopClaw) Even the lead of the corporation, Madelyn Stillwell, a powerful woman who is able to manipulate the superheroes into doing the corporate bidding (and who notably was a male in the comic book) still ends up existing at the whim of Homelander.
In addition, the story is completely America-centric. Towards the end they do bring in the existence of superheroes in another country, and it is of course in the context of a super-powered terrorist who attacks American troops. It looks like this plotline will be the central plot line of the second season. The construction of the show, with a corporate injecting a super-serum equivalent into children via vaccinations is also unfortunately designed to accentuate anti-vaxxer sentiments and make it real. Which adds another aspect of sociopathy to the situations of the show.
While I was binge-watching THE BOYS I wondered what would happen next and what turns the narrative would take. Eventually it felt like so many other shows in that it’s really about the sociopaths who drive the narrative and it is designed to make me root and cheer for them.
One could say that the world works like this. There are powerful people who are sociopaths who are able to manipulate the systems of the world and get their way. American is the dominant world power in terms of cultural influence and economic influence. Why should superheroes be any different?
It’s a good question. I’d like to see a narrative that is different. I’d also like to see what happens when that assumption of the previous paragraphs runs into people who are determined to make it a different narrative, whether they have superpowers or not. Not because their wives/girlfriends were injured or killed by the current situation, but because they realize it needs to be different. THE BOYS could be that show, but it’s not. Instead it relies on what feel like tired tropes of narrative and power and in the end tries to get viewers to root for the sociopaths.