The art produced by any culture goes through many phases. Often, art invents larger-than-life fantastical characters that enable the creators of said art to get at something about the culture that is hard to represent–anxieties and fears, usually.
Sci-Fi and fantasy have often been the home to these sorts of explorations of the collective cultural psyche. During the 1800s, when science was beginning to develop quickly, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as cautionary tales. Medical science was on the rise, but as people learned more, they were worried about what the eventual fallout might be.
Likewise, most critics see Romero’s zombie films of the 60s and 70s as an exploration of the anxieties that were running rampant during the Vietnam era–war, civil rights/ racism–and modern life in general.
As I’ve written elsewhere, Godzilla was a similar creation–the embodiment of Japan’s memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as their anxieties about post-WWII radiation and what it could mean to their culture and way of life moving forward.
Superheroes have functioned in similar ways since the earliest iterations of Superman or Spider-Man. They allow us to reflect a mirror onto our world. The villains of comics (and more recently, movies and TV shows) could have been the villains of our real world–greedy corporations and politicians. The heroes would always save us from those bad guys in the pages of a comic book.
This summer has seen two solid examples of the superhero genre being subverted. The first, a dark retelling of Superman’s origin story, called Brightburn. The second, a television adaptation of the 2006 comic book series called The Boys.
The Boys (an Amazon original), tells the story of an alternate present in which some people are born with superhuman abilities. A company, Vought International, employs these heroes as public protectors. The heroes are coached on image and branding. They also sign movie deals and receive endorsements like athletes.
The pride of Vought International is a superhero team called The Seven–a very clear parody of DC’s Justice League.
Early on, it’s clear that the audience will be splitting time between two major narratives:
1) A new hero, Starlight, is brought into The Seven. Starlight is from small-town, middle America. She has grown up idolizing The Seven, so she is disillusioned when she meets them and finds they are not how they appear in the media.
2) Hugh Campbell, a normal guy whose girlfriend is killed by one of the heroes, A-Train, joins up with a secret group of mercenaries (for lack of a better word) in an attempt to bring Vought International down.
So what can this gritty, funny, and extremely graphic (in terms of sexuality and physical violence) teach us about where we are? What happens when the people who have been protecting us for as long as we can remember are exposed to be operating in their own interests?
The Boys deals with themes of police brutality and overreach. Vought Industries, for all intents and purposes, is a private security firm, but early on (when A-Train runs into a woman so fast she explodes) the point is made that the Supes are protected by the same kind of “on the job damages” law that protects the police. The writers wanted to draw those lines for us early.
The Boys also deals with the #MeToo movement in a pretty direct way in the first episode when Starlight is bullied into sexual favors by The Deep. It is uncomfortable, and it’s terrible to watch, but good art should make us uncomfortable, right? Starlight spent her entire life looking up to The Deep. She finally got to meet her idol, and he threatened her job if she didn’t do him this “service.” Sounds like some of those young aspiring actresses meeting Harvey Weinstein for the first time, doesn’t it?
There is plenty to like about The Boys in terms of storytelling, but it won’t be for everybody. Regardless, if you decide to give it a go, be ready for something unlike anything you’ve seen on television.
All of our fictional creations go through an inevitable evolution. Eventually, if something is in the collective consciousness for long enough, it will become the opposite of what it was at the beginning. Think of how we get from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight via Anne Rice and Buffy the Vampie Slayer. Think of how we get from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to iZombie via Zombieland and Warm Bodies.
And now, we have Brightburn and The Boys–evil superheroes whose origins are Superman and Wonder Woman and Aquaman, but who have been influenced heavily by The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s funny–based on that list, those beings we deem evil at first turn out not to be so bad, while those who were supposed to be our saviors stick around long enough to see themselves become the villains.
Season 1 of The Boys is streaming now on Amazon Prime.