role muddles

The Boys Is the End of the Superhero As We Know It.

And it’s about time.

Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

After two seasons of The Boys, I can say with roughly 85 percent confidence that Dr. Fredric Wertham was right.

For generations, Wertham has been an object of scorn in the geek community for his censorious mid-century crusade against comic books, which wiped out whole companies and led to the creation of a harsh, self-imposed “Comics Code” of narrative ethics that — so the conventional wisdom goes — held the medium back for decades. He was a German-born psychologist who rose to prominence when, after decades of battling for children’s rights and racial equality in his adopted homeland of the United States, he chose to go to war against the funny books. Starting in the late 1940s, he was at the vanguard of an effort to overhaul the business on grounds of morality and public health, one that reached its apogee in 1954, when Wertham appeared before a congressional hearing on comics and published a book-length broadside against them, memorably dubbed Seduction of the Innocent.

It’s almost as if Wertham had been in showrunner Eric Kripke’s writers’ room for this most recent season of Amazon’s sleeper-hit superhero satire. It’s not really the sort of satire one laughs at, per se — it’s one that’s so brutally, tragically honest that it mostly just ruins you for the genre it’s taking shots at. In fact, if there’s any justice in the world — and, this being 2020, we’re fresh out of justice and it’s unclear when the next shipment is coming in — The Boys will be the crowbar that bludgeons to death the superhero genre as we currently know it.

To be sure, much was lacking in Wertham’s approach: He seems to have falsified data, he’s been accused of methodological errors, and his belief that Batman and Robin were turning kids gay hasn’t exactly aged well. That said, when it came to Superman, he was on to something. “Superman (with the big S on his uniform — we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals, and ‘foreign-looking’ people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible,” wrote Wertham. He then posited a social bifurcation that the superhero genre might produce for impressionable children: “Either they fantasy themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen,” he wrote, “or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them — by force.”

Therein lies the dilemma of fictional metahumans’ nonfictional psychological impact, one that The Boys memorably tackles by going in thematic reverse from the typical dark superhero satire. Sure, it walks on well-trod ground by depicting the spandex set as all-too-human perverts and sociopaths: countless edgy and “edgy” comics have done that before, from Watchmen to Ultimates to the printed original version of The Boys, even back to MAD’s groundbreaking 1953 satire “Superduperman.” It’s understandable that many comics geeks saw Amazon’s (frankly, awful) marketing campaigns for The Boys and assumed it was just more of the same. But I’m here to tell you: It really, truly isn’t. This is something new — and urgently needed. The thematic reversal is this: The Boys isn’t built on a hoary hypothetical about what real people would be like if they tried to become superheroes; instead, it demands we admit that superheroes have altered the way we look at real people.

When Wertham was writing, many cackled at the notion that Superman, that soaring wonder of American self-conception, bore any relation to the Nazis he’d spent World War II battling. But The Boys has no such illusions. As such, the arc of season two was largely centered on a Superman (and, to an extent, Captain America) stand-in’s gradual and enthusiastic transformation into the figurehead of a new American Nazism — one that is explicitly named as such and not covered with the usual fig leaves and work-arounds that superhero fiction employs while trying to metaphorically deal with real-world evil. At one pivotal point in the narrative, this grinning, six-packed Übermensch, Homelander, learns that his teammate and lover, Stormfront (who shares her moniker with the English language’s most infamous fascist website), is an actual, literal, unreconstructed Nazi who wants him to fulfill her and Hitler’s dream.

In what is perhaps the most arresting moment in a season full of them, she asks him to join her in her kampf against nonwhites. There’s a slight pause. We zero in on Homelander’s face and there are a few seconds where we can see the gears turning in his mind. You think he’s going to respond with something along the lines of, “Look, I may be better than everyone, and I may hate a lot of people, but I’m no Nazi.” You think he’d at least express doubts about it. But no. A few more seconds of silent contemplation, then he turns to Stormfront, leans in, and gives her the most passionate kiss one can imagine. In that moment, he sees that this was always going to be the point of his existence.

“But wait,” you say. “Superman’s not a bigot. His whole deal is that he helps people and aspires to only do good deeds with the power he’s been given.” Well, I get where you’re coming from, but you’re looking at it the wrong way.

Everyone thinks they know the difference between right and wrong, and that they’ve done more of the former than the latter. Everyone thinks they’re free of bigotry, or at least that what others identify as bigotry is merely a rational response to real threats. Everyone thinks that they could make the world better if they only had the strength to do so. Everyone. That includes all the people you hate, the people who are ruining your country and world, the people who hold real power and cause real misery. We all think we’re superheroes, or at least that we would be, given the chance. Even more dangerous, we project those personality traits onto the bold-faced names that we adore, assuming that they know what’s best and can achieve it with their considerable powers. We’re all utterly and profoundly wrong.

In the eight decades since Superman first leaped a tall building in a single bound, and especially in the 22 years since Blade hit theaters, America has watched superhero fiction conquer its public imagination. Obviously, this commercial phenomenon is not anywhere near the sole reason the nation is so completely screwed up these days. If you ran a study following the lives of kids who are exposed to superhero stuff, you’d likely find no direct correlation between amount consumed and violence committed. But this isn’t just about actual commission of violence. Yes, there are those who occupy the first part of Wertham’s bifurcation, those who see a superhero and want to punch the world into their conception of what’s right. But just as dangerous — and far, far more numerous — are the people in the second part: those who grow up adoring the costumed vigilantes and look for real-life superheroes to rescue them.

Only, there are no superheroes in our world. There are no powerful people who do only good. There never were. Anytime we fall into the trap of thinking of people as flesh-and-blood incarnations of our best ideals, even ones with humanizing flaws, we’re proven humiliatingly wrong, and the consequences of our credulousness are potentially catastrophic.

To make this point, The Boys depicts its superheroes as every kind of person we’ve adored: movie stars, cops, reality-TV figures, athletes, politicians, soldiers, models, social-media influencers, corporate executives, and even preachers. We see them hawk their wares, read their lines, charge up their crowds, and, as far as the public knows, save the day over and over again. What we quickly learn is that they’re all horrible in one way or another — and yet, the show never envisions these figures as parodic cardboard cutouts. For the most part, they’re people who have become destructively venal and self-centered because they believe they’re doing the best they can, given the circumstances. They know they’re causing others pain, but most of them operate with the deadly combination of a conviction that the pain would be greater if they stopped doing what they do and a resignation to the larger injustice of the world. Such is the way evil has been perpetuated since time immemorial.

The comic of The Boys, which began in 2006, was very emphatically a product of writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s rage at the Bush administration, and there are those who argue that the show is still stuck in the aughts as far as its social commentary goes. They could not be more wrong. The sins of the Bush era never went away, despite our superheroic illusions on Inauguration Day 2009. But more important, Kripke’s incarnation of The Boys is eminently of the now. It is, to put it simply, the only superhero story that feels real in this moment.

From the cynical corporate exploitation of superhero Queen Maeve’s forced outing as a lesbian (she is, in fact, bisexual, but her bosses found that lesbians poll better) to Stormfront’s morally bankrupt plan to sow disinformation in the form of memes promoting either side of an issue; from the chrome-sheen names of the movies the supes star in (Homelander: Darkest Day and Homelander: Brightest Night were presumably the Infinity War and Endgame of their world) to the way a sexual assault is abruptly transformed into a girl-power narrative on the victim’s reality show — everything is so specifically about how awful everything is right now. Hell, even though there’s no pandemic in The Boys, its America is still one in which constant death facilitated by those in power is met by the public with either atavist rage toward immigrants or merely a shrug on the way to a superhero-themed chain restaurant. (Try the Brave Maeve Veggie Burger; I hear it’s sappho-licious.) Above all, the show accentuates the dread induced when a system of oppression leaves individuals with no truly good options in crisis after crisis. The world feels like it’s in chaos these days, but one should never forget that it’s often chaos by design.

Which brings us to the diseased elephant in the room. The president of the United States in The Boys is an offscreen nonentity and certainly not supposed to be Donald Trump. (As has been true since November 8, 2016, it’s impossible to make Trump the president in your fictional world without the whole story having to revolve around him.) But, in some ways — some desperately important ways — the show does, indeed, revolve around him. Given that it’s already been acknowledged by both Kripke and Antony Starr, I have to restrain myself from belaboring this point, but suffice it to say that Homelander is The Boys’ Trump, gazed upon from two perspectives.

The first perspective is that of Trump himself. Homelander, so blazingly brought to life by Starr, is a star-spangled, flaxen-haired macho man, the most famous person in the world, invincible and rippling with vigor as he soars above a populace that fears and loves him in equal measure. But when Homelander is behind closed doors, we see in him Trump removed from all the goofiness and incompetence. When we watch Homelander openly disdain the very concept of empathy, when we watch him rape and terrorize women, when we watch him whip up rallies against hordes of immigrant “supervillains,” we see a vision of Trump stripped bare, with all the things people find goofy about him no longer obscuring what’s at his core. For Homelander, as for Trump, his only kryptonite is the threat that the crowds might stop cheering for him.

The last time we see Homelander in season two, he’s standing on a skyscraper, pantsless, jerking off onto the city he’s sworn to protect. Over and over again, he grunts out, “I can do whatever I want.” Sound familiar?

It was always leading to this. The police officers and military men who idolize the Punisher are, perversely, right: Superhero fiction has perpetually been about characters who believe that the laws don’t apply to them and that violence is justified when your opponent is scary enough. I love so many works of superhero fiction. They have changed my life in profound ways. But the past few months already had me wondering whether 2020 has made it clear that superhero fiction should not — must not — continue in its current form, and The Boys made me certain of that. The core pantheon of superheroes have always, always ended up upholding the status quo, and we are finally waking up to the fact that that status quo is morally indefensible. Of what use is Superman when it’s been revealed that truth and justice were always the opposite of the American way? I don’t know how to fix superhero fiction, nor do I lay the blame at any individual creators for what the genre is and has always been. But if it is to have any moral legitimacy or relevance, it has to completely reinvent itself.

Many have pointed out that The Boys is in dialogue with the ideas that writer Alan Moore put into Watchmen. But I would contend that the more relevant Moore work to think about while pondering the show is his lesser-known but far superior Superman story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” It was an elegy for a simpler Man of Steel, one who, as the introductory narration puts it, was “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” In a framing device, the reader is teased with the notion that it’s a story about how a supervillain killed Superman. But, as we learn in the end, it is Superman who kills himself, in a sense. After he has very reluctantly murdered the main baddie, he realizes he’s forfeited his moral standing and walks into a chamber filled with gold kryptonite, which permanently removes his powers. He has, in that moment, realized that the only way to win at the superhero game is to not play.

In our world, superheroes can never be what we’ve dreamed them to be. Maybe we never should have had those dreams in the first place. No one is flying to the rescue. It’s long past time we dreamed of a world where we make Wertham proud by saving ourselves.