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Marvel Isn’t the Only Studio Expanding the Limits of Superhero TV

On the fringes of the genre lie two niche newcomers: a cynical take on heroes called ‘The Boys’ and ‘Pennyworth,’ a.k.a. “The Young Alfred” show

Epix/Amazon/Ringer illustration

One of the key takeaways from Marvel’s wide-ranging Comic-Con presentation, in which the studio laid out Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was its dive into television. As the Netflix-Marvel partnership quickly fades into obscurity, the MCU is hard at work on several miniseries for the upcoming streaming service Disney+. As revealed at Comic-Con, the first of these shows, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, will arrive in fall 2020. And unlike the Netflix-Marvel series that were often confined to the streets of New York, there will be no vague allusions to the rest of the MCU: These shows will explicitly take place within the MCU, and feature the same A-list actors—Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, and Jeremy Renner, to name a few.

Whether the Disney+ shows are a hit remains to be seen, but the implication is clear: The MCU is looking to translate its big-screen dominance to television. There’s nothing to suggest this shouldn’t work; the Marvel box office numbers speak for themselves. And while the MCU shows are the newcomers crashing the superhero TV party, superhero shows have been abundant for years, and have worked to varying degrees of success—from the underwhelming Netflix experiment to the CW’s Arrowverse to the surreal flourishes of FX’s Legion to a canceled superhero-adjacent corporate sitcom.

There’s a simple reason the streaming era has yielded so many superhero shows: Game of Thrones aside, superpowered programming is the defining monoculture of our time. But capitalizing on superheroes and comic book culture going mainstream doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to the same tried-and-true—and sometimes redundant—formula the MCU has tinkered with over the years. As two new series—The Boys on Amazon Prime; Pennyworth on Epix—debuting this weekend reveal, there are ways to make superhero shows that fall farther off the beaten path. The future of superhero TV won’t just be whatever the MCU cooks up. Because of the genre’s overwhelming popularity, superhero television will also include increasingly niche, fringe programming.

On its surface, The Boys looks like your standard superhero fare. There is a group of idolized heroes known as the Seven, an amalgam of the Justice League with its own versions of Aquaman (called the Deep), the Flash (A-Train), Wonder Woman (Queen Maeve), and Superman (Homelander). The opening sequence sees Queen Maeve and Homelander easily dispatch some armed robbers on a getaway, then get approached by two starstruck kids asking for a selfie. But things quickly take a turn for the gory, cruel, and deeply cynical.

Our main character is Hughie, an electronics store clerk whose girlfriend, Robin, literally explodes after A-Train inadvertently runs through her on the street. Shortly after, Hughie is asked by a representative at Vought—the conglomerate that manages the Seven and other superheroes—to sign an NDA in exchange for a small payout, as A-Train gives a half-assed apology for Robin’s death in a press conference. Hughie, once a self-professed fan of all things superheroes, suddenly has reason to hold a very personal vendetta against them.

Under Vought, superheroes aren’t trying to save the day. They’re a corporate entity concerned with all of the things that come with the designation: merchandise, shareholder meetings, commercials, constant tracking of approval numbers, PR campaigns. The efforts of the Seven aren’t just measured by who they can save, but by social media engagement. (In the least subtle dig imaginable, Vought also has a production wing that creates tons of lucrative films under the Vought Cinematic Universe.) The superheroes are the villains of this story, with behavior ranging from unrepentant narcissism and sociopathy to sexual assault and murder. “The Boys” in The Boys are the group—including Hughie as its newcomer—who’ve all been wronged in different ways by the Seven and plan to take out the corrupted superheroes, whether through legal means or, in one particularly gruesome case, by planting a bomb in a hero’s anal cavity.

While the source material—the comic series of the same name from Garth Ennis—began in 2006, The Boys feels perfectly suited for 2019, with superhero fandom as big as it’s ever been. Accepting that people with powers do exist, the series feels depressingly on-brand in surmising that Earth’s saviors would quickly forget what makes them heroes and get swept up in the same vices that can consume celebrities, athletes, and politicians. It’s like if Watchmen were conceived by a 12-year-old with a cursory understanding of capitalism.

This super-nihilistic take on heroes often makes The Boys hard to watch—there’s only so many times you can see a sociopathic dude who looks kinda like Captain America take visceral pleasure in brutally killing criminals. But, ironic as it sounds, the show is surprisingly effective superhero counterprogramming—especially for anyone who’s beginning to feel burnt out by the charming yet repetitive beats of the MCU. The Boys’ bleak, power-corrupts-all ethos falls more in line with the short-lived Zack Snyder era of the DC Extended Universe, but, this being based on Ennis material—he’s also responsible for the Preacher comics series, which has turned into an equally lurid AMC series—it’s also got a macabre sense of humor that brings some much-needed levity to the messed-up proceedings. The Boys, if it wasn’t obvious already, isn’t for everyone. But for anyone feeling superhero oversaturation, it’s an antidote that’s hiding in plain sight.

But while The Boys has unsubtle contempt for superheroes, the show still has the genre’s signature aesthetics—all the way down to hokey spandex uniforms. That isn’t so much the case with Pennyworth, a series with a log line straight out of a Saturday Night Live sketch, or perhaps from an overzealous TV executive who got really jazzed about The Young Pope: Alfred—yes, Batman’s butler, Alfred—as a young, sexy spy in 1960s London.

On Pennyworth, instead of being treated to the calm, sophisticated (and, um, old) Alfred audiences know, the butler gets his very own origin story, courtesy of the folks behind Fox’s Gotham—which itself is centered on a young Jim Gordon. “He’s going to scandalize some people and shock people and challenge people’s conception, especially people who are deeply into the DC canon mythology,” executive producer Bruno Heller actually said, about the Alfred Who Fucks show.

While a spinoff series about Batman’s butler can certainly be read as an example of superhero-adjacent programming scraping the bottom of the barrel, Pennyworth is also a legitimately entertaining series because it’s determined to separate itself. Yes, both of Batman’s parents show up—though they haven’t met one another in the early episodes, leading many to ponder whether we’ll see Bruce Wayne conceived on this show—but for the most part, Pennyworth eschews all things Batman, instead more closely resembling the James Bond franchise.

Our young Alfred—played by Jack Bannon, who’s doing what sounds like an awful Michael Caine impression—is fresh out of the British armed forces, and wants to form a security company with a couple of pals from his infantry days. His father, a butler, disapproves of his ambitions, and before his plans take shape Alfred lives at home and works as a bouncer for a local nightclub (I swear on my life this is true). But Alfred’s business prospects change after he crosses paths with Thomas Wayne, a chance encounter that quickly sucks him into a world of espionage and warring political factions.

It is objectively absurd stuff, and Pennyworth is best enjoyed by those willing to give little thought to its plot machinations. This series is an alt-history of 1960s London—in the first three episodes alone, Alfred crosses paths with Jack the Ripper (!) and a stand-in for Alan Turing. On the one hand, Jack the Ripper was active in the late 1880s, so unless he was slaughtering people as a toddler it would make little sense to think that he’d be alive in the ’60s—on the other hand, Alfred chewing scenery with an infamous serial killer is, and I don’t use this word lightly, iconically batshit. As a public service to Chuck Rhoades, it’s also worth mentioning there is a Pennyworth subplot involving BDSM, for reasons my mortal being cannot comprehend. Consider us scandalized!

In the Bond canon, Pennyworth is most reminiscent of the campier interpretations of 007 defined by Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan. That’s a relief in and of itself: Batman projects in recent years have been defined by gritty realism, which wouldn’t feel tonally appropriate for a spinoff about a super spy who’ll one day be a butler. The only way the Young Alfred show works is by not taking itself seriously—it’s not going to make many best-of lists for 2019, but it’s undeniably fun stuff. But the broader lesson of Pennyworth is that a superhero show doesn’t need to have superheroes to work—let alone fit in the genre.

As The Boys and Pennyworth demonstrate—in very different ways—superhero series in 2019 can produce things you’d never expect to see on screen. The closest Marvel will get to skewering its own tropes and superheroes is through Deadpool, whose fourth-wall-breaking antics are amusing but ultimately come from a character who ends up doing a lot of good, even if he wouldn’t want to admit it. Conversely, in The Boys, a superhero is content to sit back and let all the passengers on a plane perish to avoid the PR fallout that’d occur if anyone told the world he was an asshole. And whereas the MCU loves to boast about its experiments with different genres—how many times have you heard Captain America: The Winter Soldier compared to a Cold War conspiracy thriller?—there is nothing in the MCU canon quite like the campy espionage thrills of Pennyworth.

As the MCU continues to zig in its big foray into television, other superhero programming will try to zag. The Boys and Pennyworth may never be as popular as the MCU mainstays, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Presumably, their respective networks will set realistic expectations for how many viewers these shows can pull in; promisingly, The Boys already has been renewed for a second season. But in an ever-crowded TV landscape, even being tangentially related to superheroes is a built-in advantage when it comes to finding an audience—and a sneaky avenue for exploring bold, crass, gory, and entertaining new directions.