The comedian Marc Maron recently landed himself in hot water with a self-fulfilling prophecy. In an August conversation with Conan O’Brien, the WTF host explained his refusal to watch Marvel movies like Avengers: Endgame: “I think those movies are for grown male nerd-childs,” Maron declared. When the audience audibly balked, he snapped back: “TAKE THE HIT! You guys are in charge of culture!”
Precisely because movies made about superheroes and by massive corporations are in charge of culture, Maron spent the subsequent few days enduring an outpouring of grievances on social media. Lost in translation were Maron’s clear self-parody—“I gotta go travel 15, 20 minutes … to see a grown-up movie with other grown-ups where we can all sit together and not understand the ending?!”—and exaggeration for comedic effect. (Maron has a small supporting role in Joker, making his protest more rhetorical than material.) Without such benefits of the doubt, Maron was left defending his right to register a small, futile objection against a near-omnipotent cultural force. As a fellow fan of ambiguous endings, I couldn’t help but admire his efforts, even as I’d seen them more effectively waged elsewhere.
The Boys, the latest result of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s prolific production partnership, arrived on Amazon in late July. I came to the series belatedly, though arguably at the perfect time. Sandwiched between Marvel’s mega-presentation at San Diego Comic-Con and its parent corporation’s own data dump at D23 Expo, The Boys was ideally positioned to comment not just on superhero fiction, but the apparatus that disseminates it everywhere from the box office to Happy Meals. To call the intellectual property under Disney’s stewardship “inescapable” is typically hyperbole; one can always choose not to spend the time and money required for a trip to the movie theater. But given my profession and the impending launch of Disney+, the sprawl of popular entertainment’s biggest franchise has an air of depressing inevitability. WandaVision and Loki and Hawkeye and more are coming, ready or not.
As Maron’s kvetching indicates, such angst isn’t limited to the high-class problems of the cultural commentariat. The issue isn’t with comic book adaptations or superheroes per se; like any genre, caped crusaders can be adapted to suit any number of themes or sensibilities. (Speaking for myself, Damon Lindelof’s “New Testament” take on Watchmen is one of my most anticipated shows of the fall.) But through a series of savvy licensing deals and successful gambles, once-marginalized characters have become the unlikely vehicle for a near-monopoly on consumers’ hearts and minds, abetted by many viewers’ surprising willingness to do publicity departments’ work for them. When Disney and Fox merged last year, there were as many headlines about what the deal would mean for the X-Men franchise as how it would affect an entire industry; as Sony and Disney waged a custody battle over Spider-Man in August, fans sprung to action like the corporate tug-of-war was a political cause. Sometimes, this state of affairs produces an unproductive bitterness (see: the spleen-venting that is Suicide Squad’s Rotten Tomatoes page). Mostly, it just yields resignation. There’s nothing wrong with investing oneself in nine-figure tentpoles, but Hollywood is no longer bothering to cater to anyone who’d rather not.
The Boys is a story about superheroes fantastically well suited to skepticism, fatigue, and general wariness toward stories about superheroes. Based on the mid-aughts comic by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson—Ennis also wrote Preacher, previously adapted by Rogen and Goldberg for AMC—The Boys retains the premise of a vigilante group dedicated to policing the excesses of not-so-heroic people with extraordinary abilities. But it also updates the concept for a time when comics-sourced IP has just as much of a built-in advantage as the superpowered people it depicts. “Superheroes run amok” is now less an intriguing hypothetical than a capsule description of mainstream entertainment. And The Boys imagines a world where superheroes and superhero culture are one and the same.
In The Boys’ alternate universe, superheroes exist under the exclusive control of Vought International, an entity that’s as much a stand-in for Disney as Lockheed Martin. Vought’s high-profile employees fight crime and dispatch bad guys, but these are only incidental benefits to the true goal of fattening Vought’s bottom line. Executive Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) spends much of the eight-episode season in pursuit of a lucrative Pentagon contract, leveraging good press into political pressure to fold Vought’s human weapons into the arsenal of the United States armed forces. The commentary on the military-industrial complex comes ready-made.
But The Boys also has its heroes quite literally play the part. The first time we meet idealistic newcomer Starlight, née Annie January (Erin Moriarty), she’s auditioning for a spot on the Seven, Vought’s answer to the Avengers or Justice League. Annie isn’t showcasing her abilities, but monologuing into a camera, emoting on cue like any number of aspiring leading ladies. When she’s finally “cast,” one of our first clues the Seven aren’t all they’re cracked up to be is a meeting where the members spend their time complaining about the profit structures for the movies they also star in—like if Iron Man centered on the actual Tony Stark. (In a brief cameo as a director, Rogen gushes about joining the Vought Cinematic Universe, or VCU.) And in a climactic speech, one character expresses his hope for Vought’s continued dominance by promising “sequel after sequel.” The promise would sound like a threat if we didn’t already know what it looked like.
The members of the Seven aren’t hard to trace back to their real-life inspirations. Poster boy Homelander (Antony Starr) is as clean-cut and corn-fed as Captain America; the Deep (Chace Crawford) has Aquaman’s underwater survival skills and Momoa-like abs; A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) sprints miles in, well, a Flash. The transparency of its parody is part of The Boys’ overall nose-thumbing, its flair for the provocative that sometimes manifests in puerile outbursts of cartoon violence. Everyman Hughie (Jack Quaid) gets recruited into the namesake group after A-Train literally runs through his girlfriend, leaving him holding her severed arms. Later, he kills a “supe” by exploding a bomb stuffed up his rectum. R-rated antics aside, however, The Boys’ lack of interest in plausible deniability largely helps its satire. When Starlight goes public with her experience being harassed by a coworker, her story is immediately co-opted into a defanged parable of feminist empowerment. It’s an efficient illustration of the uniquely alienating experience that is having your own identity sold back to you in the diluted form of blockbuster fare like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman.
Like True Blood before it, The Boys’ use of the supernatural as an allegory for real-life trends sometimes causes its metaphor to spin out of control. Where Vought and its workforce are straight-up evil—pandering to an Evangelical base with a mix of soft bigotry and jingoism, fueled by the lie its heroes are chosen by God—their flesh-and-blood counterparts are merely outsized in influence. Squeezing the life out of Hollywood’s middle class and arming terrorists to create a demand for one’s product are hardly equivalent sins, but The Boys at times strains for multiple targets at once.
The Boys’ closest analog in the modern superhero landscape is probably Deadpool, another relentlessly meta display of irreverence that aims to tweak a genre it also, unavoidably, inhabits. But whereas Deadpool comes off as hypocritical, The Boys actually feels cathartic. Much of the difference is structural: Post-merger, Deadpool is a part of the very Marvel machine it positions itself against, while The Boys is just one TV show among hundreds, albeit one with a relatively large budget and a renewal in hand. (Amazon’s film arm doesn’t have a multibillion-dollar comics franchise of its own to ever-so-lightly roast … yet.) Mostly, though, The Boys shows it’s possible to get a kick out of laser beams and fight scenes while also being worn out by their excesses—not just the naivete, but the profiteering, the blandness, the micromanaged narratives passed off as expression. One show can’t turn the tides of change, but at least it can commiserate.