It’s a sad indictment of our digital media ecosystem that you can find nearly as many articles about Martin Scorsese opining that Marvel movies aren’t cinema as you can critical evaluations of his latest gangster epic, The Irishman. Scorsese ignited a bit of a firestorm when he shared his thoughts—and later doubled down in a November New York Times op-ed clarifying his stance—on how Marvel’s unvarying formula has meant major studios aren’t as inclined to take creative risks. Scorcese’s criticisms have been echoed by filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Ken Loach, whose superhero sentiments were way less democratic, as the two auteurs proclaimed that they’re “despicable” and a “cynical exercise,” respectively. (Seriously, look back at what Scorsese said and compare it with how superhero fans are treating him online; he’s not trying to police what people like to watch.) And yet, I’d argue the most prescient commentary on our current superhero boon this year came in August, courtesy of Marc Maron chatting with Conan O’Brien. After taking a jab at superhero flicks by saying they cater to “nerd-childs,” Maron responded to the audience’s audible protestations: “Take the hit! You guys are in charge of culture.”
Whether you like superhero movies or not, on that we can all agree. A handful of Marvel films released in the past two years—Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame—account for three of the five highest-grossing movies of all time. Many of the other highly lucrative entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren’t that far behind. Superheroes are as culturally ubiquitous as they’ve ever been, and 2019’s certainly been no different. Even Maron’s superhero dig is not without some irony: He had a small supporting role in Joker.
With perhaps the exception of Game of Thrones’ final season, there was no 2019 release as highly anticipated by the masses as Endgame. And to give Endgame the credit it deserves for a moment, the film is a solid swan song for some of the original MCU heroes; namely, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’s Captain America. People may quibble with the film’s time-travel mechanics, but I found Cap reuniting in the past with the love of his life, Peggy Carter, genuinely moving. It’s quite the task to live up to massive audience expectations after building up to a climax for more than a decade—as Thrones can attest, if you get it wrong and have Daenerys Targaryen forget basic steps in battle preparations, nobody will let you live it down.
Endgame was also an unprecedented event with respect to what it expected from audiences. While nothing would prevent you from sitting down in a theater and watching Endgame without having seen most, if not all, of its MCU predecessors, it’s an experience only fully appreciated if you understand all of the film’s self-referential beats. (I honestly wouldn’t know where to begin if I had to explain to a relative why the talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper was being consoled by a blue alien cyborg over the death of his friend, Tree Vin Diesel.) Much of Endgame is spent digging through the MCU’s past—i.e., earlier entries in the saga; brush up on your Thor: The Dark World, baby!—as our heroes try to prevent Thanos’s finger-snapping, Leftovers-esque rapture from happening in the first place.
Somewhat-encyclopedic MCU familiarity was essentially a prerequisite to have the best possible Endgame viewing experience. That reaffirmed what many of us have come to understand about the enterprise: It’s more like serialized television than traditional blockbuster filmmaking. The franchise’s box office dominance—and the fact the appetite for superhero movies shows no signs of slowing down, as evinced by Joker becoming the first R-rated film to cross the billion-dollar threshold earlier this year—bodes well for the MCU’s actual foray into the small screen with upcoming Marvel series on Disney+. (Other Marvel shows have come before them, but none have tied directly into the MCU canon the way Loki, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision are supposed to.)
But though the likes of Endgame, Joker, Captain Marvel, and Spider-Man: Far From Home—frankly, every superhero movie that wasn’t the dumpster fires known as Dark Phoenix and Hellboy—managed impressive box office hauls, the most compelling superhero stories of 2019 were told on the small screen. On the surface, Amazon’s The Boys and HBO’s Watchmen don’t have a lot in common. But both shows provided witty, subversive, and cynical narratives wrapped around a shared idea: Maybe we shouldn’t put too much faith in the people who strive to be superheroes.
In the alternate universe of The Boys, super-powered humans exist—but being a superhero means you have to toe the corporate line of Vought, a conglomerate that manages heroes across the globe. The most heralded of Vought’s superhero “employees” are the Seven: a Justice League amalgam comprised of cheeky stand-ins for the likes of Superman (he’s called Homelander), Aquaman (the Deep), and the Flash (A-Train; clearly the Vought executive who signed off on his name hasn’t used the MTA).
For the Seven and other famous superheroes under the Vought corporate umbrella, acts of heroism and satisfying the company’s bottom line go hand in hand. Success is measured not in how many people are rescued from a given situation, but by the amount of social media engagement and the heroes’ respective approval ratings in the public. (Imagine that!) Everything pertaining to the heroes is subject to monetization, including but not limited to a Hollywood production wing creating films that are part of the “Vought Cinematic Universe,” or VCU. It’s not exactly subtle, which befits a series that featured many wild deaths in its first season, including someone killed by a bomb detonated in their anal cavity and someone killed by cunnilingus.
As the “VCU” jab makes clear, while The Boys is an adaptation of Garth Ennis’s eponymous comic book series, first published in 2006, the show’s satire is rooted in our superhero-crazed present. Heroes thrive in a self-sustaining cycle of hype and capital making. Vought is unquestionably the most powerful company on the planet thanks to its combination of the mainstream appeal of Disney with the arsenal of a defense contractor on steroids. The Boys doesn’t have a gentle touch (see: the anal bomb), but behind its glorious and gory excesses is a salient point: Wouldn’t modern institutions do the same kind of stuff as Vought if superheroes actually existed?
The show’s cynicism doesn’t just extend to the corporation managing the heroes, but to the Seven themselves—a group whose wrongdoings range from persistent narcissism to sexual exploitation and murder. What’s terrifying isn’t just that the Seven are a bunch of sociopaths, but that they have Vought’s limitless resources available for PR damage control. The closest thing The Boys has to an authority holding the Seven accountable are “the Boys”: a ragtag group of non-super-powered outsiders with their own personal grudges against the heroes. (Our introduction to this world is via the Boys’ newest member, Hughie, an electronics clerk whose girlfriend explodes when A-Train literally runs into her; he’s left holding her severed arms in a state of shock.) Even then, the Boys aren’t a moral authority as much as they’re trying to channel their resentment through violence and vigilantism.
Your mileage may vary on The Boys, which rarely relents on the awful things so-called superheroes are capable of. Homelander is legitimately terrifying and already responsible for two plane crashes and countless deaths; I can’t imagine what he’ll do in Season 2. But with The Boys existing in the shadow of the ever-dominant MCU, where delineations between good and evil are clear as day—Killmonger’s philosophy in Black Panther notwithstanding—the show’s clever deconstruction of superheroes, capitalism, and institutional power feels like a refreshing antidote, even if its material is a little hard to swallow.
One could point to Joker or the Deadpool films as evidence that the biggest superhero franchises are willing to take similar creative risks, but that would disregard Joker’s empty provocations—there’s a reason “we live in a society” is such a great meme in response to it—and the fact that Deadpool’s crass behavior never actually gets in the way of him doing the right thing. By contrast, The Boys isn’t playing around. The series’ underlying, cynical philosophy evokes the nihilistic sensibilities of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s singular comic series Watchmen, with some adolescent humor thrown in for good measure (see again: the anal bomb). The Boys would’ve been the definitive deconstruction of the superhero genre in 2019 had Watchmen not received its own contemporary TV sequel on HBO.
One of the most disappointing fallouts from the Watchmen graphic novel has been creative descendants taking the wrong ideas from Moore’s opus. Watchmen’s power-corrupts-all ethos was brilliantly established through the ideologies of Ozymandias (the self-proclaimed smartest man on the planet, who believed he could solve all the world’s problems) and Doctor Manhattan (who was basically an omnipotent god), which were interrogated against the backdrop of potential nuclear armageddon and other would-be heroes who were morally compromised by a ridiculous amount of baggage. But while other superhero stories strived to be taken as seriously as Watchmen, they also glamorized the story’s brutal violence. Ironically, while Zack Snyder did a pretty decent job of adapting Watchmen for the big screen, the rest of his superhero filmography is way too self-serious for its own good—and emblematic of a larger cultural shift. (The best-case scenario of this “take superheroes seriously” trend is probably Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which felt like a crime saga where the protagonist just so happened to dress like a giant bat.)
Rather than readapting Moore’s text for the small screen, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen imagines what the series’ alt-history would look like in 2019. Among its insights: Robert Redford is still the president (sadly, my king hasn’t shown up on screen thus far), Vietnam has been integrated as America’s 51st state, and there are sporadic showers of tiny interdimensional calamari to remind people of the cataclysmic event in 1985 when a space squid killed millions of people in New York. (Which, in reality, was fabricated by Ozymandias to establish world peace built around a lie.) But this so-called peace has done little to make the world better. An extremist group called the Seventh Kavalry—a modernized KKK—has formed, idolizing the late vigilante Rorschach by donning his ink-blot mask. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, where most of the show’s action takes place, the Seventh Kavalry executed an attack that killed lots of local law enforcement—now, Tulsa PD wear their own masks to protect themselves, a clever loophole against America’s criminalization of vigilantism. (We find out in a quick aside that poor Night Owl was imprisoned for working outside of the system.)
But where Moore’s Watchmen made Cold War paranoia its central tension, the TV sequel examines the United States’ history of racial violence—not just contextualizing it with generational trauma and modern anxieties, but arguing that it’s the reason superheroes exist in this universe to begin with. The pilot opens by reimagining the real-life horrors of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street massacre in 1921 through the lens of a young Will Reeves, whom we later discover is the grandfather of the show’s main protagonist, Angela Abar (Regina King), a Tulsa detective whose superhero visage is best described as “ninja nun.” But Reeves’s place in the Watchmen canon is historic, as the show eventually reveals that he was Hooded Justice: the universe’s first hero, whose true identity had never been revealed.
The decision to make Hooded Justice someone who lived through the Black Wall Street massacre—and who was nearly lynched by fellow cops during the 1930s, hence the loose noose around the neck of his vigilante costume—is an ambitious choice, and no doubt riles up the same vocal minority of fans dismayed by Rorschach becoming a symbol for white supremacy. Certainly, it’s the boldness of Lindelof’s Watchmen that is its defining feature; a lesser adaptation would’ve simply rehashed the original text. Moore has condemned any previous attempts to revisit/remix his work, but HBO’s Watchmen feels like a true spiritual successor for the show’s willingness to challenge the audience’s conceptions and provoke our nostalgia.
I mean, there is an actual in-universe pill called “Nostalgia” that was marketed to consumers—the inciting incident for “This Extraordinary Being,” the show’s exceptional sixth episode, is Angela swallowing all of her grandfather’s Nostalgia pills and reliving Reeves’s traumatic past. The episode goes beyond just revealing Hooded Justice’s real identity—or Reeves white-facing himself under his mask as Hooded Justice and beginning a sexual relationship with Captain Metropolis—by reaffirming Moore’s belief that power is dangerous regardless of intent. When Reeves gets his hands on a mind-controlling device, which Seventh Kavalry predecessors created to instigate black riots, he uses it to fuel his own vengeance—including killing Tulsa’s chief of police, Judd Crawford, in the present day. Becoming Hooded Justice also alienates Reeves from his wife and son, the reason Angela didn’t even know who her grandfather was or that he was alive. In “This Extraordinary Being,” Reeves’s ends hardly justified the means, painting Hooded Justice as a deeply sympathetic figure—but one not without sin.
HBO’s Watchmen itself is wrapped around the idea that America hasn’t reckoned with its racial history—it’s slowly festered like an open wound, set to culminate in an apparent showdown between the Seventh Kavalry, Doctor Manhattan (shockingly revealed in the seventh episode to be Angela’s husband, Cal), Angela, Will, the mysterious Lady Trieu, and perhaps Washed Ozymandias, who is up to some weird shit in space. The finale airs on Sunday, and I really have no idea where things are headed. That’s exciting in and of itself: Watchmen has weaved so many wild threads that nothing feels off the table. (If all of this sounds dour, I promise the show is not without a great sense of humor; Ozymandias rips a galactic fart in the seventh episode I can’t stop thinking about.) In all, Lindelof’s Watchmen sequel represents the best-case scenario for adapting well-worn superhero IP, and the greatest lesson it can impart is that taking a big swing is the most compelling way to honor the genre’s history.
Sadly, there wasn’t anything on the big screen this year that matched the ambition of The Boys and Watchmen. The Hellboy reboot was too loud and too dumb to enjoy on any terms—whoever’s responsible for preventing Guillermo del Toro from rounding out his Hellboy trilogy should be tried at the Hague. Glass’ own attempt to dissect the genre was a bizarre, if not completely uninteresting, experiment that examined the popularity of superheroes with the tenor of a TED Talk. And while Brightburn attempted to pervert the Superman myth, the film was more concerned with (literal) jaw-dropping gore than the weight of its implications. I refuse to spend another minute talking about Joker, which was bad; if you want to enjoy an engrossing tale of an incendiary loner, please check out the Scorsese Cinematic Universe.
The MCU, of course, is the standard by which every piece of superhero media is judged—a distinction earned by becoming arguably the most successful franchise in history. That won’t change in the near future, with the aforementioned Disney+ shows, Black Widow, and The Eternals on the Marvel docket. The old guard of Evans and Downey Jr. stepping out of the spotlight might yield some concern in a Disney boardroom or two, but the likes of Tom Holland, Brie Larson, and Chadwick Boseman make up for their absences. (Mahershala Ali will also show up as Blade down the line, and it’s hard not to get hyped about that.)
For the time being, though, the MCU keeps dominating the box office—and after the successes of Joker, Shazam!, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman, the DC Extended Universe isn’t too far behind. But if any of these franchises are going to transcend the genre in the same provocative ways as Watchmen and The Boys, they shouldn’t be afraid to go bold and color outside the lines while superhero stories still capture the zeitgeist. (Tick tock.) The Superhero Movie Industrial Complex may be an unstoppable force at the moment, but all kinds of blockbusters—see: the once-mighty Western—have been defeated eventually by the passage of time. Even Thanos, after all, wasn’t inevitable.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.