Superheroes and cynicism don’t mix

I watched the first three episodes of The Boys on Amazon Prime. While it looks like a high-quality TV show, I found it very off-putting. (That may be by design, to some extent.)

I’m not sure if I’ll watch any more, and I’m not reviewing it since I haven’t seen it all, but I think it’s worthwhile to examine why it repulsed me so quickly. If you enjoy the show, please keep enjoying it. In terms of writing, acting, directing, production values, etc., it seems to have all the ingredients of a compelling series. Its hard-R rating isn’t even the real dealbreaker.

The problem, for me, is more philosophical. The series’ pessimistic worldview is what ultimately prevents me from wanting to spend further time in this particular superhero universe, despite the numerous technical strengths of the show.

The Boys features a cynical take on superheroes. They’re all physically super, but (in what I watched) only one might actually be at all heroic. The vast majority are portrayed as self-serving, self-absorbed celebrities who are content to let a large corporation package them and tell them what to do.

They demonstrate no moral compass, no compassion, no altruism. This could work as part of a redemption arc, but it doesn’t look like the show is going in that direction. (I’d be happy to be wrong, though.)

I read, watch, and write superhero stories because they show people becoming something better.

This could be a character like Superman who always does the right thing because that’s how he was raised, or it could be a character like Spider-Man who has to work at it harder, and who screws up from time to time but usually figures out the right thing to do in the end. Even more violent characters like Wolverine can adhere to a strict code of honor.

The corporate-superhero aspect of The Boys reminds of an earlier corporate, for-profit superhero: Booster Gold. Booster had a short-lived DC Comics series in the late ’80s, and throughout it, he grew from a self-serving glory hound to a bona fide (but still very flawed) superhero.

That growth was key to my enjoyment of Booster Gold. Same goes for ’90s Marvel series The Thunderbolts. That book starred a group of supervillains pretending to be superheroes as part of a scheme, but some of these villains discovered that they actually liked being heroes, which created all sorts of drama and tension and gave the book its heart.

The Boys may indeed portray a “realistic” version of superheroes, but that’s precisely why I don’t want to watch any more of it. I want aspirational superheroes. I want to see how we can be better, not how we’d be worse.

But if I’m completely wrong about the show, please let me know!

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