One of the major themes of The Boys that really shook me is the discourse surrounding the idea of superheroes as icons of American imperialism

By Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi

After the popularity of Alan Moore’s Watchmen in 1985, deconstructions of superheroes became as common as superheroes themselves. In Watchmen, it explores the morality of superheroes existing during the growing Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Watchmen explored not only political stakes between two major superpowers, but also issues like racism, police brutality and imperialism, all of which were further explored in last year’s pseudo-sequel to the original Watchmen novel on HBO.

The success of Watchmen inspired so many stories that deconstruct superheroes as both a genre and an identity, but one story has managed to capture the imagination of readers with its ultra-violent depictions of superheroes and parodies of Bush-era politics. Garth Ennis’ The Boys was a popular parody comic book about superheroes in the Bush years and has received an Amazon Prime Video adaptation as a TV show since August last year. And let me tell you: The show has fit so well with the age of Donald Trump.

Dominique McElligott (left), Antony Starr. Photo: Jan Thijs (Amazon Prime Video)

A Normal Man’s Revenge

After his girlfriend was brutally slashed to pieces accidentally by a Flash-lookalike named “A-Train”, Hughie (played by Dennis Quaid’s son Jack Quaid) was then hired by a British bloke named Billy Butcher (played by Karl Urban) into a rag-tag team of black ops mercenaries aimed at preventing superheroes from going “out of control”. The Superheroes, known as “The Seven” are part of a pharmaceutical company called “Vought” and The Seven are led by a hybrid of Superman and Captain America named Homelander (played by Anthony Starr) with various members of The Seven being a parody of Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Batman and so on.

However, it turns out that Homelander has a dark secret that with the Superman-like powers that he owns, would end up destroying pretty much everything in his path, including the world. He also has a disturbing Oedipal relationship with Madeline Stillwell (played by Elizabeth Shue) who manages The Seven in non-superhero affairs including PR and crisis management. This results in Hughie and Butcher’s determination to stop The Seven, particularly Homelander from further destruction.

While Season 1 deals with stopping Homelander and The Seven, season 2 deals with the arrival of a new superhero named Stormfront (played by Aya Cash), a superhero from Seattle who then joined The Seven as a replacement for one of the dead superheroes in Season 1.

However, Stormfront like Homelander shares a disturbing secret herself which is significant since Stormfront shares the same name with a Neo-Nazi website known for propaganding anti-Semitic and Islamophobic propaganda, including conspiracy theories like “QAnon” and “White Genocide”. Her inclusion to the 2nd season is even more significant as America is facing an election year with discussion based on racism and racial justice in the aftermath of several murder of black citizens by white police officers.

Antony Starr and Erin Moriarty star in The Boys. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

On The Lighter Side

Another subplot deals with Annie January (played by Erin Moriarty), a superheroine known as “Starlight” who joined The Seven only to get sexually harassed on her first day by an Aquaman-ripoff named “The Deep” (played by Chace Crawford). Despite her continuation to work with The Seven after the horrendous event, her trauma led her to work in secret with The Boys, and she fell in love with Hughie despite the fears of being discovered by Homelander.

Starlight’s traumatic experience also led her to changing her ways from a small town Christian American girl to an empowered feminist icon that Vought immediately marketed to the world. She has to struggle between marketing her superhero persona and spying on behalf of Hughie and The Boys.

Left to right: Tomer Capon, Jack Quaid, and Karl Urban. Photo: Panagiotis Pantazidis (Amazon Studios).

Superheroes as American Imperialism

One major theme of The Boys that really hooked me to the show even right now during Season 2 is the discourse surrounding the idea of superheroes as icons of American imperialism. For nearly a century, superheroes like Superman and Captain America have been portrayed as icons of both American soft and hard power. Captain America is known for fighting Nazis during World War II on behalf of the United States, while Superman is used as promotional material for the US Army as recent as 2013’s Man of Steel. The connection between superhero pop culture still exists as recently as 2019 when Captain Marvel was used to promote women in the US Air Force.

The usage of superheroes as propaganda for both The US and US Army has been criticized by many in America and around the world, and Garth Ennis is no stranger to criticizing American imperialism in his works. Being a writer of Scottish origin, Ennis has no reservations about portraying the relationship between Superheroes and American power in a very negative light. Season 1 dealt with Vought dealing with the American Military Industrial Complex to use its superheroes in the battlefields including Syria and Afghanistan, while Season 2 is dealing with the fallout of such an agreement, including scenes where Homelander goes to Africa to fight Boko Haram only to end up killing innocent civilians without any repercussion due to his powers.

Not only does The Boys deal with imperialism, but it also deals with issues related to the conditions of Americans in the modern 21st century. As mentioned, the Boys not only dealt with racism and post-MeToo sexism, but also late-stage capitalism and corporatisation of LGBT culture especially with the erasure of bisexual women in modern pop culture, in relation to the Wonder Woman-like character of Maeve (played by Dominique McElligott). Ironic, since the streaming service that is airing this show is Amazon Prime Video, and Amazon has been criticised for union-busting, workplace safety violations, using LGBT culture to promote their products and provisioning web servers for the CIA.

Overall, The Boys is a unique and hilarious yet gory and violent critique on modern superheroes in the age of Marvel and DC comic films. Season 1 was streamed in a full season last year while Season 2 is currently airing weekly every Friday at Amazon Prime Video, a decision that is criticised by many fans of the first season which Amazon makes up for it with a second season that is way better and exciting than Season 1. – New Malaysia Herald

About the writer: Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi loves television, cinema and video games. A jogger and student by day and a cinephile by night, Mohamad Taufiq has the background and education to appreciate the good (Cats), the bad (Cats) and the ugly (Cats). You can follow him at https://letterboxd.com/Taufiq91/

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