The Subversiveness Of Superheroes
As a writer of popular fiction (as opposed to literature) I keep myself familiar with other popular forms of entertainment. For this reason alone I sat through most of Netflix’s most expensive film, ‘The Gray (sic) Man’, which comprised a parade of postcard European locations, firepower and exploding vehicles destroyed by cut-out characters in search of anything resembling a story. Apparently all that violence-without-pain plays well with children. If you’re an adult, you’ll see that the action film has definitely hit a dead end – so what about the superhero genre?
‘The Boys’ was a crude, vulgar and rudimentary comic full of smart ideas. It was written by Garth Ennis, fell fell through as a movie and was turned into a TV series for Amazon Prime. In the hands of the team that remodelled it, it became an outrageously transgressive show, but if you have an antipathy to the superhero genre the synopsis won’t sound encouraging. The blackly comic satire imagines a world where corporatised superheroes with ridiculous names and sexualised costumes (The 7′) thrill the masses by giving them what they want, namely scripted patriotism, sentiment, violence and soap opera, in order to make them overlook the theft of democracy. You know, like the British government.
The ‘supes’ are run by pharmaceutical companies for profit and control. For those superheroes who are recruited into their ranks it’s a poisoned deal; stick to the script and become a role model for the world – although there’s no sign of the world here of course, because to America the whole world is American, even though the US only makes up 4.25 of the world’s population.
Fighting back against corporatised role models means taking on the force of public opinion and the wealth of the puppet-masters, but a handful of individuals are prepared to do so covertly. The situation is complicated by good, bad and mad hiding in both sides, causing chaos from within.
For a story with so many characters it’s strangely easy to keep track of, as we pull focus around the jaw-muscle-flexing Homelander (Antony Starr), the red, gold and blue crusader that the American extreme right would wish into existence if it could, although possibly without the Oedipal issues.
Cleverly, at first we too are taken in by Homelander’s homespun schtick, but as the smile slips we see the nightmarish future that lies behind his dead blue eyes. Opposing him is swaggering, ridiculous Billy Butcher (Karl Urban), sporting the worst Cockney/Tasmanian accent since Don Cheadle’s in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. It’s a cracking performance, swinging his shoulders about and staring everyone down, and a lot more fun that the nominal leading man Hughie, who simply scowls and has multiple breakdowns. There’s a blonde of course, the whispery ‘Starlight’, forced by corporate demand into a sexist outfit (which the show’s cameraman still manages to linger over) and a motley gang of misfits including an incomprehensible Frenchman who doesn’t seem to do anything.
The script is an exercise in having your cake and ironically eating it. The product placement in the series mirrors the parody product placement in the show. It’s all terribly knowing, but satire has to be that way. Decades of willingly feeding from the superhero swill bucket has led to this, the sight of a hand being simultaneously bitten and fed. The stakes are raised from financial power to political absolutism and the ghost of Trump inexorably rises, yet there’s still plenty of time for very weird sex and jaw-dropping ultra-violence. Faces get ripped off and eye sockets emptied but this is nothing new – hell, Gilbert Shelton’s marvellous ‘Wonder Wart Hog’ was tearing evildoers’ spines out back in the seventies.
For a show called ‘The Boys’ it’s the women who call the shots. It scores highest in two areas, the sheer switchback-unexpectedness of the situations (the whale/speedboat contest lingers in the mind) and the thoughtful moments that suggest this may be all that’s left of America; flash, smash, shoot, pray and run like hell from the next rising power. I do hope it doesn’t end well.
‘The Boys’ continues on Amazon Prime.