This past summer, I attempted to watch a show now streaming on Amazon’s video streaming service, Prime Video, called The Boys. Many of the journalists I follow online dubbed it a “subversive” and “brilliant” take on the superhero genre. Since I am of a melancholic and cynical disposition, such a show seemed suited to me. Yet, after watching a good chunk of the show and reading synopses of the episodes I missed, I can now say that it was never suited to me, and I feel rather sorry for anyone for whom it is suited. The Boys catastrophically fails as a piece of subversive media, and I do not believe anyone of sound mind or good will should watch it, precisely because of how it fails to subvert. Before we explore that failure, we would do well to examine what is meant by the term.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “subvert” (verb) as to 1) Overturn or overthrow from the foundation or 2) To pervert or corrupt by an undermining of morals, allegiance, or faith. From the first definition, it seems that whatever you are attempting to subvert, you must examine its foundations in order to understand what within them must be re-framed, re-interpreted, or re-defined in order to topple whatever is built atop them. From the second, it is implied that what is being subverted is at least generally and for the most part something tied to morals, allegiance, or faith in such a way as to pervert or corrupt a person (or persons). Thus, if you wish to subvert a cultural phenomenon, you must examine its foundations and determine how to overthrow or overturn them and/or corrupt or pervert others through undermining their morals, allegiance, or faith. Note that one can accomplish the second through the first: you could undermine societal morals through a book which subverts a popular genre by fiddling with its foundations. For example, the Fifty Shades of Grey book series subverts romance literature by reinterpreting the foundational element of sex (which itself had already been slowly liberalized over the latter half of the 20th century) to include sadomasochism and bondage as acceptable, normal practices within heterosexual romantic relationships. Subversion is a gripping and popular style in any medium because of this anti-foundational, revealing, and re-defining sense. Sordid novelty, the taboo, the forbidden, and the release of a hidden sexual or emotional tension are immediately attractive to all readers regardless of education or virtue. A closeted graduate of Harvard will be just as enamored with Brokeback Mountain as the low-income closeted cowboys the film depicts, precisely because of the base nature of the hidden, taboo, and explicit. Therefore one of the quickest ways to subvert any phenomenon is to intersect explicit or sordid content with a mainstream phenomenon: bondage with the mainstream appeal of a typical romance, homosexuality with the wholesome appeal of the mountain west, etc. The Boys is yet another of these types of subversive creations, intersecting the power fantasy of traditional superheroes with the perversity of the modern world. However, I believe it fails to genuinely subvert the genre because of its clumsy attempts to be both “woke” and subversive. How does it do this?
The Boys centers around the struggles of the titular group of men (led by Karl Urban’s Bill Butcher) to take revenge against their reality’s superheroes for the collateral damage they have done to innocents. In their world, not only are superheroes real, but they are just as perverse, drug addicted, and psychotic as our world’s celebrities. Their world shares many other things with ours: twitter and facebook are major cultural forces capable of ruining lives through bad publicity; the superheroes themselves star in highly-lucrative film series obviously meant to lampoon the Marvel Cinematic Universe; and almost all of the public actions of the corporation which owns the rights to those films are directed towards spinning or modifying the truth about their intellectual properties and actors to save face and avoid legal action. The protagonist and audience stand-in (i.e. someone for the rest of the cast to dump exposition on), Hughie (played by Jack Quaid), joins the Boys after his girlfriend is splattered across a city street by this world’s version of The Flash, A-Train, who was on his way to a drug deal. Revenge motivates most of the series plot developments for its two seasons: Hughie wants revenge for his girlfriend’s killing, Bill wants revenge for the rape and murder of his wife by this reality’s superman (here known as Homelander), and later on the supers themselves seek revenge on the Boys for their actions. The cat-and-mouse game between the groups and between the different splinters of each group mixes with regular explicit scenes of gore, dismemberment, sex, torture, extortion, and psychological manipulation to create an at-times potent, but often underwhelming, cocktail of subversive elements. Yet the end result is not genuine subversion, but rather a clumsy fantasy meant to subvert the superhero genre to the critical and financial success of Amazon.
I do not want to sell the show short: it accurately appraises one of the crucial foundations of the superhero zeitgeist quite well. The golden age of comics (1935-1956) often focused on the tension between the ordinary and extraordinary (Clark Kent and Superman, Bruce Wayne and Batman, etc) as the main tension in its storylines. The balancing act each hero had to attempt—the American domestic dream on one hand and the yearning for adventure on the other—seemed to speak directly to the daydreams and drudgeries of many a urban/suburban boy. As time went on, this central tension lost its place. The world within the pages became so complex and so layered with mythology and backstory that the audience simply forgot that original balancing act. The cosmic dramas of the super heroes eclipsed the domestic vignettes of their alter egos. The current cinematic superhero genre was formed by the Marvel-cum-Robert Downey Junior spin on this latter idea, where the private lives of the heroes is a secondary concern for the majority of the franchise films. Tony Stark’s simple film-ending line, “I am Iron Man,” shifts the focus from the outer-life/inner-life conflict of the earlier stories to simply outer-life conflict, i.e. the conflicts between supermen and gods rather than the conflicts between the superman and his wife. This seems appropriate, as the cosmic, quasi-religious mythology of both the Marvel and DC universes seem to scratch an itch which the American people do not seem to consciously realize they have: the need for a story on a cosmic scale which contextualizes the actions of its characters. The average comic book fan devotes themselves to sorting out the convoluted stories of their personal favorite superhero in a way that I only wish men of faith could approach their own theology. In short, the grandiose framing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the cosmic storytelling of post-golden age comics illustrate the yearning of the American soul for its lost sense of providence. The safe, uninteresting domesticity of American life begat the golden-age tales of adventure which, in turn, begat the cosmic storytelling of later comics. The Boys is the next step in that process: with superheroes now acting as a pop-culture pantheon giving “meaning” (taken equivocally) to the lives of its fans, it now seeks, like other subversives, to overthrow those gods and laugh at their destruction. If the show were to do this, I would likely be praising it. False gods, no matter how interesting their myths may be, must be revealed as false in the end. Alan Moore’s 1986 comic series, Watchmen accomplished this (though imperfectly) with the golden age of comics, so there is no reason, in principle, why The Boys should fail. Yet fail it does. How?
The Boys fails because, in its own breathless attempt at shock and subversion, it twists its reality into such a drastic fantasy of our own reality that the point of its subversion is lost. Rather than standing apart from the culture and phenomenon which it seeks to subvert, it instead becomes entangled within both with its own conceit and self-consciousness. The primary source of this entanglement is the cultural landscape which it portrays within the show. The version of the U.S. it shows us is still in the grips of a Bush/Reagan/Thatcher era of conservative, evangelical-Christian dominance. I do not mean this literally: the show is set during “our time,” with all of our pop culture, technology, and moral ambiguity, and does not literally take place during any Bush, Reagan, or Thatcher administration. I think, though I am not sure, that the show is trying to say that the Trump administration was affecting the culture in the same way as those figures. But, again, the world the show depicts is so strange that it falls flat. The super hero conglomerate which rents out “supes” to certain cities and funds all of the associated IP’s, Vought-American, and is revealed as having been founded by a Nazi scientist who sought refuge in the U.S. post-WWII. Vought not only owns the supes, but created them. The scientist who founded the company created a drug called “Compound V” which manifests different powers depending on whoever takes it, and Vought contracts parents of specific children to inject them with the drug (usually without the child’s consent or knowledge) so as to raise them as essentially a hybrid between a celebrity, living weapon, and action-figure. This company also has heavy ties to evangelical-Christian groups through some of its heroes, particularly the character of Starlight (played by Erin Moriarty), who is a clear riff on the Taylor-Swift-esque midwest-Christian ideal who grew up thinking her powers were a gift from God and that her parents loved her. Soon she learns that not only were her powers a product of her parents’ selling-out, but that her faith in superheroes and people in general was ill-founded after being coerced into deviant sex acts by a member of Vought’s version of the Avengers/Justice League, The Seven. Shortly thereafter, she publicly denounces both God and The Seven in a profanity-laden speech at an evangelical conference. Her arc connects naive belief in a health and wealth conservative gospel to denial of all providence through an experience of sexual trauma (a phenomenon all too relatable for many women), and it appears that we, the audience, are supposed to applaud that denial. Yet once that denial happens, it is immediately spun and exploited by Vought for its own profit. This is supposed to reinforce Starlight’s pessimistic worldview, but it rings as hollow as the words of Vought’s PR shills: a show funded by a massive corporation to increase its subscriber base is bemoaning the corporate appropriation of sexual-trauma-triggered existentialist doubt for profit, and expects us to be engaged. The irony would be funny, were it not so insulting. This is the core issue that destroys the subversion: The Boys accurately ascertains what needs to be undermined (the broader cosmic significance of heroic stories), attempts to undercut it with current sordid social issues (sex abuse, steroids, scandals, murder, corporate spin), but uses one issue so ineptly that it indicates its own biases and exploitations and thus destroys Amazon’s credibility as a patron of artistic expression. Starlight’s arc throws into relief all the fantasizing the show has had to do to put conservatism, Christianity, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity into the same bag. In this world, conservatism-cum-fascism dominates facebook, twitter, the government, and the free market. The only liberals are the underdogs; the only rational heads are the ones looking to expose the truth of a meaningless existence. The state of things in our own world is, at best, a bitter feud between establishment liberals and establishment conservatives. The way Amazon sees it, only the conservatives are established, because they are betting that those are the people that The Boys’ audience hates the most. Once this fantastical representation of the real culture war in which we are embroiled is exposed, the show ceases to subvert, and becomes mere trashy television. I, for one, am ashamed of ever having believed that it could be anything better than that.
As the episodes pile on, the ethos of the show slowly rots away. The bald-faced attempt to seek the approval of an abused, disillusioned generation exposes the profit-focused, woke, trend-chasing nature of Amazon. Amazon does not care about our gods or heroes or sexual trauma. It only cares about our wallets. If there is a path to your pocketbook that requires it to entertain your anti-corporate, anti-Christian, anti-tradition attitudes, it will do so, and it trusts that you will be stupid (and insecure) enough to go along with it . This is perhaps the most depressing part of this affair. Amazon was right. The public is stupid enough to applaud Amazon’s efforts on this show as subversive, edgy, and anti-establishment. It is stupid enough to lavish its money, time, and praise upon utterly self-serving, exploitive, self-pitying trash, and then claim it to be a brilliant, subversive, and fresh take on the genre. The show’s failure is infuriating, because it attempted something, failed, and then was proclaimed winner. It is like an opponent in a game of poker calling, showing a hand inferior to yours, then still being given all the winnings because everyone else at the table actually doesn’t know anything about poker and thinks you’re the one making things up.
In conclusion, The Boys is bad television. It gains nothing from its streaming format, it says nothing with its explicit violence, and it subverts nothing with its plot. It is grind house schlock at its best and overtly anti-conservative propaganda at its worst. I am ashamed for having watched any of it. Please, do not give it any more time or thought than it has already taken from you in this article. Instead, go read or watch something clear, insightful, poignant, and beautiful. Read C.S. Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, or G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. Watch The Truman Show, The Incredibles, or Up. Revel in the good things. And don’t renew your Amazon Prime subscription.