Amazon’s “The Boys” is a violent, cynical superhero parody. Its superhero stars are drug addicts, sexual abusers and outright psychopaths, paid to fight crime in reality television segments, appear in movies, and endorse an endless array of breakfast cereals and power drinks. In the first season, the show focused mostly on issues of nationalism and imperialism, as Vought International, the company that employs most of the heroes, tried to get its superpowered properties into the U.S. military. Those themes continue in its second season along with a focus on superhero diversity — the good, the bad and the ugly.
In the first season, the show focused mostly on issues of nationalism and imperialism. Those themes continue in its second season along with a focus on superhero diversity.
Toward the beginning of the second season, Vought is shooting a superhero movie with the supposedly feminist tagline "Girls get it done!". The girl power marketing is completely, grotesquely cynical — it's an exercise in branding that deliberately conceals the management's abusive bigotry, indifference and worse. But as the season goes on, it becomes clear that certain kinds of diversity do in fact have a meaningful effect on mitigating Vought's evil. "The Boys," then, provides a critique of shallow diversity in both corporations and superhero films and television. But it's also an argument for why hiring people who aren't cisgender, heterosexual white men can matter, even if the bosses aren’t really committed to change.
Chief among Vought’s superhero properties is a team called The Seven, led by Homelander (Antony Starr), a Superman analogue who is patriotic and self-sacrificing in public, and a psychopathic mass murderer when the cameras aren't rolling. Starr whooshes seamlessly back and forth between wholesome Captain America-esque pep talks ("You all are the real heroes!") and glowering, barely in-control menace, his broad smile collapsing into a mass of uncomfortable tics and teeth-grinding anger.
Over season one, a black ops mercenary team (the titular “Boys”) led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) discovers that superheroes aren't just born that way. Vought has been using a blue, volatile drug called compound V which, injected into infants, gives them powers.
The full extent of Vought's iniquities still haven’t become public as season two starts. But the suits can see the writing on the wall and, as part of a PR strategy, they embrace various diversity initiatives. That includes a film starring the three women in the Seven — Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott), Starlight/Annie January (Erin Moriarty) and new member Stormfront (Aya Cash). It also means hiring a blind hero with sonar (a clear reference to Marvel's Daredevil), and a major Vought-scripted publicity push about one LGBT superhero’s coming out.
Of course, Vought doesn't actually care about equality or empowering women or LGBT people or the disabled. It just uses marginalized people to make the company look progressive and empathetic. As a result, it doesn't provide its marginalized heroes with actual support or input. Starlight is still wearing the skimpy, sexualized costume Vought forced her into in season one. The marketers present a bisexual hero as lesbian because it's simpler and, supposedly, more progressive. "Representation" "diversity" and "empowerment" are buzzwords the studio uses to push the same sexism, queerphobia and bigotry as ever.
Even worse, Vought does little to nothing to restrain powerful, abusive employees. Homelander, along with his other charms, is violently ableist — he thinks having disabled heroes on the team reflects badly on him, and emotionally and physically abuses them. His relationship with Maeve, whom he used to date, is one of ongoing stalking and domestic abuse.
Nor is Homelander alone. Stormfront's edgy, irreverent girl power hides the rabidly racist personality you'd expect from someone named after a neo-Nazi website. She antagonizes Black teammates deliberately in private, and stokes anti-immigrant fervor in public. Meanwhile, Mr. Edgar (Giancarlo Esposito), Vought's CEO, claims that as a Black man he has to be practical and ruthless, and then proceeds to throw other marginalized people under any available super-bus.
As a criticism of superhero narratives and companies, this is all uncomfortably apt. Diversity in superhero stories can be depressingly cynical and cowardly. Marvel teased LGBT viewers about Captain Marvel's sexuality without ever coming out and saying she's a lesbian. It also waited 20 films before greenlighting a female lead, and then tried to make up for it in "Avengers: Endgame" with a brief team-up of all the female characters in the franchise — a scene which, as Caroline Siede says at the AV Club, "sacrifices all sense of internal logic in favor of simplistic iconography." Studios and comic-book companies creating superhero narratives have also been credibly accused of protecting abusive employees.
As a criticism of superhero narratives and companies, this is all uncomfortably apt. Diversity in superhero stories can be depressingly cynical and cowardly.
"The Boys" makes a good case that corporate and superhero diversity gestures should be greeted with skepticism, if not outright mockery. But it also acknowledges that having some people on your team who aren't straight white males can do real good. Black and queer members of the Seven aren't paragons, and are as likely to act out of fear, self-pity and greed as everyone else. But they also have some powerful, self-interested reasons for opposing fascists. Maeve thinks Starlight is a goody-goody annoyance. But they're both women in an abusive, patriarchal hierarchy, and in moments of crisis, that provides the foundation for unexpected solidarity.
That solidarity doesn't necessarily lead to justice, freedom and happily ever after. "The Boys" is a fairly bleak show; most of its humor is grim. What else can you say about a superhero series in which the most powerful man in the universe masturbates while screaming, "I can do whatever I want!" in between selfies and war crimes?
The genius of the series, though, is that — unlike the Garth Ennis comic it's based on — it's not just an exercise in pointless desecration. Underneath the cursing and Scientology parodies and the exploding whales, "The Boys" actually cares about all those super clichés, such as justice and goodness and the virtue of fighting Nazis. That's why it is so disgusted with hypocritical diversity. And it's also why it recognizes that part of fighting evil is fighting against the idea that only cisgender, heterosexual white men get to be heroes.