Monday, October 12, 2020

Man is a Super-Villain to Man: The Boys and the limits of Satire

 


Horkheimer and Adorno had to invent the neologism the "culture industry" to criticize the subordination of culture to commerce, these days we can accomplish the same thing by just saying "comic book movies." Comic book movies, or, to be more specific "Marvel movies" has become a shorthand for getting at the intersection of branding, commerce, and culture. I would argue that this particular shorthand leaves too many terrible, cynical, and derivative products off of the hook, like the execrable Rise of the Skywalker and the latest sequels to Jurassic Park and Terminator, but that is not the point here. My point is the way that the Amazon series The Boys takes this idea of the superhero as a figure of cultural and commercial dominance and doubles down on it.

In the world of The Boys superheroes are "real," part of the real world, but unlike Watchmen (Moore's original version) where the reality of superheroes changes the nature of their fiction (leading to the popularity of pirate comics) in the world of the Boys superheroes are both real people and cultural icons. They save the world and star in movies saving the world, and they also sponsor energy drinks, theme parks, casual dining restaurants, and release hit singles. Superheroes are not just situated at the intersection of commerce and culture, but they are at the pinnacle of the entire entertainment-corporate security-evangelical state-casual dining apparatus. The show can be understood as a satire of superheroes, but more than that it uses superheroes as figures for various forms of power and authority, they are also celebrities and politicians. It merges fictions of powers with the reality of power, fusing the two with often repeated dictum that power corrupts, adding that if power corrupts then imagine what superpowers would do. 

The show functions as a kind of blowup, imagine if all of the myriad powers of our world, corporate, cultural, economic, political, religious, etc., coalesced in one particular institution, that of corporate superheroes. It presents the ideological state apparatus singing one song, as Althusser put it, or, a kind of Christmas effect, as J.K. Gibson-Graham put, that moment when all the world, every company every institution seems to be perfectly aligned. I think that this might be part of the show's appeal. The show is less about power fantasies that the audience gets to indulge in than the way most people feel utterly powerless in the face of our dominant corporate culture. More specifically, the way anyone on the "left" feels today. I am using that term broadly for anyone who thinks that there is more to life, to human existence, than simply creating more wealth for billionaires. If you believe that then you are up against the dominant sensibilities of politics, culture, and entertainment, against forces so powerful that they might as well be bulletproof and able to fly. 

Proof that sometimes The Boys wears its anti-capitalist allegory on its sleeve

On the show, the pinnacle of power is The Seven. The Seven who are more or less modeled after the Justice League (or Superfriends if you are more familiar with the television version) are made up of Homelander, a Superman like figure who is also a completely amoral narcissist; Queen Maeve, a closeted WonderWoman who is filled with self-loathing for what she has become; The Deep, an Aquaman who makes up for his status as punchline by being a sexual predator; A Train, a speedster like the Flash who is hooked on a drug called Compound V; Black Noir, a batman like ninja who is a murdering sociopath; and, as the one deviation from the Justice League model, Translucent, an invisible man who is, like all invisible men, is a voyeuristic creep. (I know that is only six, more on that in a moment) As much as we see their various flaws, this is not how the world sees them, to the world they are heroes. They keep their true nature hidden not by masks and mild-mannered alter egos but with the a public relations team and the real world powers of non-disclosure agreements and generous settlement checks. One of the shows most creative ways of playing with the superhero is to replace all of the various weaknesses of superheroes, the proverbial kryptonite, with one singular weakness, bad publicity. The superheroes that can deflect bullets can be brought down by leaked video of any of their misdeeds. 

Season one of the show is framed by two characters who function as audience surrogates, introducing us to this world. First we meet Hughie Campbell whose girlfriend is killed when A-Train runs through her at top speed. (It is worth noting that the show begins with collateral damage. If superhero movies are in some sense the cultural form of the 9/11 era, as Hassler Forest argues, then collateral damage could be considered a kind of return of the repressed.) Hughie is offered the usual settlement and NDA but refuses to go along out of grief and a sense of injustice. He then gets more or less dragged into the anti-superhero vigilantes that I guess could be called The Boys of the show's title, but are never referred to as that in the show. Then we we meet Annie January, also known as Starlight a young superhero who is called up to the big leagues to join the Seven, replacing a retired member. It is through their eyes that we learn that the world is not as it seems, or, in the words of the show's advertising, "Never meet your heroes." The show's focus on the dark underbelly of superheroes extends to other cultural institutions such as religious evangelicals, politicians, and the media, all of which are shown to be corrupt. Hughie and Annie both learn the world is not as it seems as their idealism is thrown against the cynical functioning of the world.


I mention Hughie and Annie because I think that they are a necessary counterpart to the show's celebration of violence, gore, and embrace of a kind of "everything sucks" mentality. They are idealistic, hopelessly so, and dorky, fans of Billy Joel. Their star-crossed romance of anti-superhero vigilante and superhero is the heart of the show's heartless world. I also mention Annie because despite the show's title, and advertising, it is not nearly as testosterone driven as it first appears. Hughie proves to be quite adept at becoming a vigilante, despite his modest milquetoast background, and Annie proves to be incapable of stomaching the hypocrisy of becoming a newly manufactured superhero, rejecting her corporate image and her role within evangelical christianity. 


The big reveal of the first season is that Vought, the company that sponsors the superheroes, also created them with a chemical known as Compound. (In an odd mashup the superheroes from The Boys are modeled after DC comics but their real origin story is very Marvel, chemically created mutations). Not only did Vought create them, but it keeps creating new super-villains with this compound. The ultimate goal of this is to create enough fear that the US will authorize superheroes in the military in the same way that superhero movies seek military tie-in contracts. That is where the big money is. For the Vought corporation superheroes are simply the best way to make money.

The closer the characters on the show get to uncovering the big conspiracy, that Vought is primarily interested in money, the more the show touches upon the limitation of satire. I will admit that I was late to watch the show, but binge watched the first season in a few nights. I watched the second as well, but it was hard not to see some limits of its satire as the show progressed. 

The second season had some moments. A new character, Stormfront is introduced as a member of the Seven. She replaces The Deep who is ousted after Starlight reveals his history of sexual harassment. As the name suggests Stormfront is a racist with ties back to Nazi Germany and a violent history in the Jim Crow South. She has concealed this with a bit of rebranding, although it is never really clear where she has been for fifty years. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Stormfront is the way that she engages in a different form of public relations. She does not have the expertly crafted look or scripted storylines of the rest of the Seven, but protects her image with any army of trolls and memes, which push some familiar sounding fears about superterrorists crossing our borders. At times the show can get very close to the way power, real power, the kind that flows through airwaves and mobilizes anger, actually works, as in this scene that shows the radicalization of a lone wolf shooter. (Sometimes The Boys seems to get at the heart of the real in a way that only a show about fantasy can).

  

After establishing that the Seven are constrained only by bad publicity, that a video of one of their murders or other crimes is their kryptonite, it would have been brilliant to introduce a character that is immune to bad publicity. Who can turn out a few memes and turn every bad publicity against her enemies. The show hints at that, but then returns to its theme of the Vought corporation's pursuit of profit. In the second season we learn that Vought is moving away from superheroes to directly selling the compound that makes superheroes, eliminating the middle man and selling the ultimate weapon of super soldiers. Stormfront's shittposting is just a means to this end, a way to make people angry and afraid, turning that anger and fear into profits. 

I think of the scene above as being The Boys' version of the scene from Network where Howard Beale meets Arthur Jensen, where differences of nation and race prove secondary to the pure accumulation of money. The thing about this scene is that there is not really anyplace to go with it, at least as far as satire goes, once you have revealed that everything, superheroes, super-villains, nations, and security, are just ways of making money, there is not much to satirize anymore. Satire demands ideals to satirize. There are only two directions to go in once you arrive at the idea that everything is all about money: you either make everything about mankind's greedy and corrupt nature, do a kind of pop-Hobbes, or you begin to ask questions of how it came to be that everything is about money, and what drives that, in other words, Marx. The first has been done to death, and the second is hard to do, at least in a show on Amazon about superheroes.  

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