By now, the cinematic commodities of Big Spandex have been cultural dominants for long enough to have sunk into a vague posture of self-referentiality. The irritating wink-and-nudge waggishness once associated with B-horror flicks now invades the standard grammar of superhero blockbusters, a trend we see most pronounced in the in-joke hijinks of comedic efforts like Thor: Ragnarok and Deadpool. But self-consciousness does not always equal self-awareness, and not until recently has there been a live-action intra-genre critique with any teeth, or the slightest ability to provoke comment on the social conditions that make something as empty as Marvel Studios such a commercial behemoth.
Released over the summer on Amazon Prime, The Boys is a rare example of superpowered entertainment with something halfway useful to say. The buzz among critics and viewers is due in part to the show’s edgy adult content, but also because of its clever thematic attention to the superhero genre’s key anchors in political economy: neoliberalism and militarism.
The Boys imagines a world in which superpowered people are not only real and well-integrated into society, but instruments of megaprofit as well. Meetings of The Seven—the show’s analogue for the Justice League—aren’t spent figuring out how to thwart villainous plots or to secure global peace; instead, these spandex-clad demigods convene mainly to engage in legalistic bickering about contract renewals and merchandise royalties. The work of being a corporate superhero flows from rigorously coordinated public-relations strategies and the imperative of shareholder value, rather than any real humanitarian emergency or bout of supervillain mischief.
Read in the context of a genre so chronically unexamined as superheroes, the show’s cynicism is coextensive with its refreshing appeal. The Boys appears to respect its audience enough to acknowledge that within neoliberalism, heroism is just another commodity. After all, even when that which constitutes the good is depoliticized and settled, justice can only ever be a side-effect of profit—never an end in itself—lest the market respond and replace a preoccupied do-gooder with something more economically efficient.
The show enhances its satire by depicting the superheroes themselves to be morally degenerate in about every way possible. Behind the costumes and photo ops, the ostensible good guys are hedonistic maniacs, driven by drug addictions and savage sex habits. The “supes,” as they’re called, are characterized most of all by an utterly callous view toward collateral damage and the precious fragility of de-powered bodies. The story’s inciting incident involves a super-speedster named A-Train accidentally running through and liquifying a girl as she stands on the sidewalk. Covered in blood he keeps running, and later jokes morbidly that he swallowed one of her teeth. For an elite super-celebrity like A-Train, one girl’s death is so much spilt milk, no more important than a Yemeni child hit with a stray American bullet or bomb.
When one of the big guys is #MeToo’d by a female cohort, it’s handled not as a moral reckoning within the superhero industry, but rather as a passing crisis of corporate branding. The abuser is reallocated to a smaller, quieter market, and meanwhile the incident is leveraged to furnish his up-and-coming victim with a woke, scalable origin story.
But the most psychologically interesting supe on The Boys must be Homelander, the show’s unsettling analogue to Superman. Though charming and regal on the outside, Homelander’s icy countenance and red-white-and-blue persona mask a painful internal struggle. In a pulpy restaging of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Homelander’s psyche is crippled and deformed by the contradiction of omnipotence and narcissism. The most powerful man on the planet is tortured by the fact that he has the power to do anything, yet if he were to accede to his most natural impulses, the world would turn on him in fear and hatred. And once that were to happen, he wouldn’t stop killing people until he was truly, finally alone in the world.
Beyond its surface comment on the economics of super-commodities and their consequent hollow morality, The Boys digs a bit deeper to say something about such an industry’s inevitable relationship to the military.
In the last few years, the real-life interrelationship between Marvel movies and the military-industrial complex has become increasingly apparent. In 2013, a media studies professor’s FOIA request showed that the Pentagon had helped fund the Iron Man movies (along with hundreds of other bad movies), and since then the partnership has only grown more public. There was the ill-fated collaboration between Marvel Comics and defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and more recently the ads for Captain Marvel that doubled as Air Force recruitment drives. According to the Pentagon’s Hollywood liaison, the top brass pulled its initial involvement with Avengers only after realizing the role that a supra-national entity named S.H.I.E.L.D. played in the plot, thus revealing their discomfort with the idea of any earthly authority higher than the United States military.
Thus, it’s all too fitting that the central plot arc of the first season of The Boys features an effort by the private superhero conglomerate Vought American to worm its way into defense contracting. As it turns out, comic books and action figures were always only the beginning, as Vought had concluded early on that conventional military weaponry could be mooted and superseded by caped soldiers with super strength and laser vision. With a military contract in hand, the corporation would stand to become an overnight monopolist in a $400 billion global arms industry.
But like all forms of capital, Vought has a complicated relationship with the state, alternating between crony collaboration and unspoken antagonism. In a final reversal, the eponymous clique deployed to stop superhero incursion into the military is an arm of the United States government itself. The Boys are a CIA-backed taskforce, assigned to disrupt the government’s own activities dabbling in privately issued spandex. While the circularity of this struggle echoes the internal contradictions of democratic capitalism generally, it also comes as a more particular allegory for the present political moment. Today, it appears that the only form of political resistance with legs anymore emanates from within the executive branch itself, caught in the reticular channels of the intelligence-and-national-security apparatus. Thus The Boys resonates even more deeply in the shadow of Russiagate cum Ukrainegate, as a metaphor for a mainstream political culture riven by pretense and contradictions.
Similarly, The Boys works as a complementary comment on the way neoliberalism absorbs and degrades its own opposition movements. Not only are the militarized superheroes and their corporate overlords greedy nihilists, but those tasked with resisting them are not so much better; each member of The Boys is driven to one degree or another by their own bloodlusts, hypocrisies, and pathologies. By the season’s end, it becomes apparent that the group’s real interest isn’t to serve justice or spur social transformation. Rather, as the group’s leader tells Homelander, “I’m just going to hurt you, and that’s good enough for me.”
Neoliberalism commodifies the very notions of justice and political radicalism, and such marketization can cultivate only individualistic and fragmented action, thus rendering genuine collective struggle impossible. And under the pressure of compulsory competition, the logic of good guys and bad guys begins to fall apart entirely.
The roots of the show’s unusually rich critique can be traced to the source material and its unique publication history. A few years before the Pentagon helped Marvel recast its characters as techno-deputies of imperial hegemony, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson began work on the comic book of the same name. The original home of The Boys was at Wildstorm, an imprint of Marvel’s chief competitor DC Comics. Almost instantly, the comic garnered a well-earned reputation for obscene humor and violent extremity. But despite strong sales, the book didn’t last long, and DC canned it just a few issues in.
Shortly after the cancellation, Ennis revealed in an interview the real reason that the DC suits took umbrage with the book. It wasn’t a matter of garden-variety obscenity or graphic violence—after all, DC had been faithfully publishing mature-readers books under its Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints for decades—but rather because of the book’s overarching thematic aim: to tarnish and degrade the notion of superheroics itself. Ennis said:
“you can have comics where people do awful things to each other, like Preacher, but you can’t have a comic where super people do awful things to each other, like The Boys, and I think that, rather than any specific instances—panels or pages or lines in the story— was really the problem in a nutshell. When you have comics that—even superficially—look a bit too much like the company’s regular output, and the characters in them are doing the most ghastly things and behaving in the most awful way, and blaspheming and swearing and so on, that creates a real problem. That just will not fly.”
Indeed, what Ennis and Robertson accomplished with just a few issues of The Boys went beyond the sort of immanent critique of something like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, both of which had the ultimate effect of elevating the genre and ennobling its prestige. The Boys, on the other hand, committed blasphemy in the properly religious sense, by dragging something born of the clouds into the dirt.
The sad characteristics of democratic capitalism mocked by The Boys are, of course, not unique to the contemporary moment. Rather, the features of atomization, marketization, and military excess are fundamental components of the system. Throughout its history, revolutionary Marxist theory has understood the military apparatus to form the ultimate horizon of profit, the last coffers into which all surplus descends. To Marx’s stages of history Lenin added imperialism, “the highest stage of capitalism,” while Rosa Luxemburg emphasized capital’s expansionary nature and inherently trans-national appetite.
In Late Capitalism, Marxian economist Ernest Mandel described “the permanent arms industry” as “one of the hallmarks of late capitalism,” arising directly from the system’s objective internal contradictions. Most importantly, the mismatch between accelerating productive capacity and the need to keep wages low meant that the system could rarely, if ever, achieve the smooth circulation of value. For Mandel, the permanent arms industry was the place where exorbitant technological innovations and overabundant resources went to die. Weapons production could temporarily stave off capitalism’s chronic problem of overproduction by converting it into overcapacity, waste, and destruction. Crucially, this meant that excess resources, which would otherwise throw the system into disequilibrium, could be disposed of without spending on welfare or wages.
Mendel’s work remains one of the classic technical studies of postindustrial capitalist dynamics, but the phrase “late capitalism” can be traced earlier to the work of the Frankfurt School, particularly in the writings of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In the context of a discussion on superhero films, Horkheimer and Adorno’s notion of culture industry could not be more crucial. At a time when talkies were only a few decades old, Horkheimer and Adorno had already identified an emerging cultural capitalism, newly entwined with financed media and driven by an evolved superstructural phenomenon, one that would regulate the ideological lives of its subject while generating new sources of profit at the same time.
The work of Fredric Jameson, arguably the Frankfurt School’s chief theoretical descendant in America, became largely concerned with how prescient their diagnosis of culture industry had been. Writing in the 1980s, Jameson commented that culture industry is to postmodernism as fifties sitcoms are to MTV. For Jameson, postindustrial, postmodern capitalism dissolved the old Marxian distinction between culture and economics, creating an economy in which aesthetic production was a precondition for the system’s ability to sustain profit. Today, terms like cognitive-cultural capitalism, communicative capitalism, and finance capitalism are used to describe a progressively dematerialized capitalism, one in which entertainment, aesthetics, and advertising are just as key to producing surplus value as factory production ever was.
Now, militarized big-budget superheroes represent the maturation and completion of this process. If, for early twentieth-century Marxism, imperialism was the highest stage of industrial capitalism, then militaristic big-budget superhero flicks must be the highest stage of culture industry. In one obscene extravaganza, spandexploitation cinema takes the wasteful regulating function of the permanent arms industry and combines it with the ideological conditioning of corporate media. As it rakes in billions and dazzles the precariat with images of militarism, retributive justice, advanced policing, and the top-down individualistic provision of social justice, spandexploitation is the concrete instantiation of today’s maximally complex and aestheticized relationship between power and profit, a fine tuning and harmonization of the hard and soft levers of capital’s dominance.
And so, if we sense authenticity in the disdain for superheroes evinced by The Boys, then maybe it’s no illusion. The likeliest reason for such bile is precisely that it’s been given vent in an intensified market in profitable culture, as one more crash and explosion in the final fight scene between two of capitalism’s biggest and most powerful heroes: Disney and Amazon.
Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. He can be contacted and harassed on Twitter.