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In the Season 2 premiere of The Boys, Homelander, leader of the premier superhero team known as the Seven, has a bone to pick with Stan Edgar, the CEO of Vought International. A new superhero, Stormfront, has been added to the group without Homelander's express approval or sign-off, and he threatens to let his contract with Vought lapse at the end of the year — but as Edgar calmly and coolly reveals, Homelander doesn't have much of a leg to stand on given that Vought has already been working frantically behind the scenes to clean up the mess he made at the tail end of last season. By giving the mysterious Compound V (the substance responsible for creating superheroes) to terrorists all over the world, Homelander alerted the FDA to its existence — and now, Edgar says, "it's only a matter of time before the public finds out." But he also manages to succinctly sum up Vought's relationship to its heroes while making it very clear that supes are really not the center of the company's aims; they're a by-product of an invention. "The point is that you are under a misconception that we are a superhero company. We are not. What we are, really, is a pharmaceutical company, and you are not our most valuable asset."
But while Edgar readily claims that superheroes are not Vought's main priority, the company is still more than happy to profit off their images. Nearly every establishing shot of The Boys features some kind of ad campaign or product being marketed using any one of the members of the Seven to hawk it. (Brave Maeve's Vegetable Lasagna earns a particular spot of distinction in a later Season 2 episode revolving around Maeve's forced outing as a queer woman and the company's subsequent scramble to capitalize on revamping her image.) It's what gives the existence of an "official" Vought International store through Amazon, where shirts, Funkos, and other series-related merch can be purchased, an extra meta-layer of irony; in the world of The Boys, the very existence of superheroes is directly tied to mass commercialization, and even the multi-media company that streams a series that gently lambastes these themes isn't immune from falling prey to the same tendencies. If supes are everywhere, then why not make money off of them? Ultimately, though, Vought isn't interested in its superheroes saving the world, protecting the country from threats both foreign and domestic, or even doing much of anything, really, but continuing to exist as the comforting facade of safety, reassurance, and all-American values they present to the rest of the world — and when the cracks begin to form in the carefully crafted veneer, then it becomes a question of whether these supes are more trouble than they're worth.
This same dilemma also partially forms the crux of Natalie Zina Walschots' new book Hench, which follows the perspective of Anna, a self-described "hench" who winds up mostly temping for lower-tier supervillains. One particularly fateful assignment turns into a hostage situation that she never anticipated, and the subsequent devastating encounter with one of the glorified "heroes" (a Superman insert known as "Supercollider") leaves Anna licking her wounds and trying to understand where it all went wrong. Enter her predilection for data analysis combined with a personal vendetta against the superhero who flicked her aside as nonchalantly as if she were nothing more than a fly who'd landed on his shoulder, and she's got a formula in place for how superheroes actually do just as much to hurt the world as they do to save it. Anna's strategy is based in cold, numbers-based vengeance; she'll use what she's devised on paper to slowly dismantle the external structures keeping the heroes both propped up on a pedestal in the public eye and buoyed by their own inflated sense of self-importance.
Anna doesn't absolve herself from her own culpability, however, even as she continually targets superheroes for a swift and methodical takedown based on the algorithms she's created — and the unflinching results of her revenge are as spectacular as they are occasionally stomach-turning. Meanwhile, the superheroes of both Hench and The Boys project a seemingly perfect image that's accepted by the general population at face value, with diehard fans more than willing to cape for their favorites without even bothering to try and peek below the surface. But as Anna's formula gradually proves, and as the truth behind the Seven slowly reveals itself, it's clear that most of these purported "heroes" are just one terrible day away from becoming one of the bad guys instead. One could potentially make the case that just based on the sheer devastation that occurs every time a superhero intervenes in a crisis — destruction and loss of life that is simply attributed to collateral damage, or a necessary consequence of frequent battles between titan-like figures — Marvel's Civil War takes a stab at this idea, with Cap and Tony on opposite sides of the necessity of accountability, but the plot thread trails away in the midst of a personal betrayal. What Hench and The Boys do is ask how much truly separates the heroes from the villains, in the end? Is it a question of morality? A difference of values? Or is it thanks to how we've been perceiving them all along?
These days, superheroes are literally everywhere; we've spent over a decade now watching them evolve from characters mostly consigned to the pages of comic books to featuring as larger-than-life figures in their own movies, television shows, and larger shared universes that attempt to thread the needle between the two with varying levels of success. And yet whether audiences might be fatigued from the verifiable onslaught of these stories dominating the genre landscape doesn't really seem to matter; you only have to look at the purported slate of upcoming films for Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to have all the confirmation needed that superheroes aren't going away anytime soon.
But maybe fiction like Hench and The Boys indicates the beginning of a slightly different direction for superhero stories in the mainstream, something more honest and discerning that doesn't gloss over certain harsh truths. That's not to say that there has to be a "dark and gritty" version of every Batman and Superman narrative moving forward, because the reality is that our everyday lives are troubled enough as it is and escapism into other worlds is necessary, almost invaluable. What proves to be more novel and ambitious about these recent forays into the genre is that they do ask us to question the merit of blind worship when it comes to our caped, masked, and costumed faves — and ultimately, lead us toward wondering if the line between heroes and villains is even less stark than we've always believed it to be.