The Boys, which just entered its second season, takes just about every superhero trope and turns it on its head. Despite their public personas, the central heroes of The Boys’ universe aren’t in it for truth or justice — they’re in it for celebrity, for endorsement deals, and for the raw power of it all.
While the rest of the world believes "supes" are born with their powers, the lucky winners of some genetic lottery, the truth is they derive their abilities from a secret chemical soup: Compound V. The heroes (if we can use the term lightly) are intentionally crafted, intended to serve as a product for Vought, the latest evolution of the military-industrial complex.
The Boys, which is based on the Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson comic of the same name, is a dark parody, but have governments actually tried to create supersoldiers? Well...
BUILDING SUPER HUMANS
It should come as a surprise to no one that we’ve been trying to enhance human ability for some time. Fiction often acts as a blueprint for what’s possible, and superhero stories are no exception. Government interest in extra-human abilities for military purposes goes back at least several decades. In the 1970s, the government recruited people claiming to have extra-sensory perception (ESP) to assist in spying on the nation’s enemies. Those efforts, obviously, amounted to nothing.
So, having realized extra-human abilities weren’t available in nature, they set out to create them.
The United States government has spent (and continues to spend) tens of millions of dollars every year on a variety of programs aimed at enhancing the human body. Some of these are technological, others biological. The aim is to give U.S. armed forces a tactical advantage in armed conflict. In a way, it’s not so different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years. The bow and arrow and atomic bomb were both technological advancements — the difference now is that the technology is being turned inward. A 2002 DARPA file proclaimed, “the human being is becoming the weakest link in defense systems.” Instead of crafting more advanced weapons, we’re now endeavoring to make ourselves more advanced weapons.
NO SLEEP 'TIL...
When it comes to biological hurdles, sleep might be the most ubiquitous. The average person spends roughly a third of their lives unconscious, under the thrall of sleep. So it stands to reason that overcoming this obstacle might be high on the list of super-human abilities.
Military forces all over the world are experimenting with ways to keep their people awake longer. In fact, the stimulant drug modafinil is already in use with U.S. armed forces, and amphetamine usage was widespread during World War II. In the truest terms, staying awake isn’t so much a super-human ability; these individuals aren’t performing beyond their usual capacity while awake. Instead, they are performing at their usual ability, but for longer periods of time. While this may not be a superpower by the strictest of definitions, all of us have felt the inescapable pull of exhaustion, and there’s something frightening about a soldier, whether on our side or another, who need not sleep.
Having figured out a way to keep people awake, the next step is to stave off waking exhaustion. One way to do this is to ensure a continuous flow of oxygen to our cells. By overcoming the usual limits of oxygen delivery, we could allow individuals to operate in low-oxygen climates like high altitudes or, like The Boys' Aquaman pastiche The Deep, underwater.
Specific training can be used in order to increase lung capacity and acclimate to low-oxygen environments, much the way high-altitude climbers do, but technology might offer another solution. A research avenue of some interest to the U.S. government is the development of hypothetical respirocytes. The idea here is to deploy an array of nanostructures into the bloodstream, capable of carrying oxygen and filtering out carbon dioxide. These microscopic machines would be able to perform the function of red blood cells but at a level thousands of times greater than what is natural. An individual equipped with respirocytes would be able to move continuously without ever running out of breath and dive underwater for up to four hours without having to surface for air.
In short, respirocytes would behave like countless tiny oxygen tanks, delivering continuous gaseous exchange seemingly without end.
Now that we’ve imagined a person who needs little to no sleep and is capable of trudging forward without even needing to catch their breath, we have one final obstacle to achieve a truly extra-human force: invulnerability.
Well, not invulnerability, so to speak, but at least the ability to ignore injury — which, in practical terms, amounts to pretty much the same thing. Visions of superheroes walking steadfastly into danger, unphased by any damage coming their way, is a staple of the genre, and we’re working toward something that might deliver essentially the same thing, at least aesthetically.
Michael Goldblatt, former director of DARPA’s Defense Science Office, was involved with one program vaguely called Persistence in Combat, which dealt with a soldier’s ability to persevere even through physical pain and injury.
The program was, essentially, a pain vaccine.
The drug, known as RI624, inhibits the neuropeptide response that transmits pain to the nervous system. And it has a pretty good half-life. The idea is that a soldier could take RI624 days before entering combat and then, if injured, would not endure the typical pain response, allowing them to continue fighting.
There are some pretty clear ethical concerns associated with not preventing injury but hiding its effects. But one can see why such a drug would be intriguing to a war machine more concerned with the mission than those who carry it out.
All told, we’re entering a space where individuals in certain workspaces, primarily military for now, might not need to concern themselves with some of humanity's most primal barriers, allowing them to extend themselves beyond our usual limits.
It isn’t quite the same as shooting laser beams out of our eyes, and it carries with it the same sorts of dark implications The Boys has made so uncomfortably intriguing. We can only hope that these advancements (if we can call them advancements) will have a positive impact on the world at large.