Superheroes rule the box office, the pop culture conversation, and graphic T-shirt designs. Costumed crime fighters are so baked into our national consciousness that to call them mainstream would be an understatement; last winter, one of the biggest criticisms of M. Night Shyamalan's Glass was that it spent too much time explaining the basics of comic books to an audience that had gotten more than up to speed on them in the 20 years since Unbreakable was in theaters.
Per tradition, most of the many, many superhero movies and shows saturating our pop culture landscape focus on superheroes who are out to do good. Amazon's The Boys shows the dark side of a world with superpowered humans — and more importantly, how regular people would react to them.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for The Boys below**
The series, an adaptation of Garth Ennis' comic of the same name, kicks off with one brutal consequence of having superpowered humans out and about amongst us mere mortals, as our protagonist Hughie Campbell (Jack Quaid) witnesses speedster A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) literally run through his girlfriend, turning her into a high-velocity puddle of blood and guts. This leads Hughie to get involved with a guerrilla-style superhero accountability outfit known as the Boys, from whom he finds out more about the ugly side of the superhero business and the damage it causes regular people.
In The Boys Episode 6, we see Hughie and Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) go to a group session for the Association of Collateral Damage Survivors (known as A.C.D.S., it's basically a support group). We see people with missing limbs, in wheelchairs, or on crutches, all talking about how superheroes caused them irreparable damage but how they're still grateful for being saved by famous people.
Though the scene is made darkly humorous by a story about a guy who had his member snap off when having sex with a hero who turns to ice, it's more stark and disturbing than anything else. One woman recounts how superhero Tek Knight crushed her spine while saving her, for which she is eternally grateful. Butcher, though, is not here for the group's live-and-let-live attitude, as he rails against the group for accepting their fate instead of directing their anger at the supes. After all, the man who no longer has a member calls it a worthy trade, for he, "a mere mortal," got to be with "a goddess." He still misses her, too — she died from the incident — and now works for Vought, the company in charge of superheroes.
This portrayal of the carelessness of superheroes and the devotion of the public to their heroes is the heart and soul of The Boys. Even Hughie, before his girlfriend was turned into soupy roadkill, was a huge fan of superheroes, and at the outset of the show he still has posters and exclusive merchandise decorating his room. Kids and adults on the streets try to get an autograph or selfie from one of the supes, who are celebrities more than anything else. They star in their own movies, do publicity for water parks and other sponsors, and appear at conventions. Indeed, in Episode 6 we visit a hero convention full of TV and movie actors, and also former child heroes like Mesmer, played by Haley Joel Osment.
In The Boys, superheroes in this world are nothing more than a product, and our excessive devotion to them and their utter lack of care for the common folk is an aspect of life we haven't seen a lot of in live-action adaptations of superhero comics. Early in the MCU, the films would take their time to show how regular citizens react or treat the Avengers, but as Patrick Willems wrote for Polygon, the MCU stopped doing that and also suffers from a lack of following up with the changes to the status quo that are apparently done in each movie.
Sure, some films pay lip service to the collateral damage the Avengers unwittingly caused, but rather than a true exploration of what real superheroes would do to a society, the side effects of superheroics are largely relegated to motivating villains, like Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. Meanwhile, both MCU Spider-Man villains have thus far been results of Tony Stark's screw-ups. Even the effects of "The Blip" from Avengers: Endgame are given the short comedic video treatment in Spider-Man: Far From Home and then quickly thrown to the side; this is a fun Spider-Man movie that doesn't have time to dwell on what had to be mass social upheaval.
The Boys, however, puts that collateral damage front and center. Not only does it show how depraved people would likely become with great power and no responsibility, but it also shows just how much that chaotic system would screw the rest of us. Even worse, the show argues that corporate America would find a way to take advantage of these uber-humans, milking their powers for profit, not social good.
The perverse incentives are on display in one scene in the second episode, in which Annie/Starlight (Erin Moriarty), a rookie superhero unaware of the conspiracy at the show's core, fights off two men who are trying to sexually assault a woman in an alley. Someone recorded the assault and it quickly goes viral, but instead of being celebrated for being a hero, Annie gets a scolding from her parent company's marketing team because the would-be rapists deny everything, and the woman Annie saved isn't coming forward. There are no heroes, just employees who must adhere to the orders from executives who have already arranged for the "crimes" that their heroes will be stopping that night.
In many ways, The Boys is a darker spin on the celebrated Eisner Award-winning comic book Gotham Central. The DC series, created by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark, follows the Gotham Central Police Department and the difficulties its officers face in living and working in the same city as Batman. The comic explored smaller-scale stories than those that the big hero comic books tell, and focused on the legal repercussions of having a vigilante taking matters into his own hands. Likewise, the short-lived NBC sitcom Powerless dealt with a company that develops products to make life safer in a world in which superheroes constantly knock over buildings while fighting. Though these stories don't really portray the superheroes as bad people, they still show what a big threat they are to the population at large. In many ways, they make the case that these heroes are more trouble than they're worth.
It's not hard to imagine that society would quickly give literal "super men" the celebrity treatment, forgiving them for any transgressions, including doling out permanent disabilities to those they're supposed to be saving. We see what it means to be powerless in a world with superpowers, and the result is a gruesome satire of our own relationship with franchises and brands.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.