Amazon’s The Boys is a show for people who love superhero narratives while also being sick to death of them. Karl Urban and Jack Quaid star as mere mortals attempting to take on those “blessed by God” who have used their powers for personal gain instead of making the world a better place as advertised. Featuring a staggeringly good performance by Anthony Starr as the Captain America/Superman analogue Homelander, the superheroes of The Boys believe their own bullsh*t. While Wonder Woman and Thor see their heightened abilities as a reason to work outward, the Seven are pretty sure that they're a license to kill.
The Boys may only be for people with iron stomachs (which could honestly be a special power in this universe), but it raises plenty of interesting moral conundrums in the midst of all of the gore and exploration of superhero sexual preferences. By calling out the classic tropes — fridging, secret identities, etc., etc., etc. — The Boys is deconstructing the genre that it is also gleefully participating in.
This post contains spoilers from the first season of Amazon's The Boys.
Subtle The Boys is not, but the idea that superpowers would turn more people into villains than heroes is an interesting one to unpack. As much as we’d like to believe that people are inherently good, that is often not the case. When given that kind of power, many would turn to manipulate the world around them to suit their very specific desires. Would we save others or would we serve ourselves? That's the question at the core of The Boys, and it isn't afraid of making viewers deeply uncomfortable with the answer.
However, as self-serving as most of the supers are — Starlight and Queen Maeve can stay — The Boys never shies away from the fact that the corporation that runs the superhero show, Vought, is the true villain of the piece. Even the most morally bankrupt supes were largely driven to that point because of the organization that demands their fealty. They did, after all, make them into what they are. Elisabeth Shue’s Madelyn Stillwell is the face of Vought and the architect of its widespread plans, but even she is ultimately just a cog in a greater machine.
Vought created this endless stream of products, films, and general cultural ubiquity that feels quite Marvel-esque, except that these superstars are actually out there “stopping crime” and “saving lives” in real life as well. While Marvel hasn’t gone as far as sending out a weaponized Brie Larson to fight baddies, the fact that Captain Marvel was used as a recruitment push for the Air Force dances uncomfortably close to the line. The decision to serve your country is a serious one that should probably be made based on your principles, not on how cool Carol Danvers looks flying jets (although that is deeply compelling).
In the world of The Boys (and in our real world), corporations are not your friends. Sure, they give you all the things that you like and desire, but at what cost? Not only are they buying up your privacy and data part and parcel as people stroll into the latest film starring The Deep, but Vought is also taking that next step into profiting from the American military machine. Making terrorist supes to ensure that the “good guy” supes are integrated into the military to the tune of billions of dollars is somehow both cartoonishly villainous and also a pretty straightforward indictment of the current state of the privatization of war. War is so deeply ingrained into the bedrock of American capitalism that it has to be ongoing for major industries to survive.
The deep irony of all of this is that Amazon, the Corporation To End All Corporations, is this cynical series’ distributor. While actively pointing an accusatory finger at the evils of Vought, Amazon is proving itself to be more of a villain than any of us who are addicted to two-day shipping would like to admit. Despite CEO Jeff Bezos’ net worth reaching $165.6 billion, most of Amazon’s workers are barely earning enough to make ends meet and are left to work in pretty dire conditions. Despite hauling in billions in profits every year, Amazon exploited enough loopholes to not pay a dime in federal income taxes in 2017 and 2018. While their services do present an easy option for many on a micro level, Amazon is often causing irreparable damage at a macro one.
Much like Vought, Amazon is also looking to get into the business of war as well, being one of the corporations looking to design and create the Pentagon’s idea for a “war cloud” to store and categorize classified data. While they may not be juicing up babies to turn them into human nukes, Amazon is definitely interested in moving beyond the private sector.
When faced with these real-world examples, the message of The Boys feels all the more potent. But where does Amazon’s involvement lead us? The question of ethics permeates our every day, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that conscientious consumption is getting more and more difficult under the current state of capitalism, so should we even try? Do we take the anti-corporate messaging coming from one of the biggest heavy hitters there is at face value? Probably not. Ultimately, The Boys is a group effort by many creatives who happened to need the funding that Amazon can provide. While it may provide a little bit of smoke and mirrors to let Amazon look like they’re “not like other corporations, we’re a cool corporation,” most viewers are (please, for the love of god) smart enough to see through that front.
Just because Amazon is chillingly similar to Vought in many, many ways doesn’t necessarily negate the message of The Boys. It is a product of hundreds of people, and Amazon is essentially just the distributor. Just don’t let the awesomeness of Billy Butcher kicking evil supe ass make you blind to our real-world villains in the process.
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.