There is a degree of truth to the notion that the President of the United States, intentionally or unintentionally, affects the zeitgeist of the country and inspires the pop culture of his tenure. The renaissance of the 1970s detective TV drama was debatably a Newtonian reaction to the then-shocking lawlessness of the Nixon administration. The 1980s saw a flurry of anti-communist action flicks commensurate with the nadir of the Cold War, as I've described previously in my article “Means of Production: Anti-Communism in Film and Television.”
The Dubya years birthed a flurry of jingoistic military and spy thrillers by directors swan diving into the wrong side of the War on Terror. The Obama administration inspired the resurgence of the superhero, as everyone assumed he had arrived to save the day. Turns out he did not, in fact, fix everything, and here we are on the eve of an election that may accelerate or slow our transformation into the Weimar Republic. A year since the crescendo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it appears superhero fatigue has set in as the rise of the current best show about caped crusaders marks the end of an era. A genre considered derivative and mediocre by some of the more persnickety critics of the cinematic world, the MCU (and DCU, to a lesser degree) nevertheless enraptured an entire generation of moviegoers and comic book fans alike. Part of the sudden reduction in the onslaught of superhero films can be blamed on the Covid-19 outbreak, but hero fever has suffered from a precipitous decline in enthusiasm. After all, superheroes don't exist in real life, adding to the bleak realization that no one is coming to save us.
If nothing else, it is refreshing that “The Boys” presents an alternate universe where everything we believe about superheroes is a comforting lie. Based on the comic books by Garth Ennis, “The Boys” envisions superheroes (or "supes") in a more realistic way than in the past. Supes are publicized and commercialized by a multi-billion-dollar corporation named Vought, with all the depraved sex and violent sociopathy that comes with the territory. The comics are an unapologetic critique of many aspects of American culture and politics. At its most basic level, “The Boys” attacks the concept of celebrity worship and most notably the military industrial complex (a central plot point for much of the series is the fabrication of a terrorist threat in order to introduce supes into the military). The series honored this legacy from the beginning and has only turned up the dial since. The showrunners had the added responsibility of modernizing the critique, and in that they have succeeded. Needless to say, Ennis's original critiques still apply, and “The Boys” has even more to say now.
Narratively solid and perfectly cast, the series also adds some much-needed nuance to the core premise. The Fastest Guy trope is smartly expanded on by featuring The Fla-- I mean, A-Train as an aging superstar desperate to keep his status afloat by abusing Compound V, a steroid tailored to supes, drawing stark parallels to the exploitation of athletes. The more subtle critiques are examples of the show at its best and are often harder to detect. In a staged beach cleanup, The Deep recalls convincing his fellow supe Tek-Knight to switch his flying war machine to renewable energy, a tone-deaf "reform" that would make Elizabeth Warren green with envy.
The show's Aquaman analogue then spends the majority of his screen time blundering his way through a post-Me Too rehabilitation tour. His victim, Starlight, is a small-town Good Girl crafted by the eternally creepy traditions of religious youth groups and child pageants of Middle America. This side plot later shows Deep being whisked away by Vought and having to grovel to the Church of the Collective, clearly modeled after Scientology and led by a man who can be only described as Jonathan Frakes with big televangelist energy. While the portrayal of the way elite institutions run interference on behalf of sexual abusers would ordinarily make for exceptionally dark television, this is tempered by making Deep's story arc the most humorous.
During its recently released second season, “The Boys” all but abandons subtlety and sets its sights upon arguably the most contentious social issue this country faces. The commentary comes gradually, as the show introduces Stormfront, a cool one-of-the-guys kind of chick who breaks the mold of the straight-edged Boy/Girl Scout image Vought typically prefers from its product. Stormfront eventually catches the eye of Homelander, the leader of the Seven, the most powerful and profitable of Vought's employees. Homelander is superlatively acted in a revelatory performance by New Zealander Anthony Starr, and comes to represent the United States exactly as it was meant to in the production and the comics alike. Supremely powerful, utterly self-absorbed, calculating, and temperamental, Homelander is military boarding school Superman. He is half encouraged, half manipulated by Stormfront into promoting a white supremacist agenda, much like that gosh-darned cheeto in the White House. But the Orange Man Bad rhetoric thankfully lacks the vapid indignation we commonly see from Hollywood types and instead targets the cult of personality around Donald Trump and the MAGA/KAG movement. Rather than tossing cringe-inducing how-dare-yous at the President's Twitter account, the show deconstructs the material conditions that facilitate a person's descent into madness. One subplot in particular succinctly delineates how a lonely, disaffected young man with no significant social or professional prospects absorbs nothing but putrid nationalist propaganda day after day. Lacking the emotional and intellectual maturity to discern fact from fiction, he allows the anger to infect him and takes the life of a brown man who he had convinced himself must somehow be his enemy.
Stormfront represents this alienation in a more insidious and far less sympathetic way. She is the avatar for the racial resentment that drives the messaging and policy of the administration. A true believer, she is a principled white supremacist. As opposed to Homelander who, like Trump, is indeed himself prejudiced but is far more concerned with his image and personal gratification. This lack of sensitivity and self-awareness makes him the perfect canvas upon which Stormfront imprints her worldview. The similarities between the Stormfront/Homelander dynamic and the way that the white supremacist underculture projects itself both onto and through Donald Trump are impossible to ignore. The manner in which Stormfront comes to ingratiate herself to Homelander is especially noteworthy, as it mirrors the tactics of the modern alt-right. Stormfront displays an affinity for pop culture and the internet, packaging her extreme ideas in silly memes and an affable, non-threatening demeanor.
As her relationship with Homelander progresses, they co-opt ultra-nationalist populism and hyper-militaristic imagery to promote xenophobic fervor. In a more private moment, Stormfront finally drops the bombshell term "white genocide," a racist conspiracy theory that purports liberal financiers are intentionally flooding the country with black and brown immigrants with the explicit intent of eliminating the white population. This seems to take Homelander by surprise, as he must have assumed her "us vs them" attitude and coded language was simply a public relations strategy.
In an undeniable overlap with incel culture, the series alludes to Homelander's sexual inadequacy and toxic masculinity mainly through his relationship with his corporate overseer Madelyn and fellow supe Queen Maeve. His greatest crime, however, is raping the wife of Billy Butcher, who becomes his primary antagonist. Having never developed anything resembling emotional literacy, he is enamored with Stormfront and blind to her true nature, despite her having already told him to his face that she was an actual Nazi several episodes earlier.
Ultimately, Stormfront is rebuked in a deftly executed Girl Power moment, but Homelander will still be expected to account for the reactionary following he has cultivated with her. He needs the edifices that enabled her notoriety more than they need him, and he knows it.
The show's immediate poignancy is rooted in its ability to recognize its place in time. Unlike the films of Paul Verhoeven, for instance, whose satirical genius is only now being appreciated. It approaches political commentary with a degree of sophistication not commonly seen in the Trump era. It is therefore situated at a crossroads. It will be the perfect show for a time, but only this time. The true test will be whether it retains its relevance in the event of a Biden victory. People let their guard down during the Obama administration, and as a result, Hollywood illustrated a vision of the country that did not reflect the reality. It runs the risk of making the same mistake a second time. To be clear, the showrunners are under no obligation to continue to inform the audience, the message has been sent. My interpretation is that we are meant to transition to a post-hero society, one in which the message is not "don't meet your heroes," but maybe don't make them your heroes in the first place. They don't deserve it, and the problems they were created to solve will outlive them.