Monday, August 12, 2019

Amazon Prime's The Boys: Super Unheroes Among Us


Amazon Prime put a lot of hype into The Boys. I really, really like the superhero genre, so I geared up for this show with some anticipation.

The main plot line is driven by superheroes
very unlike those to which you have become accustomed. I thought this meant it would be a little more edgy. It was that, to be sure. I just didn’t realize it meant throwing moral caution to the wind to the degree this show does (and from what I understand, it’s tamer than the comics).

I’m not opposed to tales of sin. If I were, I would have to jettison a lot of stories in the first half of a book I love. [1]  I do, however, appreciate a storyteller that manages to tell tales of moral muck without wallowing in it. The Boys likes wallowing at times. You could argue it made it easier to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” characters, [2] and that would probably be a valid observation. You could argue that one needs to see what was sown in order to best understand what ought to be reaped. That, too, would be a valid observation. I would argue that I could have heard and seen much less and the point would still have been made just fine.

Though I don’t usually comment much on the ratings of shows I review, consider that a caution.  This is a well deserved TV-MA.

Now, to the worldview part.
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The Boys is not a show for those who like romanticized views of superheroes or of human nature. To quote a first century theologian, “There is none righteous – no, not one.” [3]  If the existentially pessimistic book of Ecclesiastes had been written in the 21st century by and for superhero fanboys, it would probably look something like this.  

SPOILER ALERTS TO FOLLOW

The show is set in a United States that has superheroes that overlaps baldly with other worlds. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Invisible Man, The Flash, Ms. Marvel, Aquaman, and a host of X-Men show up under different names. There is, however, a significant difference: they are terrible human beings. Power has corrupted them all (except one, but I’ll get to that in a minute).

There is a sense in which I appreciate this twist on the hero narrative. I’ve always felt that the most honest stories about superheroes would portray them like the Greeks portrayed the gods in their pantheon: bigger versions of us, just capable of much greater kindness and cruelty because of their power. When Peter Parker, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers get powers, those powers don’t make them better. They just make them stronger. Brightburn, Watchmen and Chronicle all dove into the darker side of the superhero story with varying degrees of effectiveness.

A few of the Supers - The Seven - work for a corporation that takes care of their PR, lines up jobs, and cleans up their messes – like, say, when A-Train runs through a women while he is high and pulverizes her, or when any number of them are accused of rape and harassment. Let’s just say their legal team is busy.

The show appears to be set in a United States where the average person buys the line that these superheroes have been gifted by God with their talents. They haven’t. They were injected with a serum when they were children. Their parents took 30 pieces of silver and kept their mouths shut in hopes that their kids would be special! (It's not a bad satire of the modern parental obsession to have kids that stand out. What does it profit for your kids to gain the world and both of you lose your souls?)  The show is not clear what the shadowy corporation behind these experiments is hoping to accomplish, but one thing is for sure: there’s big money in the commodification and enhancement of people.

As for the Supers, their power, money and fame have turned all but one of them into selfish, insufferable, often dangerous and always carefully curated cultural icons. They are addicted to sex, power, money fame, drugs, and adrenaline. They can’t stand each other, and they have even less respect for their adoring fans. Their PR teams keep their best side in the public eye, but the sins committed in darkness are beginning to come to light.

Annie January (Starlight) is the breath of fresh air. She seems to be a legitimately good person, raised with “a lot of Jesus” by a single evangelical mom who has told her all her life that God chose her. When she gets chosen to replace of the The Seven (think Justice League or Avengers), she is ecstatic.

The evangelical world, it turns out, has embraced the Supers as one of theirs.  Did power ever look so compelling?  Who wouldn’t want Captain America (fine, Homelander) and Starlight on the stage of a Christian conference teaching love of God and country?

The clear disgust for evangelicalism and its now infamous ‘purity culture’ [6] is a disjointed aspect of the show, actually. Starlight is a very compelling character – the only one, really - and she was raised in an evangelical subculture. Somehow, in spite of her money-grubbing mother and apparently hypocritical church, she has genuinely flourished as a human being as opposed to literally everyone else we meet in Season One. In Episode 5, evangelicals are thoroughly thrown under the bus (see my footnote from earlier). The easy and sweeping dismissal of a movement that offered at least something good for her felt like a token dismissal by the woke crowd: “Of course we can’t say anything good about religion. It spoils everything, right? “

Really, Starlight is the only person in the show to offer a ray of hope. She starts out with pure motives. She desires to help others, not promote herself. When life (in the person of The Deep) knocks her to her knees, she recovers. She sees everyone for who they are; she is determined to live an honest and meaningful life. The complete jettisoning of her Christian past, while understandable considering the circumstances in the show, is discouraging.  I don’t know if the show’s writers intended this, but her character seems to take a turn for the worse after her crisis of faith.

Season One ends with the most terrifying villain/superhero seeming to avoid all moral justice while gaining an upper hand that looks insurmountable. Despair is an odd cliffhanger, but an effective one, if only because the viewer wants to see what it will take to end his mounting reign of terror.

And perhaps Starlight has more in her than we know.

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I suspect our most popular (or most promoted) shows serve as a marker for where we are as a culture. If that’s true of The Boys, we are in trouble.
  • Heroes? There are none, really. Evan the civilians fighting the devious Supers are willing to obliterate moral lines.
  • Power and privilege? They corrupt everyone they touch.
  • Toxic masculinity? I think you mean just masculinity. All the men are toxic.
  • Toxic femininity? A few embody this. The rest enable or excuse the toxic men.
  • Revenge? It’s an empty fantasy, but what else is there?
  • Religion? The manipulative opiate of the masses.
  • Purity culture? A farce.
  • Big Business? Corrupt to the core.
  • Fake News? Everywhere. The media is utterly unreliable. 
  • False flags? All the time. 
  • Violence? It’s the answer.
  • Politicians? Bought.
  • Friendship? Almost all the friendships are two people using each other for some selfish ends.
  • Love? Elusive. Very, very elusive.
  • People? Miserable.
  • Hope? None.
  • Justice? There is no justice in a world where money and power let the strongest get away with everything. 
There was one subplot that interested me: what do we do if the justice system will never be able to bring evil people to justice? At what point is it morally acceptable - if it is at all - to take matters into our own hands? And even if the ends are justifiable, are there means that are unacceptable? It's really not a new idea - vigilante movies wrestle with this all the time - but the stakes are much higher when the villains are almost indestructible.

I can’t tell if Season Two is heading toward nihilism or hope. There is a boy who may be The One. He is the son of a Super and a civilian, conceived in rape, hidden from the world until the end of Season One. It is possible he has the powers of his ruthless father and the heart of his wounded mother. He may be the one to show what it looks like to use power in the service of peace.

Honestly, if the show doesn’t go in a direction that leads toward life, I’m not sure I need anther reminder of how dastardly people become in a broken world. I know this already. I don't need another show to remind me that when terrible people are given power, they just do more terrible things.

Show me life. Show me hope. Show me love.  Show me what redemption looks like.

That, too, is an honest story.


[1] That would be the Bible. The Old Testament is TV-MA at times in terms of adult themes, but relatively light on the details.  
[2] Good and bad are in quotes because I’m pretty sure everyone in this show was on sliding scale that tipped them all toward bad.
[3] That would be Paul in Romans 3:10.
[4] The show doesn’t say “evangelical.” It’s obvious.
[5] Episode 5 is a merciless takedown of an evangelical purity culture intertwined with political and cultural power. It was hard to watch. It probably wasn’t entirely fair, but it’s a good window into how our culture views modern evangelicalism: shallow, hypocritical, and dangerous. There is a clear message about nationalism and Trumpism as well. The disdain is not subtle.
[6] Read up on Josh Harris and the "sexual prosperity gospel." 

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