SPOILERS FOR THE BOYS BELOW.
These days, the only good Superman is an evil Superman.
That’s one of my big takeaways from The Boys, Amazon’s very R-rated satire about a corrupt, Justice League-like superhero team called The Seven which is micromanaged by a mega-corporation and fed through a fine-tuned propaganda machine. Based on the versions of the heroes everyone sees on TV, they’d be stunned to learn A-Train (a Flash/Black Lightning stand-in) is a drug addict, Queen Maeve (a Wonder Woman stand-in) is a closeted lesbian, and The Deep (an Aquaman stand-in) is a bit of a sexual predator as well as a total idiot. However, most stunning of all would be the reveal that Homelander (a Superman stand-in with a bit of Captain America stars-and-stripes imagery thrown in) is a sociopath who views normal, non-superpowered humans as inferior beings only worth caring about when they’re useful to him.
This is the position the show’s ostensible main character, Hughie (Jack Quaid), finds himself in when his girlfriend is obliterated right in front of his eyes by an out-of-control A-Train, a tragedy which changes his life. Soon thereafter, he’s recruited into a vigilante group, The Boys, led by Butcher (Karl Urban) and gets one truth bomb after another, learning far more than he ever hoped to about the reality behind all those superheroes he grew up idolizing.
What Do We Do When Superman Is Destroying the World?
The season’s first two episodes – there are 8 total – hold out hope that Homelander might actually be the above-it-all paragon of virtue he appears to be on TV; turns out, however, he’s actually the worst of the bunch by far. In fact, the rest of The Seven are all terrified of him, and the only person capable of even moderately controlling him, Vought’s ruthless vice president Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Sue), does so through a steadily progressing psycho-sexual relationship which you know probably won’t work forever.
By the time you reach the end of the season, Homelander has committed so many acts of outright evil that if you’re old enough to remember Superman III you might look back and laugh at the days of old when the absolute worst an evil Superman could do would be a dickish prank like this:
A Brief History of Evil Superman
The idea of an evil Superman isn’t new, of course. The Boys isn’t even the first piece of pop culture to run with the idea this year, lest we forget James Gunn’s Brightburn. As this recent Polygon piece explained, ever since comic book writer Otto Binder and artist George Papp introduced red kryptonite into the Superman mythos in 1955, the possibility of the Big Old Boy Scout turning heel has been very real. It has now been explored with varying degrees of success in just about every medium Superman has touched. Superman III, obviously, but also and quite sadly Smallville and more recently Supergirl:
A Cinematic Universe Without a Superman
All of this at a time when the last man to play Superman in the DC Cinematic Universe was…wanna guess? Hint: it’s not Henry Cavill.
Seriously. Google it. Try to figure it out.
Ah, I’ll just tell you. It’s Ryan Handley. According to IMDB, he’s the buff stuntman who filled out Superman’s slacks for this surprise cameo at the end of Shazam!:
Cavill, meanwhile, has moved on to The Witcher, Netflix’s video game adaptation which will soon be among the many vying for the title “The next Game of Thrones.” There have been conflicting reports as to whether Cavill has officially left Kal-El behind, but despite the occasional rumor there appears to be no concrete plans for a new Superman movie anytime soon.
Fans aren’t exactly going unserved. Supergirl, after all, has its own versions of Clark Kent and Lois Lane played by Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch, and the CW’s upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths will even see Brandon Routh temporarily donning the red and blue again. However, Superman apparently doesn’t make sense anymore as a cinematic figure capable of opening a four-quadrant global blockbuster. Or at the very least the grimdark march of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman has poisoned the well enough that the newly installed generals of the DC Universe are giving ole Supes a much-needed break.
The Shadow Supermen
So, at a time of unprecedented cultural dominance the comic book movie is left without the man who birthed the entire concept of the superhero. In his absence, shows like The Boys and The Tick as well as a film like Brightburn are running with their own shadow versions of Superman. The Boys has the sociopathic Homelander and the dearly departed The Tick had Superion, an all-powerful figure who underwent an existential crisis and literally took a walk on the moon to mull over life. It was funny, but also a way for the lower-budgeted show to keep the character off-screen and thus incapable of simply swooping in to defeat the bad guy. (Damon Lindelof’s upcoming Watchmen update for HBO appears to be doing something similar with Doctor Manhattan, himself a Superman-like figure.) Brightburn’s version is a little kid who takes the news that his parents have been lying to him his whole life about as badly as anyone possibly could.
This type of character deconstruction is possible because Superman is so well-known and established in the culture that we immediately get what these people are doing even if they never actually say the word “Superman.” But it also reflects our ongoing unease with the concept of an all-powerful superhero who could crush us just as quickly as he could save us.
The Death of Optimism
Superman began his life as a power fantasy cooked up by two teenaged Jewish-Americans suffering through the Great Depression and racial subjugation. When WWII arrived, Superman emerged as a propaganda figure. That was a long ass time ago, and Superman has undergone multiple reinventions since then. By the time Bryan Singer brought him back to the silver screen in 2006’s Superman Returns, they made the subtext text and wondered aloud if the world truly needed Superman anymore. When Zack Snyder came around to it, he turned Kal-El into a persecuted savior figure seemingly forever stuck in his own metaphoric Garden of Gethsemane.
Meanwhile, America’s role in the world has undergone a massive adjustment and our idealized notions of ourselves as a super nation which acts as a benevolent force for good no longer matches reality, if it ever really did. Captain America has more recently gone through a cinematic journey reflecting our own shifting notions of patriotism, and he was able to do so with a more limited power set – super strong, sure, but not utterly undefeatable without the aid of kryptonite – that didn’t make him such a challenge to write for. Superman, meanwhile, continues to jump out to writers as the scariest dude in the room, not the most heroic.
A Superman for The Bush Era
The concept for The Boys, for example, first occurred to comic book writer Garth Ennis 15 years ago as an allegory for what he saw happening in the US at the time. As he told ScreenRant, “It’s the beginning of the second Bush administration, ’05 through ’08, and they’re really making no secret of the fact that they have several large companies propping them up, and profiting by their auctions abroad. And so the notion of one corporation getting hold of something like superheroes to the detriment of all the other corporations, and their reactions via the government, seemed to me to be really the way to go.”
A Superman for Today
For the show, Eric Kripke and a crapton of producers took Ennis’ idea and updated it to today, emphasizing not just the corporate takeover of the government but the disruptive power of celebrity and the way we seem to misplace our faith in sometimes literal, other times spiritual higher powers. It’s not for nothing that the rookie member of The Seven, Starlight (Erin Moriarity), is a Midwestern girl and devout Christian who is genuine in her desire to help and is thus so completely thrown when her new bosses just want to objectify and commodify her.
In one of the most memorable scenes of the season, Starlight speaks to an adoring crowd of Christians but veers from the script and calls bullshit on everything, acknowledging the sexism she has faced and assault she experienced since joining The Seven. When this moment turns her into a #MeToo hero, Vought again finds ways to make money off of it, leaving her again in despair about the apparent hopelessness of fighting the machine. Homelander, meanwhile, continues on with his own power play, which includes creating supervillain terrorists he can easily defeat but leverage into securing government contracts for Vought
The impulse behind it all is the central question: what if the people we trust to protect us aren’t worthy of that trust? And what can we possibly do to take back the power we’ve given them?
In the actual comic book, though not yet in the show so potential spoiler here, the big twist in issue #12 is that Vought has actually thought through that last question. The company is so scared of Homelander that it created another superhuman whose sole purpose is to kill the bastard if he ever turns evil, kind of like human kryptonite. What happens, though, when both Superman and his opposite go crazy? You find out in that issue, and, again spoiler, it does end up with a decapitated U.S. President being skullfucked by Homelander out of boredom.
My guess: the show isn’t going to do any of that, but that’s up to Kripke and company to decide. Amazon officially renewed The Boys for a second season before the first season had even premiered, a wise choice considering how many waves the show has made on social media these past two weeks. By the time new episodes arrive, we will most likely still be without a Superman on the big screen. Instead, we’ll have Homelander – a superhero supremacist who is a master at playing the media and rallying the masses. To borrow phrasing from another legendary caped hero, Homelander feels like the version of Superman we deserve right now.