Alexander Reams: Recently, “The Boys” premiered its third season after a 2-year break thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, a great reason to sit down and discuss the effects that “The Boys” has had on comic book culture as a whole, as well as its off-kilter view on life, social justice, and what it means to be a hero. Joining me for this is the woman who hates “Doctor Strange,” Anna Harrison.
Anna Harrison: Excellent! I guess I’ll just start by saying that I don’t hate “Doctor Strange,” thank you, and I think “The Boys” is great and an excellent critique of not only the superhero genre but the modern world as a whole, and especially capitalism and the incessant monetization of everything, but what’s fun is how unsubtle the show is about all of this. It’s so different to Marvel’s very sanitized way of looking at things—they’ll make the slightest bit of social commentary and immediately backtrack to a more neutral, everyone-should-just-get-along stance (while simultaneously trumpeting how inclusive/progressive/etc. they are), whereas “The Boys” goes all in on depicting racism, sexism, homophobia, exploitation, and whatever other societal ills you can name. Yet despite the very obvious parallels to our own world and very direct commentary, some viewers have gotten upset at the show for getting too “political” (I think especially in season 3, though I haven’t watched yet) which shows a horrible lack of comprehension. Like, are you watching the same show?
Alexander: I’ll start with your statement about capitalism and monetization and I think that is specifically poking at Disney as a whole, not just Marvel, and “The Boys” wastes no time getting to the social commentary, with the #MeToo movement being the main social subject they focus on in the first season, and immigration and racism being the focus in the second season. There is a certain lack of subtlety they have when dealing with these subjects, it’s told straight to our faces, and they’ve generally written in a very shocking or disturbing manner before and we’re still processing that, it’s not a critique, but a commendation on the skill of those behind and in front of the camera.
Anna: The parody of the “she’s got help” scene from “Avengers: Endgame” in season two, followed by a scene where the girls actually team up to violently beat the hell out of an actual Nazi, is really stupendous. But I’m curious about what you think “The Boys”’ impact on pop culture/superhero culture has been? It came out around the same time as several other shows that could be seen as critiques of superhero culture, most notably “The Umbrella Academy” and the “Watchmen” miniseries (though I would say “The Umbrella Academy” is much lighter on the critique than the other two mentioned; it’s mostly just showing how dysfunctional superheroes would be in real life), but it operates as a much more direct critique of our current culture than the other two—again, the parody of the “he’s got help” scene, an AOC analog, Scientology weirdness, etc.
It feels like season three especially has come at a time when superhero exhaustion is reaching an all-time high, and so it’s really capitalizing on that. Even Marvel/Disney has become more and more self-reflexive as it’s gone on, but their self-reflexivity is so timid that it becomes more annoying than anything else, in my opinion. Do you think “The Boys” in particular has affected things or is the culture getting tired of superheroes just in general and Eric Kripke (the showrunner) just took advantage of that? The comic existed long before the show did, but I find it hard to believe an adaptation would have been as successful as this one is if it had come any earlier.
Alexander: Now that we are three years removed from “Endgame,” that scene has not aged well, initially being viewed as a powerful moment, and is now generally looked back on as vapid and a vain attempt at a feminist statement, then one year later, “The Boys” comes in and does it better than the MCU could’ve dreamed of. In Season 2 Episode 8 “What I Know” they earn that moment throughout the season with each character in the looming fight getting their own emotional arc before the battle. I think that it has shown the true potential and diversity of the superhero genre, which has mostly been crushed due to the weight of the MCU’s hubris. DC has slowly been changing its ways, and with the new merger, those changes will be even more apparent within the next few years, but “The Boys” has been running for longer and while it took a little while for the show to find its footing, by the time the PR train rolled out for season 2, the hype was real, for most people. I like the show and appreciate its dark humor and violent outlook in contrast to the sanitized MCU and the fledgling DCEU.
I’ve never watched “The Umbrella Academy,” and I’m not sure I will, only so many TV shows one can watch in a year, and “Watchmen” (2019) was one of my favorites from that year, I loved it, but “Watchmen” is more of a critique of the U.S. government and police injustice, and using the superhero genre to convey their message, but the show lends itself to multitudes of interpretations.
Marvel/Disney isn’t self-reflecting, they are just self-aggrandizing in their own product, they don’t want to look in because there is rarely anything below the surface. I do believe that “The Boys” has changed what is acceptable within the superhero genre, we didn’t get “Invincible” until after “The Boys” was proven to work (created and run by the same people). I think that superhero fatigue is playing into “The Boys” popularity, but even at the height of superhero love “The Boys” would still change the way superhero media is interpreted. I believe that is because, “The Boys” is a graphic, profane, explicit adaptation of an equally shocking comic, and the shock is earned. It’s not a cookie-cutter superhero show with attempts at character development once per season.
Anna: It is quite interesting though because while “The Boys” is counter-programming in a lot of ways, it wouldn’t exist without superhero hype and it’s sustained by a lot of the same people that like the MCU—it can’t live without the very thing that it’s skewering. And, of course, it’s produced by Amazon Studios and distributed on Amazon Prime, which is a corporation strikingly similar to Vought International from “The Boys” (though there are several other companies Vought resembles as well; it’s really a mishmash of a bunch of different huge corporations that exist in our world). Vought is repeatedly shown to be an immoral and corrupt company, seizing the social justice issue of the day to win brownie points with consumers while using underhanded tactics to stay on top, and “The Boys”—of course—devotes much of its time to exposing the hypocrisy of corporations like Vought while at the same time using Amazon’s sway to prop up the show.
This is something that gives me conflicting feelings: on the one hand, the show probably wouldn’t exist without Amazon (and Amazon, to its credit, has really let them run wild with it), but Amazon’s involvement goes against a lot of what the show’s about. Is it hypocrisy? Is it gaming the system? Is there truly no ethical consumption under capitalism? I think “The Boys” is well aware of the contradiction with its content vs. its producer and distributor, but it’s still a bit of a thorny issue to tackle. Is the critique lessened because “The Boys” is made within the very system it’s criticizing?
Alexander: I think eventually “The Boys” would have become a film or TV show, and it started as a film back in 2008 with an entirely different studio behind it. There was an audience for it even before the superhero boom of 2008, I think it skewers just as well as it does in the comics. Which were focused more on poking fun at comic book culture, the show has done well skewering the modern-day comic book movie culture, as well as America as a whole, and that’s the more important satire, its commentary on American politics, social justice, relationship dynamics, and feminism are some of the smartest in TV right now. I always saw Vought as someone like Disney, but I also see the Amazon connection, but I’ve always seen Vought as its own entity.
I think Amazon knows exactly what is going on, but it’s because of the skill, worldbuilding, character development, and game-changing visuals (for TV, the first groundbreaker in VFX since “Game of Thrones”) that Eric Kripke and co. are basically given carte blanche past season one. Though during season one it did feel like the creative team was pulling back on the reins, despite the shocking imagery that hits the screen multiple times per episode. After the success of the first season, it seems Amazon let that team run wild, and now season three has just wrapped up, which raises the bar even higher in terms of entertainment and quality. I don’t think it’s hypocrisy, I think Kripke wanted to make this show, and Amazon showed interest and gave him the tools he needed.
I don’t believe that the critique of “The Boys” is lessened because of its distributor/financier, I think most people can admit that season one, while very entertaining, has several slow points, and I definitely felt the growing pains throughout that season, and that’s natural, I think if anything, the critique is lessened by the fans because of its satire of capitalism, Amazon, among other things.
I also wanted to ask, what did you think of its commentary on feminism, immigration, and the Weinstein effect that are explored heavily in season two?
Anna: I think it by and large does a great job at tackling those ideas in ways that acknowledge the complexity there and don’t just give blanket statements. I especially liked how it tackled the commodification of feminism—the women in positions of power are used as props to demonstrate how “progressive” Vought is while behind the scenes they get forced into compromising positions. Starlight is sexually assaulted in the first episode of the show by The Deep, a fellow member of The Seven, and as she comes forward about this–with the best of intentions—Vought sees fit to use this to paint themselves as feminist crusaders despite enabling the assault in the first place. Queen Maeve is forcibly outed as bisexual and immediately lines of rainbow-colored products get paraded out to make sure that everyone knows Vought is an ally despite smoothing her bisexuality into an easier-to-understand “lesbian.” If Vought can exploit a person for being part of a minority or disenfranchised group, they will.
Then, of course, there’s Stormfront, who uses her platform to call all of this out, but Vought still uses this as her “selling point”: she holds no prisoners, she calls out bullshit when she sees it, isn’t she so cool! But she’s revealed to be a literal Nazi whose rhetoric is explicitly designed to stoke the emotions of those who have begun to feel “pushed out” from mainstream society—she’s just another person whose so-called “feminism” is simply used to prop up her own interests rather than help a larger group.
I think “The Boys”’ existence mirrors some of its characters’ lives, in a way. Starlight wants to use the power granted to her for good, but nevertheless finds herself swept up within the system, conversely only given influence by the very same entity that goes against so much of what she stands for; “The Boys” is much the same.
Alexander: I got a feeling the creatives behind the show loved that juxtaposition of putting women in high places of power, to make Vought look good, only to put them in increasingly compromising situations, most infamously, Ashley (Colby Minifie), who is the subject to constant barrages of abuse from Homelander and is basically his personal assistant, despite being in a very high position of power. I still remember seeing the first episode and the scene between Starlight and Deep almost playing like a horror film, you know what is going to happen, and you can’t stop it. But seeing how Starlight took this assault, called out her accuser, and how The Deep goes away for a long time, not to prison, but to Ohio. Vought paints themselves in whatever color makes them look best, whether that be feminism, immigration, or any number of social issues, as long as their approval ratings are through the roof.
Ah Stormfront, I thought Aya Cash did a brilliant job portraying this psychopath. The show is full of gut punches, and while this one could be seen coming because of her rhetoric, it still felt like a gut punch of a surprise, especially because she and Homelander form a (very, VERY strange) relationship, and now he’s tied to that as well.
I think you’re exactly right, “The Boys” is doing good for the world of TV, but it still will always be attached to Amazon, however, also like in “The Boys,” sometimes you have to use the big bad corporation to spread good in the world.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to ask what are your overall thoughts on “The Boys” season one and two?
Anna: Before I answer I just have to say that, having spent my freshman year of college in Ohio, I think it is the perfect place to send someone to punish them. There’s even mention of Cedar Point, where I worked two 12-hour shifts over a weekend to fundraise for my college’s equestrian team, and all I will say is… don’t eat the beef.
I think season one is still great, but you can tell that Amazon is still reining them in a little bit (I think I have more of an issue with their presence than you do—not that I let that stop me from watching it or buying a bunch of stuff from Amazon). Once season two gets going, it’s balls to the walls. There’s really nothing like it on TV, and I think it’s the perfect balm for the oversaturation of the MCU.
Alexander: “The Boys” is one of those shows that continues to elevate its source material, comment on society, and is a fun watch. Thank you for joining us!
The Boys is streaming on Prime Video.
Directed by: Philip Sgriccia, Sarah Boyd, Stefan Schwartz, Frederick E.O. Toye, Daniel Attias, Eric Kripke, Jennifer Phang, Matt Shakman, Dan Trachtenberg, Steve Boyum, Liz Friedlander, Alex Graves, and Batan Silva
Distributed by: Amazon Studios
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.