Vought International, the American company that manages the entire country’s population of licensed superheroes in the world of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, is a capitalistic leviathan with tentacles reaching into the worlds of law enforcement, the entertainment industry, the military, and a number of other major parts of general society. Sound familiar?
The Boys imagines a world where superheroes are quickly becoming one of the nation’s most valuable resources that just so happens to be monopolised by a monolithic corporation with morally bankrupt leadership who’d do anything to protect the Vought brand.
Madelyn Stillwell, the company’s vice president, makes for a classic villain because the brand she represents is the evil corporation to end all corporations. The public obsessively follows the real-world adventures of the Seven, a Justice League analogue, while also flocking to cinemas to see big-budget movies about their super-heroics. Capes appear on TV selling products, working the late night talk show circuit, appearing in public service announcements – they’re everywhere, all under Vought’s carefully orchestrated direction.
While those ideas are what part of what made The Boys an interesting comic book, they end up making Amazon’s live-action adaptation of the series feel somewhat hypocritical because, like... it’s Amazon.
The ridiculous antics of the world’s billionaires, like Jeff Bezos, would almost be comical were it not for the fact that they come hand in hand with all sorts of terrible violations of workers’ rights. While Amazon’s sins aren’t particularly unique – it’s why the Department of Justice is currently looking into Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon regarding antitrust concerns – the company’s size has made it impossible not to be aware of the some of the more egregious, systemic issues that plague it.
When Hughie and the Boys come together to take on the Seven and Stillwell, they’re rallying against the entire Vought system that allows for professional superheroes to skirt the rule of law because of their social status. The tricky thing is that The Boys’ critique of gross, wanton consumerism driven by an obsessive fandom that worships what’s essentially an entertainment cult feels hollow at times because it’s an Amazon production. No matter how pointed a statement about Amazon-like companies the show could have made, it wouldn’t exactly have mattered because from Amazon’s perspective, the point of the show is to elevate the Amazon brand and keep people subscribed to Prime and the platform’s other services.
The Boys is an interesting example of what happens when a piece of genre media gets into a reflective space about the nature of the entertainment industry that makes its existence possible. Though they’re telling fundamentally different kinds of stories about superheroes and the people who worship them, you can also look at Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman and, interestingly, M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass as two films that brush up against similar ideas The Boys plays around with in their own distinct ways. With Birdman, you’ve got a story that’s more about what being famous for playing superheroes in major Hollywood franchises can do to an actor’s sense of self, a concept the movie nods to by being so densely-packed with actors who’ve all starred in those kinds of projects.
Glass instead focuses on the way that some enthusiasts and historians have come to see comic books as modern day myths that speak to the cultural values of the societies they originated from at different points in time. Within the world of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable/Split/Glass trilogy, heroes are beings with significance in part because of how the entertainment media related to them speaks so profoundly to characters like Mr. Glass and David Dunn. As a trio of superhero films, Shyamalan’s trilogy also works as a fascinating (if at times narratively unsuccessful) reflection on the “prestige” superhero movie boom that Unbreakable predated by a few years.
In their own ways, both films attempted to grapple with what it is about cape dramas that makes them such powerful modes of storytelling that capture people’s imaginations. As part of those attempts, the stories end up acknowledging how all of our relationships with genre media have important economic components that inform how we interact with them. While they’re all pieces of art, they’re pieces of art we, as audience members, pay to consume. Unpacking that dynamic isn’t the main thrust of either Birdman or Glass, films that came from the studios that brought you the X-Men cinematic franchise and the Marvel movies, respectively. But the ideas are there, and the films become stronger when you make an effort to bear them in mind.
When a creative team’s in a position that makes it feel as if they’re punching up and outward, that can work in the show’s (or comic’s, or film’s, etc.) favour. But The Boys being a part of the Amazon machine makes that somewhat more difficult because by watching the series, you become complicit, in a way. The Boys’ message about big corporations turns the act of watching it into a statement of its own, because you’re doing the exact same thing the show’s ignorant public does. They sit down and watch the cape show and have some warm feelings about it without wanting to think about the complicated, messy reality of things.
It doesn’t exactly take anything away from the series itself, as The Boys’ cynical perspective lends itself to the idea that if its characters could break the fourth wall and see how they made it to the small screen, they’d shrug and figure “hell, a paycheck is a paycheck.” Though The Boys’ situation might take some of the bite out of its commentary, it works as a reminder that we’d all be better off for occasionally thinking about the big picture when it comes to the entertainment we consume.
It’s fine to get excited about the X-Men coming back to comics in a big way, for example. But it’s important to bear in mind how Marvel’s allegedly screwed vulnerable employees while elevating others who have broken company policy to incredible positions of power. By the same token, it’s also worth zooming out every once in a while to remember how large a corporation Disney is, how much high-profile IP it owns, what a massive presence it is in the entertainment industry, and how said size has led to material harms for employees impacted by its acquisitions. Disney and Marvel are not the same company, but they’re companies with a very specific and mutually beneficial relationship with one another that can, and probably should factor into the way we think about both entities.
The point isn’t to be able to cluck at companies when you recall their bad behaviour, but rather to understand how those things define aspects of the brand’s larger corporate culture that you, personally, might have complicated feelings about. Thinking about these kinds of things is an easy way to get bogged down with the existential dread that comes with contemplating how powerful people and organisations – spoiler alert – have a habit of being not so great! But the dread’s worth it, I think, if it means you’re making a more informed decision about whether, or how, you want to engage with something.