America once had cars so large that their fins could eat the lunch of our adversaries. We were powerful. Superpower powerful. The más macho nation. What’s happened to us? Enter “The Boys.”
Why do so many find “The Boys” TV series so compelling? At first blush the framework for the show seems so preposterous that one can’t imagine anyone taking a risk on producing or watching it. Superheroes as psychopaths, killers, and scum. Instead of Superman, we get Homelander, the sociopathic head of a team of seven superheroes working for the Vought corporation, which clearly is into profits over people. The boys in “The Boys” are out to destroy them. Vought’s superheroes are not merely supervillans, who are common enough in comics. They are viewed by the public in the series as genuine heroes, as superheroes, and have all the trappings of them, including Homelander’s American flag cape. We, the TV audience, see the trappings also, but simultaneously are swamped with images of corrupt and degenerate “supes.” The upshot: a bout of cognitive dissonance.
Given how Americans have treasured their virtuous superheroes in the past, and the endless spate of superhero themed movies and shows in the last couple of decades, “The Boys” should not be a welcome addition to a list of fantasy outings. And yet the show has been a huge hit.* No doubt this is in part due to excellent acting, good scripts, and first-rate production values, but still, the show is shredding an iconic feature of American pop culture, one that we have sold to the world. And it is doing so in a series that is far from perfect, sometimes getting mired down in being gleefully over the top.
I have a theory. The show has tapped something pretty deep. We Americans live in a once great empire, one that still has tentacles around the world. We’ve known how to push our weight around, regularly intervening in the affairs of other countries when our (alleged) interests were under threat, and these interests were not only local. They have been worldwide. The American Empire has supported dictators and authoritarian regimes in order to protect its spheres of influence. We have removed leaders from power, halfway around the globe, when they have gotten uppity and started to challenge our hegemony. We have even removed democratically elected leaders.
In other words, we have behaved in ways similar to other empires. No worse, no better. But we have told ourselves a story for most of our history. We are the shining light on the hill. The bringer of democracy, of freedom, of the American Way. The good guys. The White Hats. We could never be like those nasty old empires. (And this is the image that the Vought corporation sells of America through its stable of superheroes.) However, this myth has been shattered in recent years. In the twenty-first century, after the atrocities of the Vietnam War in the last one, the American Empire has been caught behaving very badly abroad, for example, starting wars on false pretenses and committing government sanctioned acts of torture. We left large portions of the Middle East in shambles. Our bombs and weapons, in wars we have supported with surrogates, regularly kill civilians. And it’s no secret.
Not only has our good guy self-image been shattered, we also haven’t won wars of any consequence in a long time. When I was I kid, I was told that America never lost a war. How many have we cleanly won in the last thirty years? Or better, how many against adversaries worthy of the name? This has been a significant blow to American confidence and pride. (I am not recommending war here. God knows we have been involved in far too many. I am addressing feelings of failure.)
Our self-image as a powerful, competent nation has also taken a hit domestically. In the last couple of decades we have seen the infrastructure of the country fall apart, schools decay, an opioid epidemic, inequality run rampant, the economy crash, and now a terribly botched response to a pandemic, which is killing Americans left and right, and makes us look like some poor, poorly run country, with a God awful GDP, led by a guy chomping on imported Cuban cigars.
Because we haven’t defined ourselves as an empire, it’s been hard to see that we are suffering from a pretty typical syndrome of empires: the hubris syndrome, which leads to over extension and decline. Yet we feel a loss of power. We aren’t what we were just fifty years ago or even thirty years ago. And we know it. You can even see it in the body language of many Americans. I recall going to school in Denmark with other Americans students in the early 1970s. You could spot the American kids a mile away in contrast to the more subdued Danes. They were bundles of enthusiasm. Laughing and gesticulating wildly as they walked. Appearing to be on top of the world, but without any sense that they appeared this way. It was a natural state. A vital and unconscious optimism linked us, and this was on the heels of a terribly troubled time in America, the 1960s. Today, in contrast, our young people often appear to believe that the sky is falling, if not now, sometime soon, but definitely in their lifetime. Powerless to influence leaders who are more concerned about themselves than the country, powerless to stop the rot in DC, powerless to stop another war, powerless to stop climate change, powerless in the face of recessions…..
America’s batteries are drained. We no longer feel the power of our empire. We elected a president who promised to Make America Great Again. We ended up practically tearing ourselves apart, and with the worst pandemic in a hundred years, even with the wonders of modern science to assist us. Something is terribly wrong. We are an empire that can’t take care of its own. We feel powerless when we are supposed to feel super strong.
Yet there are always superheroes. People who can make us feel powerful when we aren’t. People we can identify with as embodiments of American power. Captain America. Iron Man. Wonder Woman. The Fantastic Four. The number of these figures entering mainstream American popular consciousness has grown exponentially in the last couple of decades. People who never dreamed of reading comics became enamored. They are indeed often fun to watch, but this is not all. They also make us feel better about ourselves. We are stronger than we seem. We have hidden powers that are waiting to be revealed at the right time and place. (Mild mannered Clark Kent transforming into Superman was an early incarnation of this sensibility.)
But here come “The Boys,” in which superheroes are egotistical monomaniacs and sociopaths, instead of being embodiments of Truth, Justice, and the American Way. And tools of corporate America to boot. It’s a show that says, we’ve been sold a bill of goods, and we need to kill these superhero assholes, not adore or identify with them. They are the enemy. If you identify with them, you are identifying with sentient garbage. Not an easy acknowledgment since the guy who heads the team, Homelander, wears a cape that is really an American flag.
The recent superhero obsession was never simply about fantasy characters. It was about a sense of American power that we wished we still had, in the days when we were a more successful empire. These days are rapidly slipping away, and “The Boys” is here to help to announce that the party is over. They appeal to us because we know it’s time to be cynical about so much of what we have been led to believe. (All of the Vought’s superheroes appear to be Americans. Two of the four Boys are foreigners, and there is a Japanese woman who is brought into their orbit. Make what you will of this.)
We once had cars so large that their fins could eat the lunch of our adversaries. Now we have to settle for CGI images of them. Sure, those cars weren’t good for the environment. I’m glad they are gone, but they were marks of a powerful empire. Let’s Make America Great Again? No! Let’s listen to The Boys. The American empire is fading. Long live an America that can face the truth about itself.
*” ‘The Boys’ Is Such A Massive Hit For Amazon It’s Getting A Spin-Off,” Forbes, September 26, 2020.