There’s an appeal in the idea of deconstructing the superhero genre. Why should this one human being, however extraordinary they may be, be a one-person judge, jury and (sometimes) executioner? How do their biases, beliefs or bigotry play into who they deem worth targeting and who they believe is worth protecting? What makes them believe that their worldview and belief system is the only right one and what makes them, out of everyone else in the world, the only person who’s worthy of enacting violence to make their world a supposedly safer place?
2019 marked the release of Amazon’s adaptation of comic The Boys, and HBO’s series follow-up to the seminal comic Watchmen, and they arrive at a time where superheroes are at their all-time high, reminiscent of when the comics were originally released. Both are adaptations of comics that were created to either satirize (The Boys) or deconstruct (Watchmen) the genre, with one show having a (mostly) superficial reading of superheroes while the other looks at how the genre is itself a white power fantasy and has roots in white supremacy.
Released in the early 2000s, the original iteration of Garth Ennis’ The Boys looked at post-9/11 America and in what ways it would have been different if superheroes existed in the world. To better reflect our current landscape, the series faces its ire at superhero franchises, celebrity culture, the power they wield and the lack of accountability or punishment that comes with them. The comic is very much written from a place of active hatred and disapproval of the genre itself, and the series follows suit. The superhero group “The Seven” acts as an analogy for the comic-book team the Justice League, with The Boys’ Queen Maeve (Dominique McElligott) acting as their version of Wonder Woman, A-Train (Jessie T. Usher) as the Flash, the Deep (Chace Crawford) as Aquaman, and so on. Each member of this team acts as a dark, blackly comic parody of DC’s signature lineup. Created by the corporation Vought International, this team act as the stars of The Boys’ version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with their faces plastered on toys, comics and cereal boxes. Really, that’s the only reason they exist: to be secretly engineered by the corporation itself and give the public the typical comic-book origin story. Many of their so-called heroic acts are orchestrated by the corporate entity to bolster their popularity and sales.
Their universe’s Vought is our Disney. Vought is everywhere, and so is Disney (what’s also interesting to note here is the fact that The Boys is an Amazon production, another corporation that has its arms seemingly everywhere). Where the original comic commented on the then-contemporary War on Terror, here the series updated it to comment on the terrifying power modern conglomerates wield, but it also includes a thread throughout the season which, while admirable to include, is not handled as best as it should have been.
Annie January (Erin Moriarty) wanted more than anything to be a superhero. It’s all she has dreamt of, and in the series premiere her dream is fulfilled. Given the moniker “Starlight”, she’s introduced by Vought as the newest member of the Seven. On the same night, “the Deep”, or Kevin, gives her a tour of the Seven’s headquarters. While conversing with Kevin, Annie tells of how growing up she had posters of the Seven over her bedroom walls and that when she was a kid, she had a crush on him. They laugh about it, but when her back is turned, Kevin drops his pants. He takes advantage of her, saying if she told anyone, no one would believe her. Eventually, Kevin coerces her into performing oral sex. It is a clear reference to Hollywood’s long history of silencing of sexual abuse.
Given the recent reckoning of such manipulative power dynamics, and that the series’ very foundation is centered around various superheroes going unchecked, it’s understandable for the series to include such a storyline. But including such a storyline requires a large degree of nuance in writing the aftermath of experiencing such an ordeal, and an effort to avoid humanizing, justifying or siding with the person who committed such a vile act. And here, the series (somewhat) fails. Now, the first season had many failings, like its male-centric point of view, that the only woman of color on the show barely speaks, has a man speak for her and communicates solely through committing over-the-top acts of violence.
Annie, thankfully, has a character arc. She struggles to maintain her identity and independence while working for Vought, a corporation that not only chooses what she says, does and wears, but the that actively stop her (and sometimes chide her) when she tries to be what she’s supposed to be: a superhero. The series doesn’t let her sexual assault define her, but what the series mishandles is the treatment of her rapist.
The first episode presents him as a man who takes advantage of his power, yes, but the rest of the season somewhat defangs him and makes him out to be a pathetic, useless member of the Seven. At first viewing, this could look like the series is stripping him of who he makes himself out to be, to reveal who he truly is, but at the same time the season turns him from someone pathetic to someone that is pitiable.
The series does have some decent comments in this storyline, specifically how Vought is fully aware of the Deep’s actions, and that they frankly don’t care about what he did. Only when Annie publicly reveals what he did to her is Vought willing to hang him out to dry and even then, they don’t disown him. Instead, they make him read a public apology that’s familiar to anyone who’s seen any single one of our celebrity’s non-apology apologies and place him in some far-off, near-empty town.
Overall, the first season of The Boys is a decent one, with some relevant commentary on the obscene level of power our corporations have today. It has some good digs on how such entities make themselves out to be caring of the public’s well-being, when in reality they solely care about their interests. But often the season feels like it is trying to say something smart but isn’t something especially unique amongst the countless takes we’ve seen.
Watchmen, the Alan Moore & David Gibbons created-graphic novel, is considered not just a landmark of the comic book genre but of literature itself. Released in the late 1980s, at the height of superhero comic books, Moore originally intended for the comic to be the be-all and end-all of the superhero genre – so that the comics industry itself could move on and focus on the limitless potential of its medium. Watchmen is very much a statement of the genre it operates in, but also on the contemporary world. The comic is set in an alternate reality where vigilantes are a very real thing and all (save for one) have zero superhuman abilities. With their very existence, the world ends up being both different from ours (with considerable technological advancements) and the same (threat of nuclear war still existed).
The “heroes” of the comic are anything but – being sexist, racist, homophobic and often committing crimes they are not held accountable for. The thing with superheroes is that all of them believe that their code of morality is the correct one. Moore interrogated this; with his creation, he commented on the fascistic basis of crimefighters and therefore the genre itself.
For decades since, there have been attempts to adapt a comic that is – by Moore’s estimation – unadaptable. It uses every tool given to it by the medium it exists in, and the text itself is too large for a single film. Various actors and directors have tried and failed to latch on to this, and in 2009 the comic was adapted and released to theaters worldwide. Despite faithfully replicating famous visual motifs and panels from the work it’s based on; it completely misunderstood the text itself. While Moore refused to glorify and idolize his characters, the film did the opposite. And now HBO have decided to try.
The series planned on doing something unconventional with its adaptation: instead of directly adapting the story itself, it exists as a sort-of follow-up. Adapted by Damon Lindelof (creator of Lost and The Leftovers), the series takes place in a 2019 version of Tulsa, Oklahoma, with only three characters from the comic (at the time of this writing) appearing in it. As Moore used the comic to comment on the ever-growing threat of nuclear war, Lindelof aims to create a commentary of his own, on a subject that is both ambitious to tackle and incredibly easy to fail at.
Inspired by the Ta-Nehisi Coates-penned Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations”, Lindelof hopes to use his adaptation as a social commentary on the United States’ long history of white supremacy and its refusal to truly reckon with how the country continues to brutalize and marginalize the Black community – with particular regard to the police force. It is a lofty ambition, which can go incredibly wrong even with the sincerest of intentions. The series being created by a man who has been afforded with the luxury of white, male privilege, it would have been infuriating if his intentions proved too much to handle. Not just this, but Lindelof hopes to use the superhero genre as a symbol of white institutions built around racial violence.
With the first seven episodes to go by, he has succeeded. They are among the most bracing, exhilarating, horrifying and bizarre episodes of television not just in 2019, but this past decade. Watchmen is unlike anything you’ve seen before: in its first five minutes it depicts one of America’s most brutal acts of violence: the Tulsa Massacre. Remaining one of America’s vilest acts of violence, for decades it was underreported, silenced. Till today, it had never been depicted in full, in either film or television. Being one of the most disgusting acts of violence that has ever been depicted in the visual medium, this sequence could have rung as cruel and ignorant if the story that followed didn’t live up to that loud statement of intent. Thankfully, it continues to do so.
In Watchmen’s reality, in 2016 the white supremacist group ‘The Seventh Kavalry’ (inspired by both Rorschach’s manifesto and by the General Custer-led regiment that wiped out countless indigenous groups) co-ordinate a large-scale attack on the officers of the Tulsa police department, killing and injuring several. In the aftermath, an act is put into effect allowing officers to wear masks to conceal their identity, and, in specific instances, abduct and torture citizens without any accountability. The Seventh Kavalry was founded after widespread anger over the Redford administration (in this reality, actor Robert Redford, not Ronald Reagan, became president, and remained so for several years), enacting reparations to descendants of survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Following in Moore’s footsteps, Lindelof’s use of masks shows how quickly they can lead to a fascist existence, drawing explicit parallels between how the Seventh Kavalry use masks to hide their identity and continue to enact racial violence, and how the Tulsa police department use masks to avoid accountability and go unchecked. The fact that masks and vigilante antics are weaponized by both the Seventh Kavary and the Tulsa police department sends a message to the audience besides the fact both groups are founded in white supremacy: it tells us the superhero genre itself was created by and is set around white Americans acting as beacons of “justice” and “order”. This breakdown of the genre’s founding is especially powerful today when so often people of various marginalized communities ask for representation when studios are solely focused on representing white, straight cis males as superheroes, as symbols of truth and justice. With Watchmen, Lindelof takes away the glamor and glorification of superheroes to reveal their darker origins.
What’s especially interesting in this aim is that “This Extraordinary Being”, one of the best episodes in the last decade, shows how the first superhero wasn’t white, but black. His costume of a black hood with a noose tied around his neck represents not just this character’s experience with racial violence, but of the black community’s long and continued history of racial violence. He turns symbols of hate and death into something criminals and white supremacists can be afraid of. And yet, history continues believing that he was white. He wore white makeup around his eyes to hide his race, because in both this world and ours a white man in a mask can be a hero, but a black man in a mask is a criminal. The line “if you want to stay a hero, town folks gonna need to think one of their own is under it” clearly communicates Lindelof’s commentary on the superhero genre and how it’s a sort of encapsulation of our racist institutions, and of this country’s history of white supremacy.
Amazon’s The Boys exists as a teen’s Red Bull-fueled rant against the “unrealistic” and “not dark enough” superhero genre that occasionally stumbles into profundity. HBO’s Watchmen, however, is a look at America’s refusal to reflect on how it was created, how its continued existence and problems are a result of its white-supremacist founding, and a breakdown of the white supremacy basis of the superhero genre.