Why we no longer need superheroes

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The Seven, who fight crime and ‘terrorism’, are employees of a mega-corporation called Vought International which ostensibly deals in pharmaceuticals but has more tentacles than anyone can count. The heroes’ murderous glitches (such as the many people killed carelessly in collateral damage) are covered up by Vought’s powerful PR department, which in turn demands the Seven toe a public line that presents them as shining examples of altruism. In the second episode of the new series, one superhero actually says to another, “Life isn’t a PR strategy”, but she doesn’t mean it. As in any other 21st-century business, the PR tail wags the dog. The ‘optics’ are all that matter. And Vought’s stock prices, of course.

At one point in the first series a naive new hero, Starlight (a name that knowingly alludes to the princessy heroines of children’s animation) joins the Seven. The Vought PR department gives her a cynical superhero costume to wear that looks like a pole-dancing outfit. She is horrified and refuses to wear it; they threaten her, she backs down, and the costume becomes an important part of her ‘sexy’ public brand. Her humiliation is complete; and yet the seeds of rebellion are sown.

The point being, I think, that hero narratives have become just another way for corporations to get their sinister hands on our unconscious and turn it against us for profit. It is meta-ironic that The Boys was commissioned by the mega-corporation Amazon. Could it be that they believe their own hype so much that they don’t recognise themselves in this picture? Or maybe they just don’t care.

Do superheroes have a future in our dystopian age? Alan Moore was rumoured to have been displeased with Lindelof for daring to tinker with the Watchmen universe, probably fearing that his graphic novel would be debased and commodified. Yet the Watchmen series, like The Boys, is compelling because it admits that there is something ugly in heroism. The Boys subverts Campbell’s epic plot points at every turn, exposing superheroism as a shiny marketing concept with no relation to human reality. It’s time it made way for some fallible 21st Century heroism, perhaps.

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