I’m a big fan of fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, and a whole slew of dorky genres.
In high school, I wrote an impassioned essay on why scifi/fantasy/comics were valid forms of literature. I pointed out that the graphic novel Maus had just won a Pulitzer prize. It being the first, and still only, comic to do so. That was 1992. And being a nerd/geek was still a pretty stinging criticism.
I just reread an interview with the great Alan Moore, who had created a vast number of tremendous comics and graphic novels. Many of which became movies. V for Vendetta, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell. And in the interview, he heaped hate on superheroes as usual. He said the superhero movies had dumbed and twisted culture. But he also said he hadn’t watched a single one since the first Tim Burton Batman. Alan Moore has written more awesome stuff than I could dream of doing, but it’s unfair to slag off an entire genre having not seen any of it.
You can make great stories in any medium in any genre. Stephen King almost solely proved horror could be great literature. There’s terrific books that squarely fit in the Romance section. Scifi/Fantasy is enjoying its very-long awaited days in the sun. We’ve got Game of Thrones and Witcher on tv. Shows that would have been zero budget if produced at all, back in 1992. And countless movies. I try and make a point of not beating up a genre. Not only is it small-minded considering Shakespeare punted out everything from Fantasy to Romance to Comedy. But entertainment is entirely subjective. Who am I to condemn an entire mode of storytelling?
Wow, long preamble.
I’ve been watching Amazon’s The Boys. It’s a superhero tv show with a somewhat realistic edge. It does a lot of things right, but it also gets a lot wrong. First off, I think it’s too long. Every episode is pretty much a solid hour. And the cool part about having that much time is you can have actual human moments. What I really liked about Game of Thrones wasn’t all the ginormous battles and dragons, it was just people walking and talking and tying their boots and going to the bathroom. Stuff you won’t ever see in a network tv show with commercials and 25 mins of content. Where they feel pressure to have every 2nd line pure plot or a joke to ensure you don’t switch channels.
But The Boys used that time and didn’t pad it with small moments, they crammed it with pure exposition. I’ll harp on the last episode of season 2 because it’s in my head (spoilers!) because I saw it last night. There was the point when Huey/Hewie was saying why he likes Billy Joel music and it’s because his mom left and she liked it and he doesn’t want to be like her and such and such. No one has ever emptied their soul like that so succinctly and on command in the history of humans. There was no need for that. That’s one of my big problems with The Boys. Everyone just spills their guts at a moment’s notice and perfectly lays bare their innermost demons as if they had a lifetime of therapy and only need someone to bump into them to have a pure cathartic moment of clarity. Frenchie did it last episode with his overdose drama and with his puppy love for the mute supe. Starlight did it about her mom and the prayer sessions. Mave did it about Homelander. Edgar did it about Homelander and Stormfront. Stormfront did it with her stunning transformation from Millennial snark master to 1940s Nazi spokesperson. Mother’s Milk did it about his kids and getting home. Everyone does it everywhere.
Not only is it really unrealistic, but people who are terrified for their lives and are in modern surveillance environments and surrounded by supes who happen to possess super hearing don’t go blabbing about their fears. You keep your trap firmly shut because you’re scared. There were so many soul-cleansing moments spoken in the Tower, which is almost certainly bugged and under constant video. Writers can hint at this stuff. Let us piece it together.
Another issue is the mighty morphing power levels. It was clear that Butcher became popular and his coolness was played up. But he’s just a dude with a scruffy beard who says cunt and love and other British-y things. He is literally of no consequence or power in this environment. Not even as a disruptive element. You have people with fer real superhuman abilities and Butcher’s main power is being able to go without a shower for months. If you want to play superheroes real, then make all of it real. The least of the supes completely invalidates that entire team. A-Train managed to find the incognito hero in 3 hours yet for 2 seasons that was somehow beyond his capabilities.
Watchmen was a cool graphic novel in that it had normals, heroes, and superheroes. And there was a large gulf between each tier. But Steven Campbell the novelist isn’t going to be a problem for Dr. Manhattan. Just like Rorsharch and The Comedian weren’t a match for Ozymandias. And Alan Moore showed that. Frank Miller did a great job of that in Dark Knight comics where Batman was an absolute joke compared to Superman. And it was a really slow build, with Superman in shadows and finally he comes out and even he is aware of how pathetic everyone else is by comparison. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/2f/d8/47/2fd84742f34afd16acc4f3dd88fe7661.jpg
^ that was so awesome I remember it vividly from circa 1986. I had high hopes of seeing that fantastic buildup in the movie and they just completely blew it.
Heroes have to lay a whole lot of plans to have any chance against superheroes. And I just didn’t get that sense in Boys. They’re like, “yeah, let’s go kick their asses!” When A-Train alone could find and kill all of them and there is absolutely nothing they could do to stop him. They should be constantly, horrendously, afraid. A handful of times they made it clear like, if there’s one supe in there, we’re all dead. But they quickly forgot that concept. And when supes fought the “good guys,” they didn’t remember to turn their powers up. Stormfront could splatter whole groups without breaking a sweat, but against actual terrorists threatening her life, she just kind of gently pushed them. You know, using lightning. Which is totally how electricity works.
The Boys is a fun romp. But I feel it could have been a lot more. It could have been Alan Moore or Game of Thrones. When Thrones started to lose it was when it got too big. When it was about people doing their messed-up lives in a weird environment, that was damn interesting. When it was about a zillion zombies and dragons obliterating cities and mopey teen idols being resurrected because they’re too popular to kill, that’s not as fun.
The last episode of The Boys was a lot of metaphors crammed in and that can be annoying. The three women beating up the Nazi was not especially subtle. We get it. You don’t have to plaster the screen to have a message. They do that a lot. Like we better put this all in caps and underlined so they understand. Respect your viewers and give them a little credit.
The big bad guy in the show is Homelander. It’s alternately Edgar, but he isn’t used much. Sometimes they get Homelander right, but the last episode missed it. Making him just a 2D bad guy of immense power and evil is wrong. That’s Star Wars. Which is fine for Star Wars. Homelander was raised by scientists. They say that a number of times and dig at that but then drop it and make him 2D again. Killing Madeleine was a mistake that should have derailed the fragile mind.
In Watchmen fashion, the Heroes beat the superhero Homelander not by blasting and punching, but by holding up a cellphone. That’s how you do it. And that’s interesting.
But the writer, in a big misstep, had the final scene of Homelander jerking it on the skyline reassuring himself, “I can do anything I want.” I feel that was a #metoo moment and overplayed like beating the Nazi with girl power. It was excessive. Not cuz he was jerking it. The reason it’s a misstep is because he CAN do anything he wants. He doesn’t need to fantasize about that, it’s absolutely true. You don’t fantasize about taking out the trash. That’s not a fantasy. The only thing that keeps Homelander in check is his own shattered personality. And they don’t play that. What he should have been saying to himself is, “everyone loves me.” That’s his weakness and fear. That’s why holding up the cellphone worked. Because you can’t hurt him, you can’t stop him, but you can make him unpopular and he is petrified of that. He doesn’t know how to be human and he’s afraid he’s going to be found out. And it’s the only reason he doesn’t just eradicate everyone and everything, which he absolutely can do. That’s a 3D villain. You can’t #metoo Homelander because he’s a superhero. None of us can relate to Homelander’s powers. We can relate to his weaknesses, however.