In many ways, CW’s Arrow series was the catalyst for the modern Golden Age of Comic Book TV shows. From the show came multiple spin-offs that eventually culminated into one of TV’s most ambitious crossover event! The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) attempted to replicate the success of their films’ crossover event for TV using Netflix’s The Defenders. Unfortunately, it ended with underwhelming results. There have even been indie comic book adaptations in series like Preacher, Riverdale and Lucifer. So far, this wave hasn’t been showing any signs of slowing down. Truth be told, I was never a big fan of comic book TV shows. More often than not, they’re low-budget spin-offs that leech off the clout and prestige of their cinematic or literary sources. Occasionally, however, there is that one great series with the right amount of brains, heart, action and of course, a great villain.
For the longest time, it was David Tennant’s Kilgrave from Jessica Jones. A superpowered sexual sadist with a rich and fascinating pathos. Someone you loved to hate and hated the fact that he was just so damn charismatic. He was the perfect villain…until I saw The Boys and met Anthony Starr’s Homelander. Believe me, when I say, he makes Kilgrave look sane.
A Super Satire
We’ve seen deconstructions of superhero archetypes in the past and self-aware parodies of the trope and genre. Prominent examples of the former can be found in films like Captain America: Civil War and Watchmen. The latter in the tongue-in-cheek fun of Deadpool 2 and Kick-Ass. Some would argue that comic book films have moved beyond the confines of black-and-white with Byronic heroes the likes of Tony Stark, Oliver Queen, Daredevil and Luke Cage. I’d disagree, for there is still one hallowed trope that has yet to be brought low, lest it gains the ire of comic book traditionalist at large. I am talking about the quintessential “moral paragon” archetype. Found in blue, shiny boy scouts like Superman and Captain America.
One thing to understand about these paragon characters is the fact that their narrative is nearly-always, if not wholly, defined within a flat story arc. In the past, I’ve discussed how this core narrative has made such heroes so iconic, using the example of Superman. In contrast to your typical heroic monomyth in which we see heroes go on a journey of self-discovery and change or rebirth, the flat arc proposes a different truth. That our heroes were right all along and that their struggle is to right the wrongs of the world with their inherent goodness and morals. They don’t need to change for the world, the world needs to change through them.
Think about it. All of Marvel’s Captain America films are about the good patriot standing his ground and never budging in the face of opposition. Even Zack Snyder’s more melancholic depiction of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman can’t run away from its brighter roots. For all of Clark’s hemming and hawing, the answer is still: you’re Superman, be Superman and stay Superman. So while we’ve had a slew of brooding anti-heroes and flawed defenders in contrast to moral paragons, we’ve never had a blatant satiric figure of the archetype per se. At least within the greater cultural imagination…until now. Enter The Boys’ Homelander.
Much like Clark Kent and Steve Rogers, Homelander’s past has him borne to a good ole American suburban household. There he learned about the values of truth, justice and the American Way. In an allusion to Superman’s Jesus symbolism, Homelander also claims to be an upright, God-fearing Christian. Except for the fact that the aforementioned origin story is a lie. In reality, he is a lab-experiment created by the corrupt Vought Corporation to be their flagship mascot/enforcer/product. Everything about his life is a lie but it’s all he ever knows. His worldview is so entrenched in this twisted idea of him being God’s answer to the world’s problems, he truly believes that the despicable things he does are for some higher cause.
One particularly chilling scene in the first season’ fourth episode of The Boys sums up Homelander’s entire ethos as a character. When he hears of a terrorist hijacking of a plane, Homelander and his partner Queen Maeve race to save the hostages. In an attempt to gain some good press for the company. Homelander puts on a smile and show for the passengers as he violently dispatches the assailants. Then, he screws up majorly. He accidentally destroys the plane’s controls and is unable to safely land the plane. In cruel, cold calculus he deduces that the best thing to do is to save none of the passengers, lest they tell of Homelander’s failure. He goes as far as to threaten to blast them with his optic laser beams if they dare try to save themselves. It gets worse though.
Homelander then proceeds to appear at the crash site of the plane he failed to save while reporters are there. He lies to the public, telling them that this would have never happened if Homelander and other superheroes were allowed in the military. He gives this amazing speech about how he’s going to make those terrorists pay and that the whole world will soon know his power. It’s clear that this predatory egomaniac who is meant to be a distorted mirror of moral paragons and flat arc narratives. Where in lieu of banishing the lies of the world with a noble truth, he supplants the ugly truth with a palatable lie.
Portrait of a Psychopath
Homelander, however, is more than just a walking satire of superheroes. The best kind of villains is the ones that are able to inspire a sense of ambiguity and intrigue. Sympathetic enough for the audience to engage on an emotional level and yet horrid enough to give us pause to consider their actions. This is where I feel actor Anthony Starr succeeds as Homelander. A big part of Homelander’s character is that he is a performer. He has to be charismatic and able to convince the public of his saviour image. Not unlike a lot of performers, he suffers from cognitive dissonance.
He struggles to reconcile his psychopathic bloodlust with his perceived altruistic nature. A good portion of the series is dedicated to him trying to make real the fake backstory given to him. For all his power, fame and riches, he’s still empty and hollow inside. He longs for the illusion of real human connection in the form of family. All he has, though, are his hordes of screaming fans whom he feels entirely disengaged with, and company yesmen who stroke his ego. Even his fellow superhero mates fail to fill that void within him. He was born as a lab experiment and treated like a god when what he needed was to be seen as a person. As the series progresses, we soon learn that these desires manifest in strange ways.
The closest thing Homelander ever had to a mother was his handler and manager, Madelyn Stillwell. The only person capable of having any control over Homelander. We see her coddling Homelander and giving him physical affection whenever the man is in distress. Things get even more complicated when he begins to develop an oedipal complex for Stillwell. It certainly doesn’t help that she’s constantly nursing her actual newborn baby while dealing with her heroes. Stillwell soon catches on to Homelander’s secret, maternal lust and begins to manoeuvre Homelander through sexual favours and emotional availability. A dangerous game to say the least.
In some demented, twisted sense, she is his Lois Lane. A female love interest used to humanize our hero, or in this case villain. Strip away the super strength, speed and costume, deep down Homelander is a sad, insecure man-child crying for affection. It would be sad if the guy weren’t so bloody terrifying! Again, Starr does an absolutely phenomenal job in bringing the character to life. Without giving too much away, his story arc in the first season ends with some pretty shocking results. Trust me; you’ll have to see it yourself to believe it.
There are many reasons to watch Amazon Prime’s The Boys but by far the best reason I can give is its portrayal of Homelander. A villain who is both deeply charismatic and repugnant in personality. A giant middle-finger to the concept of superheroes and comic book tropes at large. Not a lot of shows can claim to have an emotionally stunted, sexually perverse, violent psychopath of a Superman. If there ever comes a time in which comic book films and TV shows die off, Prime’s The Boys‘ Homelander would have played a major role in bringing about its downfall.