Going into this year, I did not expect that the second season of Eric Kripke’s The Boys would cement it as one of the most sharply anti-capitalist TV shows I’d watch in 2020 — especially given the series’ home of Amazon Prime Video.
The world of The Boys is one where the forces of capital usually win out and economic concerns are at the forefront of the action. Robin’s tragic death is instantly-equated with a financial payout, the Vought drapes its heroes in marketing lingo and superheroism is frequently framed as an economic rather than moral enterprise.
In another scene, an idealistic Starlight asks
“Why would you get into this business if not to save the world?”
The list goes on, but many of these concerns coalesce in the sequence where Hughie and Butcher meet. Following a brief introduction, the pair walk down a crowded New York street lit by glossy Vought signage and corporate excess. Butcher explains that hundreds of people are killed as a result of supe-related ‘collateral damage’ each year and that these intrinsic costs of the system are ‘swept under the rug’ through an alliance of corporate lobbying and complicity by apathetic citizen-consumers.
“Movie tickets. Merchandising. Theme parks. Video games. A global multi-billion dollar industry supported by corporate lobbyists and politicians on both sides but the main reason that you won’t hear about it is because the public don’t want to know about it. See, People love that cozy feeling that Supes give them. Some golden cunt to swoop out of the sky and save the day so you don’t gotta do it yourself.”
¬ Billy Butcher in “The Name of the Game”, The Boys (2019)
This monologue acts as a rejection of the popular ‘beautiful corporations’ and consumer-citizens model of understanding modern capitalism. The Boys see such an ethos as a shallow, superfluous and poor substitute for actual class struggle.
Writing for the New Yorker, Maya Phillips says that:
“The central achievement of both “Watchmen” and “The Boys” is how they spit on the fantasy of caped crusaders saving the world. In a genre often beholden to a binary of good and evil, they introduced a more shaded framework, in which injustice flows as much from self-appointed saviors as it does from social dysfunction.”
Right from the outset, the series’ two protagonists — Starlight and Hughie — are framed as agents of Marx’s Proletariat.
Hughie is initially introduced as a sales clerk at a small electronics store. The framing of this scene isn’t explicitly Marxist in nature but it’s an apt illustration for the Proletariat described in Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto. Like them, Hughie is:
“an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”
The series deploys a similar sort of imagery when it comes to Starlight, working to frame her as not just as someone with superhuman abilities but as a member of the working class aspiring towards something greater than her suburban life.
Even if Hughie and Starlight are separated by their gender, they remain tied together by a shared experience: class struggle. Likewise, it is by no accident that The Boys embody a diversity in race and gender identity that mostly-white, mostly-male lineup of the Seven eschews.
And if Hughie and Starlight are framed through depictions of their labor, the Supes are characterised by their class privilege. The Supes of The Boys are the subject of adoration and celebration by fans and wealthy enough to bend the institutions of the world to their will.
To demonstrate this, The Boys relies on images of skyscrapers whenever it wants to shift between the strata of the proletariat and that of the bourgeois. Where the sets and environments of Starlight and Hughie’s everyday lives are worn down, the headquarters of The Seven is pristine and professional.
Akin to real-world celebrities, privilege doesn’t just insulate the Supes from the consequences of their actions but also empowers them to function as powerful political actors. Homelander and Madelyn Stillwell’s ambitions to incorporate Supes into the military industrial complex embody this ceaseless drive for capital growth and blur the lines between celebrity and transnational bourgeois capitalist.
The second season of the series goes even further in this direction, introducing the neo-nazi Stormfront — who adopts the tactics and vocabulary of today’s alt-right in her push towards all too familiar goals of racial supremacy and ends up literally in-bed with the series’ embodiment of American exceptionalism, Homelander.
Like MachineGames’ Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, Season 2 of The Boys ditches the rhetoric of ‘couldn’t happen here’ and embraces the timely reality that American capitalism is an all too willing partner in crime for wannabe fascists.
By cloaking it in the glitz of celebrity and contemporary citizen-consumer culture, The Boys breathes new life into familiar expressions of class and class struggle and allows these concepts to resonate with and reach audiences that classical ur-texts like Capital cannot.
The first two seasons of The Boys are available on Amazon Prime Video.