On ‘The Boys,’ our superhero obsession births a familiar fascist
The following article contains spoilers for Season 3 of “The Boys.”
When comic writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby needed an avatar to sock the Führer in the jaw, they conjured someone who looked like the Aryan ideal.
Captain America’s Hitler haymaker, which appeared on the cover of the superhero’s debut months before Pearl Harbor, was an inspired act of Jewish American chutzpah. The origins of the character’s powers – a genetic, eugenically-inflected experiment orchestrated by a German scientist – are deeply odd in retrospect.
In Capt. Steve Rogers, we have a vision of Nietzsche’s self-actualized Übermensch as warped by the Nazis: a blond, blue-eyed supersoldier better than the bulk of humanity. Thankfully, Cap, true to his historic punch, doesn’t entertain the concept of a master race or flirt with a brand of fascism draped in the stars and stripes. But what if he did – and what if he had followers?
Marvel has explored the possibility of Captain America gone bad in the recent past, unmasking Rogers as a sleeper agent of the Nazi-affiliated organization Hydra in 2016. But Amazon Prime’s “The Boys,” which uses tropes from Marvel and DC in bringing to life Vought International, a corporatized corps of superheroes (Supes), founded by an ex-Nazi scientist and enmeshed in contemporary American politics, has an even more trenchant take on how the star-spangled icon could go haywire.
Season 3, which ended with a bang last week, gives us two characters that serve as Captain America analogues: Homelander, a towheaded sociopath decked out like an American flag who we’ve been following since the first season, and the new character of Soldier Boy, who was manufactured in the 1940s by a Nazi expat to America (and who, in a profoundly ironic moment, is shown in a newsreel liberating Nazi camps).
Like the MCU’s Captain America, Soldier Boy was in suspended animation for decades and arrives in a contemporary America he scarcely recognizes – gay couples holding hands in public; posters for presidential candidates with the last name “Singer.” Dressed in black tactical gear and toting a shield, Soldier Boy has no ideology to speak of, save a desire to take revenge on the teammates who took him out of commission. Homelander, on the other hand, has a love affair with a superwoman, Stormfront, who turns out to be a World War II-era war criminal, and rejects her Nazi worldview in place of a cult of his own personality. The terms of their lover’s quarrel are plucked straight from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.”
In one of many NSFW scenes, Stormfront comforts Homelander by telling him he will “lead an army of Aryan Übermensch to their victory.” She is, as her wont, propping up the racialized interpretation of Nietzsche that the Nazis and Vought’s founder believed in, with the end goal of replacing humanity with a racially pure horde of genetically-enhanced superbeings. But Homelander rebukes her, saying there is no need for a master race.
“I’m the master race: That’s the point!”
With that quip, Homelander, whose powers better recall Superman than Captain America, touches on the Übermensch’s concern for the individual that Nietzsche articulated – and likely exposes a hazard of this being’s emergence via genetic experiment rather than self-invention.
For Nietzsche, the Übermensch was not a superbeing or despot, but one who, after the death of God, avoided nihilism by freeing himself of worldly convention and his own shallow humanity in a perpetual act of “self-overcoming.” While Homelander isn’t much for this introspective and creative struggle, like the Übermensch, he makes his own moral code and allows himself everything. But he crucially departs from what Nietszche outlines by denying that he was ever human and imposing his own god status on others. This point is driven home when, after learning Stormfront committed suicide, he forces a would-be jumper off the roof to her death.
“Why do people destroy their gods?” Homelander muses, just before he kills the person he’s meant to save. “How is it fair that you get saved while a beautiful, perfect god gets killed?” (This itself appears to be a riff of the “God is dead” bit from Nietszche’s “The Gay Science.”)
This moment sets Homelander, who had previously been a Machiavellian, but otherwise id-driven player, on a course toward demagoguery. At his birthday pageant, someone in the crowd shouts, “Homelander, your Nazi died.” Homelander’s co-worker, Starlight, tries to mitigate the whole “in love with a Nazi” thing by saying Homelander made a mistake and is human. But Homelander insists he doesn’t make mistakes. And he’s done apologizing for what people perceive to be missteps.
“All my life people have tried to control me,” Homelander roars. “Rich people, powerful people tried to muzzle me. Cancel me. Keep me impotent and obedient like a f–ing puppet. And it worked because I allowed it to work. And I guess what? If they can control me then you can bet your ass they can control you. They already do – you just don’t realize it.”
The dog whistles are set to foghorn – even though the people he’s speaking about, like Vought’s CEO, Stan Edgar, don’t appear to be Jewish. It’s enough to rile up the Stormchasers, the hardcore fans of Stormfront who parade around in a mix of Americana, swastika armbands and kevlar emblazoned with SS-style lightning bolts. But Homelander’s impromptu speech also reaches the generally disaffected. That’s its unwitting brilliance.
After his televised outburst, Homelander, who says he alone can save (or perhaps fix) America’s situation, gets a “massive 44% uptick with white males in the Rust Belt.” But we also see him appealing to a suburban teacher, Todd, who by the season’s end leads a cheer after Homelander melts the face of someone who threw a plastic bottle in his direction.
The culture war presented in “The Boys” has clear teams. There are those who support Starlight, a sexual assault survivor hoping to expose her coworkers as murderers. On the other side are those who are unbothered by Homelander’s Nazi romance and subscribe to his false claims that Starlight is a child groomer. None of this is subtle.
The imagery of crowds of Stormchasers, one dressed like the QAnon shaman, another toting a sign that reads “Camp Stormfront,” in the same font as the “Camp Auschwitz” hoodie, are low-hanging satirical fruit. are low hanging satirical fruit. But “The Boys” lobs that fruit in the direction of a factious superhero fandom, making for sophisticated commentary. Those inclusive liberals who, as their T-shirts say, believe Starlight, are an outspoken segment of fans, and so are the Homelander diehards who, in our reality, brought the Punisher and Captain America insignias to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“The Boys,” with its catalogue of heroes, is canny for not discounting the group of fans who cling to emblems that seem antithetical to acts of treason or bigotry – or who, like the out-of-touch Soldier Boy, are mystified by superhero media’s efforts at inclusion. While the ethos of comics has, almost from the start, opposed racism and power-mad strongmen, fans who interpret it differently aren’t delusional. There is enough in that material – the story of a scrawny kid made superhuman through science; an alien Man of Steel, unanswerable to any government; a vigilante with limitless arsenal of semiautomatic weapons – to appeal to any Proud Boy prospect.
Just as Hitler misunderstood Nietszche (with some help from Nietzsche’s sister), comic-genre devotees are now failing to grasp what exactly Captain America and Superman stand for. What makes “The Boys” brilliant is its willingness to not invalidate their point of view, but to argue its essential, dangerous plausibility.