The Boys introduces us to a world in which superheroes are real and have become mega-celebrities. They’re unavoidable and almost universally adored, appearing in every corner of the media from the gritty, crime-filled 6 O’Clock news to colourful cereal adverts. Imagine if Robert Downey Jr strolled off the red carpet following an Avengers premiere and leapt straight into a genuine Iron Man suit, saving lives and busting villains for real. He – and the rest of the Marvel crew – would surely be the most beloved individuals on Earth. Charismatic celebrities and life-saving titans? What can a mere movie star do to compete?
Through the depiction of these “Supes” as the ultimate celebrities, the show is able to exaggerate and highlight some nasty and all too real issues plaguing celebrity culture, the media surrounding it and the news that feeds off of it. Social commentary rarely comes wrapped in this much spandex, so try to keep focused.
Compound V And Celebrity Childhood
Compound V is the in-universe drug that gives the Supes their powers as babies, not “God’s intervention” like the public is untruthfully led to believe. (Maybe this universe’s God actually is a gawky scientist in a sterile lab coat, but if that’s the case it’s not made explicit.)
Administered by the shady Vought organisation with the consent of their parents, the drug functions as a metaphor for the unrelenting parental pressure that child celebrities are frequently subjected to in order to succeed. As we learn more about the Supes’ varying shades of maladjustment to the world and its pressures, the negative effects of a superpowered “Compound V” childhood become evident, and they very much resemble the struggles faced by real celebrities as they grow up.
A-Train’s childhood is suggested to have been managed (or should I say run?) by his father. Constantly training and striving to be faster on the racetrack, their relationship leans closer to coach and athlete than father and son. In adulthood, this desire for improvement becomes increasingly warped and reaches a breaking point when he’s overtaken by a younger, faster athlete.
He takes additional doses of Compound V – this time acting as a super steroid – to keep his performance up, growing manic in his desire to perform and ruining his health in the process. With A-Train’s arc, the show tells us that raising kids to place their entire sense of self-worth in being an undisputed champion sets their whole identity up to shatter sooner or later with potentially life-ruining results.
Thankfully, Starlight’s/Annie’s mother dragging her to pageants as a child, just like countless thousands of America’s real parents, doesn’t seem to have any serious ramifications on her character in adulthood. Instead, her mother’s apathy towards Annie’s concerns or hesitations, as well as the implication that superhero-dom was her mother’s plan from the start speaks to the issue of celebrity parents living through their children, regardless of the child’s own wishes. As Annie’s story plays out, she hides abuse and misery from her mother because of a desire to please her and knowledge that any grievance will be met with accusations of selfishness. Ultimately, Annie is just an asset to her mother, not a daughter.
Homelander’s lab-based youth without any parental figures at all is the most poignant statement on the tragedy of celebrity childhoods. For real celebrity children even without the complete absence of parents, growing up in the careless entertainment industry without support or proper nurturing can stunt someone emotionally, leaving them unable to fully engage with normal, healthy relationships. Homelander, more so than any of the other Supes, had nobody resembling a caring figure as a child. As an adult, that leaves him as a man so utterly broken that he almost resembles a complete psychopath. If it weren’t for his strange, Oedipal relationship with Vought’s Madelyn Stillwell he’d have no emotional ties at all. Now, of course, this isn’t to say that rough childhoods breed psychopaths, but the emotional vacuum of Hollywood can certainly lead vulnerable kids down the path to becoming damaged adults.
Demonisation/Idolisation Of Public Figures
In the show’s world, The Seven are practically worshipped as flawless gods in the same way that some regard their favourite celebrities, a treatment shown as so misguided that it’s almost funny. As viewers, we see the colossal amount of planning and coordination that goes into building up their pristine personas and masking anything resembling a flaw, and oh boy are there flaws: Ranging from jaded cynicism to perversion and full-on psychopathy. By presenting these heroes as deeply, deeply troubled, the show is suggesting to us that many celebrities are not worthy of being idols, it goes deeper than that though.
Hughie, Billy and – in a way – the viewer represent the opposite viewpoint to the one represented by the show’s public. Rather than worship the Supes they demonise them, a reaction that in most cases is also misguided. Most of the members of The Seven are initially presented to us as villains, plain and simple. However, as we learn more about them, we see the reasons behind their flaws and develop an understanding of why they act so amorally. It doesn’t excuse their wrongdoings, but it helps us dispel the black and white thinking that leads to both Billy Butcher’s “Kill all Supes” mantra and the public’s “Worship all Supes” belief.
In our world, the same black and white thinking can be found in the internet’s historical love of Jennifer Lawrence, Chris pratt and more recently: Keanu Reeves. It’s worth remembering that – whilst probably perfectly fine folks – they’re all just people capable of the same mistakes and possessing the same flaws as the rest of us. They shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, even if John Wick is one of the coolest characters given to us by Hollywood in recent years.
In the same way, much of the flak thrown at stars like Adam Sandler, Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber might be a little too strong. People have spoken about “hating” Justin Bieber in the same way they’d hate a man who broke into their house and urinated on their dog; I really wish that was an exaggeration. There are famous figures who have genuinely done vile, unforgivable things and deserve whatever hate they receive, but the ones who might just be a little too selfish, arrogant or opportunistic for our liking probably shouldn’t be treated like the Antichrist.
The Hidden Fiction Of Celebrities
As far as the average US citizen is concerned in The Boys, Homelander is Mr America: wholesome, courageous and warmhearted. He grew up in a regular home, with regular parents and had regular hobbies; it just so happens that he was blessed with superpowers too. By the end of the show we know that all the above is untrue, in fact the whole story is about as factual as an actual Superman comic.
All of The Seven are at least implied to have similar fabricated backstories, and they all play characters when in the public eye; how else could these morally depraved villains gain the love of the people? In a similar vein, some of the most popular figures in entertainment are also participating in the same secret “meta-performance” which sees them hiding their unappealing rough edges and controversial views from the public, essentially playing a character at all times.
Take, for example, Homelander’s “MTV Cribs” style home tour. It really smacks you over the head with the idea that celebrities’ “real lives” are yet another layer of fiction to be gobbled up by an adoring public, not really any different to the dressed up versions of Snow White or Elsa prancing around Disneyland, trained to say the perfect pandering words that’ll make you fall for their charm.
You could swear that the emotion in Homelander’s voice is genuine as he recalls tales of beloved family members and cherished memories to his audience. It’s all lies though: no family, no hobbies, no real childhood to speak of. Obviously that’s not to say that the colourful, vibrant personalities of our favourite stars are masking empty husks of people, but maybe it’d be wise to take how they present themselves with a pinch of salt.
When say, The Rock appears on a chat show, telling relatable anecdotes and sharing clips of him and his co-stars having a blast on the set of a Fast and Furious film, it’s to maintain his personal brand and help promote the film above all else. The anecdotes aren’t like the ones your buddies might tell you at the bar, they’re approved, planned and rehearsed; the clips of the co-stars goofing around aren’t like the silly Facebook videos from your cousin’s wedding reception, they’re promotional material for the film. Not to imply that The Rock is hiding a horrific darkness to his personality or anything as severe as that, but when he represents himself in public, there’s still a layer of artificiality that exists to further his professional interests and those of Hollywood at large. Celebrities aren’t your friends, they’re products and you’re the customer.
Celebrities aren’t to be feared like the reckless Supes of The Boys, they certainly aren’t dangerous enough to require a ragtag gang of vigilantes to hunt them down. With that said, the same pressures and mistreatment that warps the mental state of Supes, affects celebrities in less drastic, but still heartbreaking ways. Sometimes those pressures cause the stars to act out, alienating their fan base and earning the disapproval of the public. In those situations, it can be useful to remember the hostile environment of the entertainment industry surrounding these figures and the reasons they may have been led to act immorally. They shouldn’t be automatically condemned for failing to live up to the image they present to the public. After all, that image is – to a large extent – fiction, it exists to keep you engaged with the entertainment world and it has no qualms about misleading you to achieve that. Enjoy the personalities shown to us by the media, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you know them like your own friends and family