The rise of the anti-superhero: TV shows like ‘The Boys’ prove we’re all bastards

What would you do with unlimited power, money and spandex? Judging by the recent surge in morally-challenged supers on our screens, it wouldn't be good

On an atmospherically dank and rainy August weekend, I was silently, hatefully, scrolling through Twitter, wondering what had happened to my life, when I suddenly saw Batman trending… again. In a macabre twist on Groundhog Day, it seems that Bruce Wayne’s parents are doomed to die every few years until every 30-something actor in Hollywood has played the caped crusader. A bit like national conscription, but for rich white men.

So once again we had a trailer for a new Batman movie. Opening to the sound of gaffer tape being unwrapped – making the auditory association with the decorating I was doing that little bit darker – this was the great unveiling of the new Dark Knight. So, there he was, removing his mask – all pensive and tortured in his little cave of self-flagellation. Was it a member of Blink-182 when they were going through their serious phase back in the early ’00s? My Chemical Romance in a particularly bad mood? No – it was the one from the ‘The Twilight Interview with the Vampire Slayer Diaries Saga’, all made up as the new emo Batman. Only, he couldn’t even get his own name right. When one of the heavily stylised Gotham grunts asked him who he was, he got it wrong – he said ‘I am Vengeance’. I don’t know why they kept a blooper in the first trailer. I swear Vengeance is from the Marvel universe… I haven’t really been paying attention – there are a lot of them to keep track of.

The Batman trailer
Robert Pattinson stars as Bruce Wayne in Matt Reeves’ dark new blockbuster ‘The Batman’. Credit: Warner Bros.

A lot of them. I admit I gave up on superhero movies somewhere around Christian Bale’s final swish of the cape and my enthusiasm – never that effusive in the first place – had been waning for a while. I therefore felt quite vindicated when Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice bombed; maybe, maybe Hollywood would finally realise that people were getting a tad bored. Not a bit of it, obviously. They’re still plugging away – the cinematic universes ever expanding, so much so that they will all eventually fuse together and engulf our own universe, forcing us all to speak in clunky exposition and witty one-liners for the rest of time.

But, during that glorious Batman v Superman moment, it did seem that opinions and expectations were shifting. Superman was just too ‘good’, too squeaky clean – truth, justice and the American way (although he was clearly an immigrant) was all a bit old hat. The clean-cut image couldn’t account for all the human foibles that would inevitably creep in after so long on this wretched planet, and it certainly didn’t reflect our dark times. Haven’t we learned anything in the last few years?! No one’s good… we’re all utter bastards. Yes – even you, you bastard.

Henry Cavill Superman
Henry Cavill as Superman in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’. Credit: Warner Bros.

Let’s start with Vengeance… sorry… Batman. He’s not a superhero – he is a damaged vigilante with a flying rodent and rubber fetish, and the monetary means at his disposal to dish out his own form of justice. He is already half way to the anti-hero. But the ones who truly embrace it? They’re the fun ones. The flaws, the manipulation of the powers they’ve been gifted, the moral grey areas in which they operate, the powers they misuse, the cataclysmic – though understandable – mistakes they make.

Maybe this is why the anti-hero started to creep in. The Boys returns to Amazon Prime today for a second season – and realises on screen the thought that has surely crossed all of our minds at some point: ‘If I had superpowers, I would absolutely use them for my own gain.’ Forget a mentor professor or a wise elder statesman guiding you to be your best self – you would absolutely sign to a showbiz agency, oversee your own line of action figures, homeware, and possibly sex toys. You’d be the consulting executive producer on the story of your life… a six-part trilogy, probably made by Marvel Studios and starring the good-looking one from Stranger Things.

The Boys season 2
‘The Boys’ season two premieres on Amazon Prime Video today (September 4). Credit: Prime Video

This is why the likes of Misfits (back on Netflix – it’s great – dive in), The Umbrella Academy, and… er… Hancock speak to us all. We wouldn’t use telekinesis to knock out a supervillain, we would use it to turn the kettle on and bring the biscuits from the cupboard so we wouldn’t have to move from our sofa and pause Succession; if we could fly – we’d spend the weekend in Antigua and make ourselves invisible so no one would see us creeping into the presidential suite. It speaks to something of which we are all subconsciously aware – that, given an iota of money, power, or privilege, most people turn into Superpricks (not you, AOC), refusing to be accountable for their own actions and acting like deities on earth, unapologetic and ploughing on through all the damage and havoc they wreak. To see that realised on screen and enhanced to a ridiculous degree is strangely reassuring.

Fill a world with deeply flawed characters like those in The Boys – ones who may aspire to being something better, yet constantly fail or are usurped by their own inner demons, or worse (better?) still, unlikable characters who know it and never apologise, positively revelling in their unlikableness, and watch an audience relate to them quicker than you can say ‘Second Term in November’. In short, the anti-hero is what we demand, and what we deserve.

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