‘The Boys’: What makes the anti-hero attractive?

The genre of dark fantasy explores disturbing aspects of humanity. It utilises stark depictions of human nature to remind us of bitter realities that often leave us with a feeling of discomfort. The Boys is no exception to this – it explores how regular humans might actually behave if they were given superpowers. The allure of ‘superheroes’ is connected to our fascination with the supernatural and desire to defy the laws of physics. We create them with many of the traits traditionally ascribed to God, such as infallibility and omni-benevolence. 

Superheroes fit somewhere on a spectrum between ‘human’ and ‘god’, depending on their powers and characteristics. The difference between all superheroes and the concept of god, however, is that heroes exist within our plain of existence while god does not. We therefore give them human traits that make them more relatable than the abstract idea of god. Part of our attraction to superheroes comes from the fact that we can imagine being in their shoes. In order to think of them as ‘super’ and not ‘sacred’, they must have human traits that we can empathise with. 

The Conventional Hero

Many of the Marvel and DC superheroes created in the twentieth century stand as good examples of ‘conventional superheroes’. They were created as idealistic representation of humans, who personify popular virtues of the time. Superman (created 1938) was an embodiment of traditional American values, acting as a symbol of liberty and patriotism. Batman (created 1939) was a symbol of nobility, in that he rose above the villains around him by refusing to kill anyone. The 1960s was a period of space exploration and racial tension in America. The heroes created in this period, Iron Man (1963) and Black Panther (1966), were given powers and origin stories that engage with these ideas.  

These conventional heroes were created with the power to fight off ‘evil’ and the discipline to only use this power for ‘good’. Not only are these heroes gifted with superhuman powers but they also have a perfect moral code, and superhuman discipline that prevents them from breaking it. If heroes were to exist, it is unlikely that they would have both super power and discipline. No person has complete control over their emotions and desires – this is part of what makes them human. It is hard to imagine a real human with both super power and discipline. Such a being would appear more god-like than human, or even superhuman for that matter. 

Heroes in The Boys

The superheroes in The Boys are very different from heroes of the past. They certainly have superhuman powers but do not possess the superhuman discipline of conventional heroes. They struggle with many of the temptations that the average person does, things like pride, greed, and lust. Starlight, the newest member of ‘The Seven’, is shocked and disgusted by how the other heroes behave and tries hard to only use her powers for ‘good’. In the first episode she is coerced into a sexual favour by The Deep, who she admits was one of her childhood icons. 

The company who create the heroes, Vaught, sexualise Starlight to appease the cut-throat media who report on them. Vaught use the heroes to generate massive profits and acquire political power, which means a lot of time and energy is spent on bolstering public support for the heroes who are treated like celebrities. They are constantly in the public eye and inevitably get caught up in ‘scandals’ that Vaught work tirelessly to cover up. This puts a lot of pressure on the heroes, who frequently have mental breakdowns due to all the stress that comes with their celebrity lifestyle.  

Unlike conventional heroes, in The Boys, heroes personify the popular vices that exist within modern society. The show provides an interesting commentary on celebrity and media culture, while also examining the ways power and fame test our moral fortitude. Vaught created these heroes without their consent and force them to run around fighting crime whilst being under constant public scrutiny. Homelander is especially concerned about what the public think of him. He is deeply hurt when the media eventually turn on him and is no longer adored by the masses. At one point, he is so infuriated that he imagines killing a crowd of innocent citizens who are ‘booing’ at him. Yet after all these atrocities there is still something enticing about heroes from The Boys. 

Why are we attracted to heroes in The Boys?

Traditional superheroes are born out of our insecurity and sense of inadequacy. We give them courage and determination, though also strip them of almost all human vice – they are rarely depicted to be selfish or envious. We create them with the traits that we want to possess; or more accurately, the traits we think we want to possess. The irony in this is that by creating them without faults they feel fictional, because we strip them of their humanity making them less relatable. The realist within us recognises the inconsistency behind conventional heroes; we create them in humanoid form while giving them physical and psychological traits far beyond human capacity. If by some miracle we did make humans super, they would undoubtedly battle with following a moral code and not using their powers to fulfil their own selfish ends. 

The heroes in The Boys are more humble and realistic depictions of how a person with superpowers would behave and are not born out of our insecurity and sense of inadequacy in the same way. They are created with super power but are far from disciplined, constantly struggling with temptation and guilt that sometimes has profound consequences on their mental health. These heroes have many flaws, much like the heroes we admire in the real world. This makes them feel more human, allowing us to empathise with there struggles more than the conventional heroes of the past.

Concluding Remarks

Our attraction to superheroes comes from the fact that they are still human. As humans, our empathy can only be stretched so far. Once this stops becoming the case, our attraction towards them diminishes. A god is not super – a god something far beyond human comprehension. While there are similarities in our yearning for superheroes and god, we do not create them for the same reasons why we believe in god. We create them to imagine being them and we can only imagine being like them if they are, to a certain degree, still like us. It is the human flaws that make these heroes ‘super’.

Humans struggle with power – it often reveals a persons true self. Without limitations, we see what a person truly wants to be and not what they are forced to be. We would like to imagine superheroes are entirely ‘good’ at their core, while also imagining them to be just like us but if we created superheroes that were just like us, they would not be perfect at their core. Many people fantasise over being a superhero with unconstrained power; however, to paraphrase the word of the Baron and philosopher Lord Acton: ‘power tends to corrupt [humans] and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. We are flawed beings who are tempted by power and are prone to error – The Boys comes as a sharp reminder of this. If humans were ever to be created with superpowers, they would undoubtedly struggle many of the vices that we see on the show.

Aaron Fagan

Aaron is a brand ambassador for a multi-network platform. He is interested in the psychology behind consumer interaction.