Since their entrance into popular culture in the 1930s, superheroes have been intrinsically linked to the American identity. And as The Boys showrunner Eric Kripke noted in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “The myth of superheroes themselves […] doesn’t really apply as cleanly today, because there’s these undeniable fascist underpinnings to it. They’re there to protect white, patriotic America.”
Admittedly, some examples are more overt than others — it’s right there in the name for Captain America — while Superman is mild-mannered Clark Kent, an All-American farm boy in a red and blue getup, who stands for truth and justice, some of the less harmless American ideologies, in theory. Then, there are the heroes who quietly deal in American exceptionalism. Iron Man 3’s take on War Machine sees a decorated veteran work in conjunction with the military industrial complex as the “Iron Patriot.” Sam Wilson, the Falcon, is introduced to the MCU via a support group for wounded military veterans. Comic and screen versions of Green Lantern served in the Air Force, as did Captain Marvel. The military itself has taken advantage of the trend; Newsweek reported that films like Iron Man 1 and 2, Captain America, and Captain Marvel all collaborated with the Department of Defense for access to locations, extras, or technical advice in exchange for script approval by a military consultant.
And then there’s Homelander from The Boys. From the get go, The Boys has never even attempted to be subtle in its critique, criticism, and sometimes straight-up parody of Marvel and DC. By doing so, the show works perfectly as a critique of American nationalism and the role superheroes play in upholding and promoting pro-military and pro-American ideologies. Homelander isn’t just a parody of Captain America or Superman. From the beginning, and even more in season 2, he’s a walking, talking embodiment of an egocentric nation obsessed with military power, from the perspective of onlookers.
According to a recent poll, 72% of non-Americans said they believed the United States didn’t take other countries into consideration when making foreign policy decisions. How suitable, then, that the first glimpse we get of Homelander is his massive, sweeping American flag cape billowing in the wind as he descends upon a group of criminals. (The parallels to Zack Snyder’s Jesus imagery in Man of Steel doesn’t seem like a coincidence either.) He’s not just there to save the day: Homelander smiles his pearly-white teeth for the cameras, and he’s oh-so-happy to oblige when a couple of stunned teens ask for a photo.
The second the cameras turn away and he’s out of earshot, the illusion folds, and the audience gets their first taste of the real the super. We learn about halfway through season 1 that someone at Vought is responsible for a drug called “Compound V” falling into the hands of international criminals all over the globe, but it takes a few more episodes until it’s finally revealed that Homelander himself was the one who had deliberately sent the serum out to international terrorists to create “supe terrorists” that only he could stop.
The twist of Homelander’s deliberate creation of super-villains cribs from the United States military playbook, which has provided money, weapons, and other forms of support into “enemy” countries in order to influence regime changes and American favor. In the 2000s alone, the United States have sent weapons and financial backing to influence regime change in Venezuela, Yugoslavia, Palestinian Territories, and countless other countries, regardless of that funding’s impact on the wellbeing of the inhabitants of said country.
Homelander’s relentlessly gory attacks on innocent lives have their own parallels to extremes; in the wake of the United States’ $110 billion financial backing of a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the United Nations asserted “show(s) no regard for international law or the lives, dignity, and rights” of the civilians who are suffering.” And like Homelander, the facts are obfuscated enough that few object to the actions; recent Gallup polls report that a majority of Americans support unprovoked, preemptive military action against countries that pose a potential threat, and that it’s important for America to be the #1 military power in the world.
Through Homelander, The Boys explores the darker side of American patriotism — one driven not by the need for freedom, but the need to be the most powerful there is. It delivers an image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man draped in an American flag who asks not what he can do for the people he’s protecting, but what people will do for him, if he protects them – a disheartening but unsurprising parallel to results of a 2018 survey that found the majority Western Europeans don’t respect individual liberties of its own people.
As comic book movies reckon with their connection to nationalist American ideologies, it’s not only refreshing but vital that a show like The Boys has come along to challenge what have become ingrained ideas. While the series isn’t the only show out there breaking the norms of what it means to be a “superhero” show (see: Watchmen), to see a piece of entertainment media provide such a brutal, unabashed critique of an international military superpower is a shift toward broader perspectives. Homelander represents a view of America very few Americans actually see.