In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons released Watchmen, a now iconic work that while not the first example, stands as one of the most profound and significant texts critical of the superhero genre. Though something of an oddity at the time, its influence is immeasurable with even the highest grossing and explicitly cartoonish superhero movies of the modern day feeling some kind of pressure to hold their genre to account, or otherwise gesture to the camera that they know this is all a little ridiculous.
Despite this routine appropriation of Moore’s ideas, very few stories ever actually come close to this thesis because in some way they all still prop the idea of the superhero up as something both good and necessary. Watchmen not only believes that superheroes are monstrous but near irredeemably so with even those who set out with the intention of doing good fundamentally being motivated by something more selfish and visceral. DC Comics who themselves published Watchmen have routinely missed this point, continually attempting to rebrand the Watchmen and their world as another superhero story about good and evil, albeit with a finer line between the two.
This perceived betrayal by DC as well as mistreatment of his other works is what initially lead Moore to cut ties with them and may well have contributed to his eventual wholesale rejection of the genre, a position he has only firmed on over the years. Moore remained critical of Zack Snyder’s attempt to film his book and was publicly unsupportive of Damon Lindelof’s 2019 sequel series on HBO (it is not publicly known whether Moore has watched either adaptation).
In an interview conducted by Folha de São Paulo in late 2016 but only publicly released in 2019, as Lindelof’s show was airing, Moore went as far as to label D.W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation the first superhero movie, a statement that seems ironically as in tune with Lindelof’s own thesis as any of the original text. Moore argues that the near-total whiteness of modern superhero stories points to some otherwise taboo fantasy of a white master race, the specific invocation of Birth of a Nation suggesting that superhero movies are often little more than a fantastical, narrativized representation of state violence against a constructed other, something that is made hard to deny when considering the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s well-documented ties to the U.S. military.
Although other works have attempted to levy their criticisms of the superhero genre not only at superficial tropes but at the overwhelming and often subtly manipulative nature of the comic-book movie industrial complex, none have been as successful as The Boys. An adaptation of the 2006 comic series written by Garth Ennis, The Boys posits a world where superheroes not only exist, but populate our media landscape to an even greater extent than in reality. Like Moore’s works, it believes almost without exception that superheroes are both deeply unstable and almost existentially terrifying.
Other costumed hero adaptations have toyed with having their own in-universe superhero media such as the sports-like coverage seen in My Hero Academia, but The Boys takes this a step further and makes it an inescapable part of the world. We see the inner workings of the companies behind these stories, we get into the heads of the executives pulling the strings. The real-world superheroes in The Boys serve as the stars of its fictional superhero movies and through this, we see a direct continuity between the decisions made by business people regarding this kind of media and their social consequences. It becomes blindingly clear that superhero movies can, with great ease, become a phenomenally powerful tool for propaganda. Where else could you tell stories about a heroic ubermensch, made great by genetic superiority and an ability to instill fear, and be praised as not only essential but progressive?
The most famous superhero in The Boys, and the show’s equivalent to both Superman and Captain America is Homelander (Anthony Starr), an all-American farmboy who was raised in a lab and has never actually stepped foot on a farm. The slow reveal of this fact through the first season sets the stage for a widespread questioning of his validity and sows the seeds for a bigger blow to the superhero establishment in the second season. It’s here where the world is introduced to Stormfront (Aya Cash), a conspicuously named superhero who is unequivocally a Nazi, though the show buries this reveal in allusions while she sells herself as a more neutral contrarian. While Homelander is passively homophobic and more than willing to leave people to die, Stormfront represents a temptation in the Western consciousness towards fascism for the sake of convenience.
Though Homelander’s creation was intentional, unlike Doctor Manhattan’s, this is the closest a superhero text has come to reflecting Moore’s thesis in a long time, because it holds superheroes up as uniquely vulnerable to ideas of inherent superiority and makes it very clear just whose idea of justice is actually being done. The genre’s potential for propaganda is made explicit by the ease with which they are able to sell racist anti-immigration rhetoric as a heroic fight against an imagined supervillain.
Moore’s allusion to Birth of a Nation becomes all the more poignant through this framework because we can see the power of giving people something bigger to believe in and using it to pump them with hate through the creation of villains. The Boys has Homelander act as an active supporter of anti-gay Christian organizations with him even performing baptisms at a Christian festival. Homelander’s pretense of being a Christian superhero feels far more sinister when considering the potential of religion being used to spread resentment. The supposedly Christian organizations he associates with are able to use the surface-level ideas of fighting for good he represents as a shield from criticism of their own ideas.
Moore argued that superheroes are targeted largely towards “an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on the relatively reassuring 20th century” but buried within this quote is the fact that the 20th century is only reassuring for some people. Homelander’s constructed public persona, like Doctor Manhattan’s role as both nuclear deterrent and weapon, is not so much a reminder of “the good times” as it is the white American establishment using ultimate power to draw a line in the sand and hold onto a control they believe would otherwise be slipping away. Stormfront is this fear made flesh.
These ideas, as Moore has suggested, are present on a smaller scale across all kinds of superhero media, our heroes are regularly fighting not for radical change, but for a return to the status quo. When Captain America goes up against government surveillance in The Winter Soldier, it is in service of the idea that once the bad people are gone, there is still a system worth preserving. When government organizations threaten harm for regular people, the insistence is always that somehow their soul has been corrupted but their mission is good.
Marvel Studios’ The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, reported as one of the biggest recent shows on TV, is a clear example of this. Its story, though gesturing at radical ideas, is always situated squarely in the camp that there is a previous social order worth returning to. This motivation is made all the more apparent because the series takes place in the wake of the reappearance of half the world’s population and the obvious social and financial turmoil that would create, but a decision is still made that the show’s villains are the ones fighting for the displaced and the destitute.
The idea that these characters are extensions of various states and militaries is practically a given and, while not always direct recruitment strategies, there is an undeniable aim to tie military activity to the heroism these characters represent. This is not unique to Marvel Studios and has been a component of action stories for decades, especially American ones, but the superhero genre holds a unique position because these films often work to smuggle these messages through what appear to be critical and otherwise progressive stories.
Fans of these movies will often respond to criticisms of them as propaganda with shock, pointing to the more fantastical elements at play as evidence that there is no actual motivation behind these decisions, joking about the idea that a talking tree would convince them to join the Air Force. To some extent that is true. Ultimately, these films exist to entertain but propaganda often does not exist to share a specific message so much as to normalize. The effect of these films is one of furthering a baseline acceptance of military action as justified and proportional, national enemies become supervillains and soldiers unequivocal heroes.
Without question, these ideas are often at odds with the artistic messages of the films themselves; Captain Marvel in particular chose to reframe the Skrulls as a people displaced by an unjust territorial war while not only following Carol Danvers’ origin as a member of the United States Air Force but also running recruitment ads tied into the film. These choices are often out of the hands of filmmakers but to disregard their existence entirely is pointless when general audiences (who don’t know how these deals came to be) are shown these films as they are.
The U.S. military has had direct influence over scripts for some of these movies in return for access to facilities for filming and they don’t request that for no reason. This discrepancy between the idea of doing good and serving corporate and state interests is one of the driving themes of The Boys as explored through the show interrogating the motivations of its most powerful heroes and suggesting that doing good does not mean the same to everyone. The Boys makes explicit the value of questioning who creates our ideas of heroism and what their motivations might be.
To call something propaganda is not a quality judgment or even necessarily a moral one, but a description of concrete factors behind its production and the organizations making these decisions understand their power, even if fans following every detail of these films think they are above being manipulated. When that accusation is levied towards superhero media, it is not a suggestion that the people who enjoy it are stupid, but that as a genre it is a dangerously powerful tool because we are conditioned by its storytelling to approach the views of its heroes as unquestionably correct, even if the real world is far more complicated.