If you walked into either San Diego or New York Comic Con this year, you’d have been bombarded by inescapable superhero marketing. But, unlike previous conventions where the Justice League-led DCEU or the Avengers-focused MCU pushed big reveals, 2019 was all about the anti-superhero superhero show. Amazon’s The Boys, built to showcase awful superheroes doing awful things in the real world as a sort of televised Larry Niven essay, had a huge presence at SDCC while HBO’s Watchmen debuted its “cops and KKK in masks” take on superhero fare at NYCC. Both went on to be heavy hitters: The Boys became “one of [Amazon’s] most watched series ever” while the critically acclaimed Watchmen has already earned a devoted audience devouring its recaps, explainers, and various in-universe appendices.
That’s because these shows are playing to the same audience that made Avengers: Endgame the highest-grossing movie of all time. They’re certainly reaching the audience that pushed reactive anti-blockbuster Joker past the R-rated billion-dollar boundary. People who feel inundated by super-nonsense—the ones getting a little sick of unpacking the alternate realities created by time travel and debating whether, canonically, Ant-Man could destroy Thanos by crawling inside his anus—are looking for an outlet.
Those topics come up when a monotone, action-adventure sameness dominates comic adaptations, which in turn (thanks to the DCEU and MCU) dominate the film and TV industries. When going to see a summer blockbuster featuring a comic character, moviegoers can expect bloodless violence against non-humans, quippy characters, a degree of impermanent loss, and the ultimate victory of their heroes. Marvel or DC, hero or heroine, talking raccoon or Amazon princess. If there’s a departure from this standard that still isn’t something that doesn’t contain a comic character (god forbid), that’s very attractive to a culture that’s been dominated by masks and capes over the last decade.
It’s easier (and more lucrative) to poke fun if the culture is saturated and the audience is given something familiar. The ’70s were rife with disaster films—Airplane!, which roasted them to death in 1980, lifted its plot and characters from one of their precursors, 1957’s Zero Hour! You better believe moviegoers were familiar with, and mostly over, the material: The Poseidon Adventure was a smash in 1972; its 1979 sequel, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, sank. The current financial situation may not yet have reached this tipping point for superhero films, but the collective groan from the fandom when Kevin Feige suggested that Disney+ would be necessary to understand the MCU was portentous.
The Boys (no Airplane!, to be sure) might not name names directly, but its sexually deviant Seven has a lot in common with those leading the box office disappointment Justice League. Every outrageous set piece is like a Mallrats gag about Superman: A speedy Flash analog zips right through a woman, vaporizing her, while Aquaman-esque The Deep is a useless pretty boy who talks to fish. These gags play better if you know your superheroes; they play best if you’re more than a little tired of them.
Watchmen, formulated as an anti-superhero comic with Rorschach as a big bean-eating middle finger to Batman, exists in a world immersed in the authoritarian dilemmas of the superhero genre. The HBO show it inspired gives this insight a new spin. All cops wear masks. So too, do the racist Seventh Kavalry. Some comic fanboys, presumably those that didn’t get the Rorschach joke in the original, weren’t ready to accept that commentary and review-bombed the show. Among their other problems, they wanted a show that played like their kickass CGI movies. The rest of us, while not kicking kickass CGI out of bed, happily devoured a series willing to explore the PTSD that surviving said kickass CGI (like the squid-filled parallel to the Marvel snap) will give you—enjoying it even more because of how little these films care about that kind of thing. When you’re burned out on superheroes, bringing them back to reality feels like sticking it to the man… even if the man is still behind it all.
It’s not just the content of these reactionary shows that’s attractive to some superhero fans. To get that lucrative demographic, the marketing for these shows mimics tentpole cinema almost indistinguishably. In a world where superhero movies are the biggest business in town, anti-superhero TV is having to match them stride for stride simply to be their edgy alternative. Ad buyouts, social media dominance, and prime panel positioning at the biggest genre gatherings in the world—counterprogramming now just means putting on a different mask.
The comic-based entertainment bubble has become so massive that while Marvel partisans wage war against Martin Scorsese, Scorsese knock-off Joker does gangbusters. The Joaquin Phoenix-led film bested Shazam!’s box-office gross and also beat the hell out of Dark Phoenix. Sure, there are still three MCU movies ahead of Joker in the year’s top ten money-makers. But its success makes it clear that the markets for straightforward superhero media and those making a self-conscious effort to avoid that designation are blending. For example, this Halloween, you could spy a blue muscle-suited The Tick costume on the same rack as Iron Man.
Somehow I don’t think those behind either character thought that “Spoon!” and “I am Iron Man” (or, for maximum contrast, “I love you 3000”) were operating on the same level. The punk acts have gone mainstream… well, even more mainstream, since DC published both Watchmen and The Boys’ comics while The Tick has been one of the weirder properties to air on the Fox network since the ’90s. The second season of the big blue bug of justice’s modern-day, live-action incarnation, which ended its run at Amazon in April, was all about mocking the literal hero business via bureaucratic nightmare A.E.G.I.S., but the realities of the real-world entertainment industry mean that merchandise still reigns.
The Boys, with its similarly corporate (if far raunchier) subject matter, may not have official tie-in products for sale, but the swag Amazon has handed out at con appearances is readily available on eBay. Even if the items bear “Fuck Supes” instead of, say, the Superman “S,” nerdy superhero consumers crave the branded goodies. The Boys embraces it: It even released a fake action figure commercial. The first season’s soundtrack reps the in-universe Vought International label, while Watchmen’s (released as Sons Of Pale Horse album The Book Of Rorschach) hides a self-referential history in the liner notes. Amazon even created fake endorsement ads, positioning its heroes as celebrities in the same system that placed Gal Gadot on the cover of Rolling Stone. “When we did this takeover around when [Avengers: Endgame] launched, we ran the fake commercials on television,” Mike Benson, head of marketing for Amazon Prime Video, said. “It was really aggressive.”
The shows may revel in deconstructing costumed crimefighters—taking apart capitalism, celebrity, fandom, ego, power, and exploitation—but the content criticizing and satirizing superheroes is still marketed using the same channels in the same ways. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds are full of trailers, light super-humor, and secretive cast pictures from set. That strategy has been seen all over these brands’ pop culture presence, and it’s paying off with results similar to those they’re aping.
Watchmen and The Boys, both in their first seasons, haven’t yet reached the live-tweeting, GIF-flooding social media dominance of Marvel’s most-loved show (Daredevil) or DC’s biggest series (Arrow). The R-rated and meta nature of both might require a more specific audience (one that enjoys, used to enjoy, and/or is hungry to deconstruct superhero content), but the numbers seem to indicate that such an audience exists. The newer series have higher average follower-per-month gains on their Twitter accounts than their serious counterparts in past years, according to social media stat site Social Blade. That growth reflects a marketing plan that’s logistically unchanged, despite the shift in tone.
Even the in-universe satire corresponds to on-the-nose real-world activity. The Boys pushes reluctant newcomer heroine Starlight on the terrible media circuit, signing autographs and making public appearances, while Starlight actress Erin Moriarty walked the press line and gave interviews at SDCC. These shows, though successful in their messaging to various degrees, are still flattening the landscape to a place where irony and earnestness are sold so similarly that audiences may soon stop caring… or all superhero content will evolve a standardized, market researched, semi-self-aware tone to split the difference.
Shazam! performed this trick on the big screen for one of the Big Two, introducing a wry hero that gains powers in a world that already has superheroes, while the Deadpool films did the same for its competitor across the aisle. Shazam!’s in a world where Batman and Superman have lore and action figures, where a kid blessed with superpowers has an idiom to fit into—and rebel against. Deadpool, a superhero who has long been a cosplay haven for men who think they’re Spencer’s Gift to the world, pokes fun at superhero landings, casting, and “lucrative film deals, both origin stories and larger ensemble team movies.” Here too, parody becomes reality: Until Joker surpassed them, Deadpool 2 and Deadpool were the highest-grossing R-rated movies of all time.
Some Watchmen viewers may bitch about the satirical elements of the series and still watch, simply because it’s easy to cling solely to its amped-up versions of traditional superhero offerings (violent hand-to-hand combat, bloody effects, cool masked characters) when living through this zeitgeist. While those of us sick to death of these ubiquitous elements are happy to see them parodied, those unwilling to engage on a deconstructive level have some shred of plausible deniability. The Boys falls harder into that trap: At a certain point in the show, it’s easy to tell the writers were looking more into “What awesome and nasty thing can we get away with?” than “How can we really say something about our subjects?” And why not: It’s actually been helpful, critically and popularly, to blur that line.
Shazam! and Deadpool, despite their minor deconstructions, will still exist as parts of greater superhero universes. They’ll still sell comics and action figures. Superhero shows, as their audiences blend the zealous and the jaded, may follow suit. Though it’s off to a strong start, it’s too soon to say how Watchmen’s themes will shake out from its sometimes violent but thoughtful narrative. The Boys, however, is already on the cusp of fully following the R-rated super-route of empty gore and gags. Even at this end of the cycle between conviction and cynicism, pop culture’s superhero industrial complex is dangerously easy to join.