Warning: This essay contains major spoilers for season 1 of The Boys.
In the first season of Amazon’s comics adaptation The Boys, anti-superhero vigilante Billy Butcher (Karl Urban of the Star Trek reboot movies and Thor: Ragnarok) comes to Susan Raynor, the deputy director of the CIA, with evidence of a massive corporate conspiracy, and a list of demands in exchange for the information. She’s willing to grant him and his team exorbitant salaries, security clearance, offices, and indemnity, but she refuses to help him in his vendetta against Homelander (Antony Starr), the world’s most powerful superhero.
“It’s suicide,” she tells Billy. “Not for you, for thousands of people if you push him too hard. I’m terrified, and you should be too.”
Homelander is a clear stand-in for Superman, gifted with near invulnerability, X-ray vision, laser eyes, and flight, powers he uses to publicly fight for America. And Susan’s fear of this Superman figure is nothing new. Red Kryptonite, which has chaotic powers, including the ability to turn Superman evil, made its first appearance in comics in 1958. Superman villains General Zod and Bizarro have both served as dark mirror images of Superman, ways to explore what would happen if his powers were unmoored from his Kansas-grown morality. Even when Superman isn’t overtly evil, he’s often portrayed as kind of a dick.
The combination of Superman’s extremely high power levels and traditional rigidly good behavior is what makes the “What if?” scenarios about his ethos so compelling. The Injustice: Gods Among Us video game and comic book series and the Justice Lords plot from the Justice League animated series both imagine what would happen if Superman, driven too far, decided the world would be better off with him in charge. Mark Millar’s Superman: Red Son has Superman’s rocket land in Ukraine instead of Smallville, leading Superman to become a champion for the Soviet Union.
Each of these stories changes Superman as a way to explore the impact the Man of Steel has on the world, his fellow heroes, and even his villains. For instance, in Red Son Lex Luthor is repainted as a hero, Batman is a Soviet freedom fighter, Wonder Woman is a collaborator in Superman’s tyranny, and Superman’s active participation in the Cold War brings the United States to the brink of collapse. By recognizing how much of a lynchpin Superman is within the DC Comics canon, and how terrifying his powers could be if they were used amorally, writers have been able to tell fascinating stories exploring the motivations and capabilities of the rest of the DC Universe characters.
But Superman isn’t just the most iconic DC hero — he’s one of the most recognizable heroes in the world. That makes it easy for other creators to tell stories about him without tacitly acknowledging the connection, or asking DC’s blessing. Author Brandon Sanderson explored the dichotomy between Superman as a symbol of hope and as a horrible potential threat in his YA novel Steelheart. The book is set in a world where almost all people with superpowers quickly turn evil, but a sect of people wear a stylized S as a sort of holy symbol in hopes that eventually someone resembling the champion imagined by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster will manifest and save them. Steelheart, the book’s titular hero, looks the part, and when he shows up to interrupt a bank robbery at the beginning of the book, the protagonist’s father assumes his prayers have finally been answered. But Steelheart just plans to use his powers to take over Chicago and make sure no one else threatens his dominion.
The recent movie Brightburn sets up the traditional beats of the Superman origin story, with a kindly childless Kansas couple taking in an alien baby who develops superpowers as he nears puberty. But while Superman’s scientist father Jor-El is typically portrayed as having only the best intentions for his son, the baby in Brightburn was sent to Earth to rule it. Mark Waid’s comic book series Irredeemable warps Superman’s origin even further — the alien baby in that story is the manifestation of a terribly guilty mother exerting her will on an alien probe, and producing a child she can’t kill. That twisted birth leads Irredeemable’s Superman stand-in, the Plutonian, through an unhappy childhood and into uneasy superheroism, until his unforeseen role in a terrible tragedy shatters his psyche and leads him to become a mass murderer.
In both Irredeemable and the DC series JLA: Tower of Babel, Waid considers the possibility that smart, paranoid people living in a world with a Superman-caliber hero might not wait around for them to snap. Tower of Babel centers on Batman’s secret plans on how to neutralize Superman and other key members of the Justice League in case they go rogue. Not coincidentally, one of the first people the Plutonian kills in Irredeemable is the series’ Batman equivalent.
Fear-driven contingency plans are also at the heart of the plot of the adaptation of The Boys, which significantly departs from the comics by spending much more time focused on Homelander and his Justice League-style team, the Seven. Starr plays Homelander with the same coldness Christian Bale brought to American Psycho. He presents a charming, folksy exterior that quickly gives way to disturbing malice as he threatens his teammates, expresses his contempt for people without powers, and rips apart his enemies with his eye-beams.
The Boys’ heroes are all deeply flawed, but for the most part, their crimes and failings are driven by understandable motivations, like substance abuse, fear of inadequacy, or greed. Homelander is different. While the world’s other heroes get their powers from corporate experiments, Homelander was one of the company’s first test subjects, and he was raised entirely in a lab. That might be why he’s so powerful, but it’s also left him fundamentally broken, a sociopath with deep mommy issues and grand ambitions.
When his attempts to stop a plane hijacking leads to the aircraft being damaged, Homelander condemns everyone on board to die rather than saving a few who could share how he failed. He uses Trumpian rhetoric to stir up a crowd at a religious gathering, drawing on fears of the “Deep State” to get them clamoring to put him on the front lines of America’s conflicts abroad. To truly be the greatest hero in the world, he needs supervillains to fight, so he sets about making them by stealing the compound that gives heroes their powers. Each incident takes iconic images of Superman’s heroism and warps them into something terrible — but fundamentally recognizable.
John Vogelbaum (John Doman of The Wire and Gotham), the scientist who created Homelander, admits that raising him without parents was a terrible mistake. But in the biggest twist of The Boys’ first season, it’s revealed that Homelander’s own secret son is being groomed as a weapon against him, a good Superman to stand against Homelander’s evil. With Homelander increasingly unrestricted and mentally unmoored, the question is whether his son can stop him from turning into the mass-murdering tyrant that most dark versions of Superman eventually become.
In one season 1 episode, Wonder Woman equivalent Queen Maeve says, “Everyone always asks what’s our special weakness… The truth is, our weakness is the same as anyone’s. It’s people.” She’s making an argument for why superheroes should cut ties with regular people. But that’s also a reminder that a superhero’s biggest weakness is that they are people. Superman is an iconic hero because he’s honest, just, restrained, and noble. It’s terrifying to imagine that kind of power in the hands of a normal person, who could lose control or patience, or have selfish goals. The fear of an evil Superman is fundamentally an acknowledgement of the evil in every man.