Based on the comics by Garth Ennis, the television series ‘The Boys’, aired by the Amazon streaming service, is a portrait of the most tragic of post- modernity: its insistence on denying Being and its transcendental faces (the Good, the Beautiful and the True) as the foundation of reality. To understand the saga’s intricate relationship with the “spirit of time”, however, it is necessary to take a step back.
The collapse of the hegemony of the philosophical tradition known as realist begins in the beginnings of that what historians define as the Modern Age. The perspective of philosophical realism affirms that what we call real (the Being) is based on the Good, understood as that which is desirable and which sustains life. In this way, the perception of the foundation of what is good through what we capture with our senses (primarily vision) makes us contemplate the Beauty of things. When, finally, through our intelligence we manage to apprehend the essence of what we perceive, our mind is satisfied with the True.
At least since Plato and his guardians of the ‘Republic’, those responsible for the conduct of the common good, they should be increasingly virtuous in their bodily, emotional and intellectual dimensions, maintaining an honor and integrity along with their excellence, claiming their authority through the contemplation of these transcendentals of the Being. Politicians should be heroes of the people, in a union between individual soul and polis, ethics and politics. This philosophical tradition was endorsed by Medieval Christianity with its kings, saints and knights.
The Modern Era replaces the foundations of realism, reducing the certainties of reason to the mathematical-experimental method, removing the conviction that the foundation of the real is intrinsically good and limiting the relationship between the Beautiful and the True. The philosopher Machiavelli is one of the examples of this break with the bet on rulers as heroes and saints: a modern prince is pragmatic and must separate ethics and politics. From then on, the reasons of State focused not on the virtue of the rulers, but on the impersonal principles of popular sovereignty, individual freedoms and rights, patriotism and the economic technicalities of managing the well-being of the majority.
Faced with the hangover caused by the failure of the great narratives of modernity at the end of the last century – the tragic era of the two great wars, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb and the dissolution of the USSR -, contemporary culture, however, failed to present sources of meaning other than the negation itself. Consequently, to survive as a cultural producer, she needs to revive those same idols that she had already removed. It’s like the dog that goes back to its vomit.
Which brings us back to Garth Ennis’ fallen “heroes”. I haven’t read the author’s comics, but it seems to me that the Amazon series stays true to its satirism, skepticism and nihilism. The eschatological abuse of portrayals of the destruction of human dignity, with its aberrations in sexuality, violence, and drug abuse, can be traced back to a certain tradition of Aristophanes’ Greek satires, of Sophocles’ darkest tragedies, of Dante’s descriptions of medieval infernal circles. , from the clerical bacchanals of ‘Decamerão’ by Boccacio, from Renaissance paintings such as ‘Garden of Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch, from the Dell’arte comedies by François Rabelais, from the impressive and popular work of the Marquis de Sade, from the modern cult of Mephisto and Goethe’s ‘Faust’ and, finally, to the vast production of the pornographic industry, gore cinema and the dehumanizing dystopias of ‘Black Mirror’. We can even integrate Nelson Rodrigues’ theater in this route. It’s a phenomenological flower of Evil.
However, unlike those fascinated by Evil of yore, my suspicion is that Ennis and the show’s writers managed to short-circuit the mass manufacture of superheroes – still a tributary of modernity and its discourses of the Welfare State, autonomy of the oppressed and champions of freedom and democracy – with the acid voracity of postmodernity and its degrading conception of humanity.
Indeed, behind the apparent postmodern moral liberation lies a potential Luciferian enlightenment of the negation of the Good. When these two elements – a cultural industry of superheroes for the purpose of propaganda and dehumanization through criticism – come together in a cultural product, vertigo arises in the face of the absurdity of Evil.
Already in the years 1960 Umberto Eco was looking for a way out between the apocalyptics, who exhorted a prompt rejection of the superman as a culture, and the integrated ones, who uncritically swallowed the super caloric canned goods of moral and ideological simplification. . Apparently, the success of ‘The Boys’ is a sad phenomenon that can represent this paradox of a society that rejects the superman due to the conscience of his fraud, but that at the same time At the same time, it cannot free itself from this cultural (cultural?) addiction because it simply does not admit any other possibility of meaning. It is a fantasy bricolage between Hanna Arendt’s banality of Evil, Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid lives and Guy Debord’s spectacle societies.
In short, the only thing we have are the “ supes” to bring us meaning, even though we all know they are frauds. Hence our need to see them slowly being deconstructed amid the trivialization of sex and violence. Perhaps, it is a way for the audience to express their temptation that, in the end, what brings meaning to life is rejoicing in Evil. Not for nothing, Tolkien presented a caveat to the book ‘Letters from the Devil to His Apprentice’, by CS Lewis: he feared that his friend had become too entangled in the devil’s thinking. Discarding the moral compass, the same seems to happen with the creators of ‘The Boys‘.
Although the comic book heroes of the century past may, in fact, have older and more powerful mythical reminiscences, the individualization of the consumption of cultural products – that is, their withdrawal from an interpretive community of myths as sacred – leaves the imagination completely vulnerable to the most insidious ideological manipulations, such as imperialisms and military, economic and cultural colonialisms. Hence the already common sense analogy between the superman as an exponent of the United States as guardians of the world. In spite of all the good intentions present in the fabulation of heroes, with the amputation of transcendence and the sincere search for the Good, postmodernity seems to assume that what we are left with is to accept as our model this consciously rotten Superman of the Homelander.
In this case, we find announced in Plato and his Ring of Gyges – which guaranteed invisibility for those who wore it, such as Sauron’s One Ring – the risks that the impunity generated by brute supremacy would bring. In short, the latent question of whoever watches the vigilantes expresses the awareness that omnipotence necessarily corrupts, transforming the popular hero into a butcher tyrant. According to Acton, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Homelander’s cynical and inhuman smile quickly teaches these lessons.
Aristotle taught in his ‘Poetics’ that even the most repulsive artistic descriptions, like dead bodies and monsters, attract us because of the knowledge we can acquire through them. In today’s times, to sensitize a generation deadened by pornography at ease on the internet and bombarded by the most frenzied violence present in the world and brought to the screens of social networks, ‘The Boys’ is drenched in from this poisonous digestive acid that corrodes everything: religion, patriotism, the political correctness of anti-racist and pro-LGBT movements, the discourse of prosperity, the ethics of market advertising and government control. Its attraction lies in the display of the rawness of the present times. Everything ends in sexual abuse and torn bodies.
As Mephisto de Goethe said: “I am the spirit that denies everything! Because nothing that exists deserves to be eternal”.
*Diego Klautau is a Doctor in Sciences of Religion, professor of the specialization course in Theology and Religious Education at PUC-SP, at Centro Universitário FEI and Colégio Catamarã