The Sun Never Sets on Amazon’s Anti-Superhero Empire
The Sun Never Sets on Amazon’s Anti-Superhero Empire

The Sun Never Sets on Amazon’s Anti-Superhero Empire

The Sun Never Sets on Amazon’s Anti-Superhero Empire

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In news that should surprise no one, one of the most high-profile theatrical releases of November is The Marvels, the 33rd (!) installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will bring together characters from Captain Marvel and the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel. The early box office tracking has The Marvels opening in the $75-80 million range, and while that would be an impressive haul for nearly any film, it’s yet another concerning development for the MCU. For one, Captain Marvel grossed more than $153 million in its opening weekend four years ago—nearly double what its sequel is projected to earn. That contrast is even starker considering The Marvels is no longer competing with another crowd-pleasing tentpole: Because of the Hollywood labor strikes, the much-anticipated Dune: Part Two was pushed from November to March 2024. From a numbers standpoint, superhero fatigue is looking as inevitable as Thanos.

But perhaps superhero fatigue is a problem that’s more specific to the MCU and the DC Universe—mammoth franchises that are struggling with creative inertia and a hard reset, respectively. Superhero stories that keep things fresh (see: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Harley Quinn) can still appeal to fans and critics alike. That sentiment even applies to a franchise in which a plethora of uncensored penises is part of the package—pun very much intended. I’m referring to—what else?—the world of The Boys: arguably the greatest success story of Amazon’s Prime Video, and a universe that seems to loathe the conditions responsible for its own popularity.

Ever since its first season premiered in 2019, The Boys has been a refreshing counterpoint to the traditional superheroes of the silver screen: instead of hailing its caped crusaders, the series imagines what would happen if they became part of our highly corporatized reality. (Enter Vought International, a superhero media conglomerate and defense contractor that feels like a ruthless combination of Disney, Amazon, and Fox News.) While superheroes are still idolized, saving people isn’t the priority for Vought: It’s more concerned with maintaining a healthy stock price and boosting brand awareness. The show’s breakout character is Homelander (Antony Starr), a twisted, Trumpian perversion of Superman with serious mommy issues who is far too powerful to ever be held accountable for his actions. Homelander is the kind of [clears throat] hero who warrants a 10-minute YouTube compilation of him “being an absolute psychopath” that only scratches the surface of his monstrous behavior.

As is true of any superhero property, enduring popularity comes with the potential for expansion. While the fourth season of The Boys won’t arrive until next year, fans have been sated with the franchise’s first live-action spinoff series, Gen V. Set at the Vought-run Godolkin University—God U for short; subtlety is overrated—Gen V introduces a new generation of would-be heroes, some of whom are blissfully unaware of Vought’s real priorities. The show’s main protagonist is Marie Moreau (Jaz Sinclair), an orphaned teen essentially capable of bloodbending who aspires to be the first Black woman to join the Seven, the universe’s equivalent of the Justice League. At the start of the season, Marie is an overwhelmed yet optimistic freshman; by Friday’s finale, she learns of Vought’s true intentions with God U. The campus isn’t meant to foster the heroes of tomorrow: It’s there to study them in a controlled environment. The students aren’t treated like people as much as products in an assembly line; an unlucky few are even subjected to brutal experiments.

Much like The Boys, Gen V thrives when it skewers our superhero-obsessed culture. To that end, while some of God U’s students pursue careers in crime fighting, most of them end up within the world of entertainment—forever tied to an industry that milks every possible superhero-adjacent piece of content to sell to the masses. (Sound familiar?) There’s always a chance, however slim, that The Boys will turn into the very thing it satirizes: a superhero franchise that keeps pumping out new projects just because it can. But between The Boys and Gen V, this universe has shown no signs of losing its sharp, cynical edge, exploding penises and all.

If The Boys once seemed like a crass outlier in the superhero landscape, Prime Video has since doubled down on mature, subversive stories in this space. Coinciding with Gen V’s finale is the Season 2 premiere of Invincible, the animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic book series of the same name. The show follows Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), the adolescent son of the superpowered alien Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), Earth’s greatest hero. When Mark finally gains his powers in the series premiere—assuming the alter ego “Invincible” in the process—the protagonist’s moment of triumph is soured for the audience after Omni-Man brutally murders Earth’s other big-name heroes at the end of the episode. What initially seemed like an earnest coming-of-age story was twisted into something much knottier to unpack: a violent subversion of the Superman myth.

In the Season 1 finale, once Mark eventually learns what his father has done, Omni-Man reveals his real reason for coming to Earth: He’s part of a militaristic alien race known as the Viltrumites, who are trying to subjugate the entire universe to their will. Mark’s attainment of his powers meant that Omni-Man could finally drop the facade and convince his son to join the Viltrumite cause. Long story short: Mark refuses to betray humanity, and Omni-Man beats the ever-living shit out of him before flying off into the far reaches of space. (While penises are a recurring gag on The Boys, Invincible repeatedly shows Mark getting pummeled within an inch of his life. I suppose the fact that he has yet to die from all these beatings does make him … invincible?)

Invincible’s second season, which is split into two parts—the second batch will air sometime next year—largely deals with the fallout from Omni-Man’s betrayal. Mark and his mother, Debbie (Sandra Oh), are left with questions about how much they really know about the man they loved, and whether he ever cared for them to begin with. (Despite all the gnarly moments in Season 1, I can think of nothing more savage than when Omni-Man refers to Debbie as someone he loves “like a pet.”) Omni-Man is an unstoppable force just as cruel and terrifying as Homelander—I’ll never forget that train scene, no matter how much I want to—and his absence looms large over Invincible’s second season. Given how easily Omni-Man wiped out Earth’s heroes, returning with a Viltrumite army would be less a battle than a massacre.

That Mark must also juggle graduating from high school and preparing for college only compounds the anxieties he’s dealing with—and the uncertainty he has about jumping back into the superhero fold. Other heroes are in a similar state of disarray: Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), who starred in an Invincible TV special earlier this year, struggles with figuring out how to use her powers for good after accidentally putting bystanders in harm’s way. Invincible returns with a slower pace than viewers might expect after all the carnage at the end of the first season, but the upside is that the series genuinely cares about the interiority of its characters’ lives, superpowered or otherwise.

While the back half of Invincible’s second season will surely ramp up the action, this somewhat meditative approach is still worth savoring. Like The Boys and Gen V, Invincible understands that having godlike powers isn’t a cure-all; if anything, it’s a burden that few are equipped to wield. While there isn’t too much connective tissue between the worlds of The Boys and Invincible—unless you count all the relentless violence and gore—they make up a fascinating corner of Prime Video’s streaming empire. These aren’t just shows that cater to a more mature audience than family-friendly superhero blockbusters: These series are at odds with why such figures exist in the first place. Superheroes may be all the rage right now, but if you stick to what Prime Video has to offer, it won’t take long before you’re questioning whether they’re worth celebrating at all.


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