SALT LAKE CITY — A recent episode of “The Boys,” a new television series about superheroes, features a scene that eerily echoes the tragic events of 9/11.
The superhero Homelander, a blond, broad-shouldered mix between Superman and Captain America, attempts to rescue an airplane being hijacked by terrorists in midair.
But when he enters the cockpit to kill the hijackers, his heat-vision inadvertently starts a fire, causing the plane to nosedive into the sea. When he realizes it’s a lost cause, he abandons the plane and all its frightened passengers, refusing to save any of them — even children — for fear that the survivors would tarnish his reputation by telling the press of his failure.
“The Boys” depicts a world in which superheroes are corrupt celebrities who abuse their power and influence to enrich themselves, rather than use their powers for good. The show’s depiction of a 9/11-like event, in which superheroes are more harmful than helpful in a tragedy, speaks to a larger cynicism permeating American culture.
“A lot of superhero movies we see today, including ‘The Boys,’ are very much a reaction to 9/11, in which this menace literally came out of the sky to destroy the Twin Towers, which had both literal and symbolic significance to American culture,” said Danny Fingeroth, a former Marvel Comics editor and the author of “Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society.”
Nearly 20 years after 9/11, are Americans still hungry for superheroes — or have we become too cynical?
The ‘superhero fantasy’
Traditionally, superheroes have represented America’s belief in the triumph of good over evil. They first emerged more than 70 years ago, in the dire times of the Great Depression and the early years of World War II, as a symbol of hope.
Superhero movies continue to be enormously popular box office hits, says Ben Saunders, a professor of English and the founder and director of the Comic and Cartoon Studies program at the University of Oregon.
“Superheroes still play a very important role in the public consciousness, and children still look at superhero stories to build a sense of their own potential,” says Christopher Robichaud, a senior lecturer in ethics and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who studies moral and ethnical issues that arrives in superhero narratives.
Thus, some experts say Americans — children and adults alike — have clung to superheroes more than ever in the post-9/11 era as a source of hope and inspiration.
“The superhero fantasy is a relief, it’s a waking dream, to have a group of people who have values that are admirable and who enact those values in a way that is also admirable,” said Fingeroth.
“They would have been popular anyway, but in light of 9/11, they took on an added importance and urgency to people,” he said.
Media scholars have theorized that the 9/11 attacks fueled the success of a number of superhero movies and shows, even those produced shortly before the attacks, such as the first Fox X-Men movie, the first Sony Spider-Man movie, according to Saunders.
“The popularity of (superhero movies) ... shows us that not only is America not too cynical for superheroes, America is eagerly awaiting a superhero,” said Fingeroth. “The fantasy of someone coming to save the day and solve our problems, I think that’s stronger than ever before.”
Great power — and great responsibility?
But others argue that superhero stories like “The Boys” do reflect a larger cynicism within post-9/11 American society, specifically fears about the abuse of power, according to Robichaud.
In the aftermath of 9/11, on the one hand, Americans were fearful for their safety and wanted their government to protect them from further acts of terror, according to Robichaud. But they were also concerned that with increased legal authority to fight terrorism, the government could abuse that power to violate the rights of American citizens to privacy and due process, he said.
For example, the Patriot Act faced criticism for its expansion of the power of the government to detain immigrants indefinitely, to search homes and businesses without the owner’s consent, and to search telephone, email and financial records without a court order.
“The Boys” reflects this tension, said Robichaud.
In the show, superheroes, without any oversight or a check on their power, become corrupted by it and use it for immoral pursuits. While to the public they boast of their achievements in keeping Americans safe from crime and terror, behind closed doors they use their power, wealth and influence to cover up their misdeeds, which include sexual harassment and the killing of innocent American civilians.
“Post-9/11 superhero stories force us to think very hard about balancing liberty with safety and security,” said Robichaud.
The Trump era has also spurred similar questions, said Robichaud.
“I think for many people the presidency was position or someone of good character. For many people, obviously not all, our current president is not the president of good character but he has all the power. For the first time, many people are wrestling with this question: What happens when an office of respect is held by someone we find seriously morally problematic?” he said.
“A version of that story is something like ‘The Boys,’” he continued. “What happens when a superhero, which up until this point we’ve always assumed is going to be a person of good character, is instead someone who is quite flawed?”
There is an often quoted phrase from “Spider-Man,” says Robichaud, that goes: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But, Robichaud says, the original phrase was actually slightly different: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”
This difference in the emphasis is key, Robichaud says. Great power does not imbue a superhero — or any person, elected official or leader — with an inherent commitment to use that power responsibility.
The original version of the phrase is a prescription, he says, requiring that responsibility must come with great power, whether it happens intrinsically or through intentional oversight, even in the context of a national emergency.
“‘The Boys’ continues to invite us to consider the effects of possessing power, whether the person who possesses it is of good character or not,” he said.