Superheroes have entered their self-loathing era. After 20 years spent achieving full dominance over popular culture, screen audiences are primed for works that deconstruct the genre and highlight its flaws—and, because superhero comics have been popular for much longer than the movies have, there is plenty of existing material of this nature to draw upon. Streaming services are driving this approach, with Amazon and Netflix adapting cynical, self-referential comics into TV shows with varying degrees of success.
The rise of the streaming superheroes began in 2019 with the debut of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, adapting the 2005 Dark Horse Comics series written by My Chemical Romance’s lead singer, Gerard Way, and drawn by Gabriel Bá. That book was a huge success, a madcap family drama with storytelling that fused two paragons of indie entertainment: filmmaker Wes Anderson and cartoonist Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy.
The Umbrella Academy is built around the trauma experienced by former members of a child superhero team who are also adopted siblings, exploring how the pain of the past splinters their family unit in the present. The TV adaptation by showrunner Steve Blackman (Fargo, Altered Carbon) tones down the unbridled wackiness of the comics but doesn’t lose the complicated family dynamics or off-kilter point of view, hitting just the right balance to make The Umbrella Academy a mainstream hit.
Like many other new streaming superhero shows, The Umbrella Academy isn’t beholden to the lucrative extended universes of Marvel and DC, which allows for more freedom to comment on the iconography and plot devices at the genre’s core. Amazon’s The Boys was originally published under DC Comics’ now-shuttered Wildstorm imprint in 2006, only to be cancelled after six issues because, according to writer Garth Ennis, it looked “a bit too much like the company’s regular output” but the characters are doing “the most ghastly things.”
The premise of The Boys is, what if the world’s greatest superhero team was made up of homicidal narcissists who needed to be put down? It’s a ruthless critique of superheroes via the most unsavory aspects of celebrity culture, showing how these fame-hungry heroes discard their morality to maintain their dominance. The worst of them is Homelander (Anthony Starr), a mix of Superman and Captain America whose dashing smile hides a sociopathic mind.
Amazon’s animated Invincible, developed by Simon Racioppa, also focuses on an evil Superman analog: Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), an alien who has been posing as a hero while preparing Earth for domination. He’s the father of Invincible (Steven Yeun), a half-human teenage nerd who becomes a superhero when his powers kick in, but he has no idea of his father’s true intentions for the planet.
Invincible’s first episode ends with Omni-Man brutally murdering this universe’s faux Justice League in one of the most graphic action sequences ever shown in a superhero show, and the big confrontation between father and son at the end of the season takes the violence even further for some deeply disturbing moments of abuse.
Netflix’s Jupiter’s Legacy, developed by Steven S. DeKnight (Spartacus, Daredevil) is the most recent of these series, and also the weakest. Playing like a direct-to-video ripoff of Watchmen, the paragon of anti-superhero stories, Jupiter’s Legacy looks at how the genre has changed by jumping between two timelines. While the Utopian (Josh Duhamel) struggles with his superhero brethren becoming more violent and apathetic in the present, flashbacks recount how he and his colleagues first got their powers during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the original comic was carried by Frank Quitely’s astonishingly detailed artwork, and that hasn’t translated to the show’s generic aesthetic.
Superheroes are a distinctly American creation, and all of these TV series explore how the genre speaks to the dark reality behind the idealism of the American Dream. The Umbrella Academy’s second season sends the superheroes back in time to 1963 for a storyline revolving around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, centering the heroes at a pivotal turning point in U.S. history. The season dives into the Civil Rights Movement and LGBTQ persecution through the experiences of Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), a black woman, and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Vanya (Elliot Page), two queer characters.
Jupiter’s Legacy jumps back even further to hammer home its theme that American society has lost its way, with people more politically divided than ever and children learning active shooter drills before their ABCs. The flashbacks aim for a pulpier vibe to emphasize the need for optimism and wonder in the wake of 1929’s Wall Street Crash, contrasting with the more serious, very Zack Snyder-esque superheroics in the present day. But there’s a major fumble in the adaptation that undermines the entire endeavor. The Utopian is killed in Jupiter’s Legacy #3, ushering in a paradigm shift with the violent murder of the last enduring torchbearer of a dead age. He doesn’t die in the TV series, which strips the story of its teeth and results in a meandering first season.
Both The Boys and Invincible look at superheroes as representatives of military power, imagining the horrors that would ensue if superpowered beings shifted their focus from protection to domination. Invincible’s Viltrumite aliens represent U.S. imperialism, asserting dominance around the universe by going to foreign planets and subjugating native people under the pretense of protection. The most effective way for the Viltrumites to gain influence on Earth is through a superhero, which can be interpreted as a commentary on how superhero media placates the masses with juvenile fantasies.
The godfather of this approach to superheroes is Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore, who wrote the seminal miniseries of comics deconstructing the genre in the late 80s, and recently told Deadline that the current movie boom “seemed to speak to some kind of longing to escape from the complexities of the modern world, and go back to a nostalgic, remembered childhood. That seemed dangerous, it was infantilizing the population.” Of all the streaming superhero shows, The Boys aligns closest with Moore’s point of view. The series’ big team, The Seven, is based on DC’s Justice League, but the narrative is more of a commentary on jingoism and the militarization of superheroes in Marvel’s movies, with a plotline involving the creation of superpowered terrorists in an effort to convince the public that superheroes need to be in the armed forces.
The Boys already has a spinoff in development, and Invincible has been renewed for two more seasons. There’s demand for superhero stories that operate outside of the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC, giving creators the opportunity to make bolder choices that don’t have to be reverent of legacy. These series show the ugly side of the genre, which is only going to become more appealing for the superhero audience as kids raised on Marvel movies and Teen Titans Go! grow up.