Opinion | The beautiful loneliness of not believing in heroes

People who do not believe in heroes search harder for the meaning of an action that is heroic

In the television series, The Boys, which released on Amazon Prime Video three weeks ago, a band of superheroes appears to save the world every day through heroic actions. But what seems to be a version of Avengers soon reveals itself as something far cleverer. The superheroes in The Boys are employees of a giant establishment, Vought International, that assigns them their heroic tasks, most of which are for media consumption. The masses love the superheroes for being good people, but in reality they are plain evil. One is psychotic; another is a marine-ecology conscious guy and a sexual harasser; yet another is a mercenary; some are lesser-evil, mere sell-outs with a conscience who are unable to resist their establishment’s offering of money, fame, respect and a career. I have never seen a more convincing gathering of good folks.

In that way, The Boys is a political fact about the true nature of evil—that it has long split into two: (a) what looks evil, and (b) what looks good.

The television spectacle, which is based on a comic book series by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, is an amusing reflection of the real world in many other ways. Barring one superhero, all the other “supes" of Vought are dispensable because there are many with similar abilities. So there is a whole population of “supes" who need to catch the establishment’s eye, who need a break, who need to be marketed as superheores. The establishment, now and then, picks up an ordinary “supe" who has other attributes like beauty, articulation and a certain demographic appeal, and declares something like, “a star is born". And a star is born.

This is how the establishment maintains its power. By controlling acclaim and subjectivity. When success is a lottery, the casino always wins in the long run.

The “supes" are remarkably similar to most heroes in the real world in another aspect: they go for the low-hanging fruit. What the superheroes never take on is the real evil—the very establishment that funds them. They also fabricate villains because there can be no hero without an arch-villain. But the “supes" do not have one crucial gift that most heroes in the real world possess—the power of delusion. The “supes" do not imagine they are saving the world; they know they are evil.

Of whom in the real world do the “supes" remind you?

The beauty of The Boys is that it shows the hero and the villain are the same figure. In the real world, too, one man’s hero is another’s villain. To refined global villagers, the evil “supes" are popular politicians, except Barrack Obama. Also, spiritual gurus, commercially successful writers and actors. To the rest of the world, the “supes" are the refined global villagers themselves, and the whole spectrum of their heroes: Magsaysay winners, Nobel prize winners in peace, literature and economics, “literary" novelists, conscientious comedians and “political economists".

But I believe that the right way of seeing the “supes" is to put every single hero in this category. Every hero is a fabrication of an establishment.

What happens when we lose faith in heroes? We will feel a deep yawning loneliness but it is the majestic quiet of clarity, like the moment we realized our deepest belief was wrong; or when we chose to have high standards for lovers and friends; or the time when we decided we will not try to fit in, or very simply the times when we did the right thing. People who do not believe in heroes search harder for the meaning of a heroic action. And in that way they understand their world in more complex ways that the establishment teaches them.

In The Boys, the war against the superheroes is waged by a band of ordinary people with no prospects, who are powerless, flawed, scared, good in simple ways, confused, and motivated by self-interest. They want revenge because the heroes had harmed them.

In the real world, millions of them created Fox News. This is the subject of another television series, The Loudest Voice, which released late June. It is the dramatised tale of Roger Ailes, the former chairman and CEO of Fox News, the channel that ended the domination of the liberal point of view on American television and eventually contributed to the rise of Donald Trump. When Ailes, played by Russel Crowe, imagined Fox in the 1990s, mainstream news appealed only to the sophisticates “who drank cappuccino". Aisles knew there was nothing for “the deli, coffee-to-go, extra sugar crowd", the majority. In a moment in the first episode, he lays out his plan: “Right now in America, 60% of people think that the media is negative, that it’s full of lies, full of bias, full of crap. We’re just gonna give the people what they want, a positive message, an American message, wrapped up in a conservative viewpoint."

Fox News swiftly diminished the prevailing superheroes of American journalism. Later, when Obama loomed, Ailes would make his anchors mention Obama’s middle name “Hussein" to promote the wrong notion that he was Muslim. Obama was too great a hero for Ailes to destroy, but he was still a “supe" to millions of whites who did not adore him, and his heroic stint did help Fox whip up enough hate to create its own “supe", Donald Trump.

“Supes" come and go in this world, and establishments grow stronger; and only those who do not believe in heroes know what is going on.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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