Gen V Supercops Fight Against Prisons...Then For Them
The show's politics are ambivalent.
Superhero stories are for the most part supercop stories. The bad guys are criminals and the good guys are fighting for law and order, which means they beat the crap out of those criminals. Eric Kripke’s Amazon Prime series The Boys has messed with that default during its (so far) three season run. Its superheroes are for the most part shallow careerists or out and out fascists, and their commitment to law and order often means beating up or murdering immigrants, people of color, and anyone who gets in the way of a profit.
The new spin-off, Michele Fazekas and Tara Butters’ Gen V, is still very cynical about the virtue of all American law and order. But it ends up concluding that those who have been policed will inevitably come to be the danger they’ve been defined as. The parody/critique is so cynical it ends up negating itself, and re-justifying the kind of violent status quo The Boys seemed intent on exposing.
Gods and Prisoners
(A fair number of SPOILERS follow if you care about that sort of thing.
The series is set at Godolkin University, a college for young superheroes to learn how to fight crime and build their brands. But after Golden Boy (Patrick Schwarzenegger) kills a professor and then himself, some of the students start to realize that the school is more than it appears. Their investigation leads to the discovery that there’s a hidden facility (The Woods) under the school where mentally ill, powerful young heroes are tortured and even murdered. One of those heroes is Sam (Asa Germann), Golden Boy’s schizophrenic brother, a hero with fearsome physical strength.
The protagonists here are mostly marginalized people. Marie Moreau (Jazz Sinclair) is a Black woman who grew up in foster care after she accidentally killed her parents with her power to control blood. Jordan Li (London Thor and Derek Luh) is an Asian nonbinary person who switches between male and female bodies. Emma (Lizzie Broadway) is a woman whose shrinking powers are linked to her eating disorder.
The God U administration boasts about its diversity while engaging in casual and contemptuous bigotry. Jordan, for example, is kept from topping the school rankings because their nonbinary identity would be controversial in red states. And, again, mentally ill heroes are kept in the bunker and tortured, which is in line with a long history of mistreatment of mentally ill people.
For a good bit of the show’s runtime, our heroes are trying to break a mentally ill supe—Sam—out of his prison. A bunch of marginalized young people (and young people are obsessively criminalized in our society too) try to free stigmatized prisoners from the sadistic clutches of law enforcement. That’s a pretty straightforward repudiation of the superhero-as-cop trope.
Fear of a Mentally Ill Supe
But then, through a gauntlet of plot twists and reversals, the show’s ethical commitments switch. In the last episodes, some of our heroes (including Sam) decide to free all the mentally ill superheroes in the Woods. And suddenly, for no real reason, Marie and her allies decide that releasing these illegally imprisoned people will result in chaos, apocalypse and mass murder.
More, Marie’s right. When the prisoners in the Woods get out, they all—every single one— set forth on a eugenic program of mass murder, intent on wiping out all non super humans in an orgy of blood and fire.
It's true that imprisoned people or resistance movements can sometimes be violent and commit atrocities; that was the case recently, and horrifically, with Hamas on 10/7. But getting people to a place where they want to kill and dehumanize generally requires a lot of ideological work, a lot of preparation, and careful selection. Not everyone in Gaza is eager to murder, whatever Israeli propaganda might tell you.
In Gen V, one of the people who releases the prisoners in the Woods has mind control powers, so the writers could have had them control everyone else as an analogy for propaganda/radicalization. But the show deliberately doesn’t do that. The prisoners want to kill because they want to kill. That is the spontaneous, free choice of every one of them.
This is particularly disturbing because one myth targeting mentally ill people is the idea that they are naturally violent. This form of stigma has actually gotten worse in recent years. Yet it’s baseless; there is no evidence that mentally ill people as a group are more violent than abled people, and in fact mentally ill people have an increased chance of being the victims of violence, not the perpetrators. One study also suggested that torture victims are more resilient, and less prone to violence, than survivors of other kinds of trauma. There’s certainly no reason to think that a group of mentally ill torture victims, newly released, would immediately and uniformly embrace apocalyptic violence rather than, say, trying to use their new freedom to find their loved ones, to eat ice cream, to find a consensual sexual partner, to enjoy the open sky.
The violence of the freed superheroes is very much attributed in the show to the unethical and cruel non-powered humans who tortured them. Sam’s a sympathetic character, and we do get to see him having sex, drinking a beer, horsing around with friends—all the things that incarcerated humans, like other humans, enjoy, and which they’re denied in prison.
But Sam eventually ends up abandoning sex, relationships, and horsing around for violence. This, again, is shown as being the natural default for those who have been imprisoned and abused. The conclusion is clear; we should, perhaps, feel guilty about harming marginalized people and about imprisoning them. But that guilt can’t lead to us releasing people.
Do Unto Others First and Harder
Empathizing with the imprisoned, putting ourselves in their shoes, in this case ends up meaning that the oppressors see themselves in the oppresses are terrified therefore that the oppressed will do as they have been done unto. Prison guards see their own inhumanity in those they have harmed, and the only choice is to do that superhero thing—beating the (marginalized, traumatized) bad guys to a pulp, before they eye-beam you to death.
The Boys self-consciousness and cynicism sometimes leads it to reject policing, repression, fascism. But Gen V shows how self-conscious cynicism can be even more violently repressive than a naïve faith in law and order. “Everyone is evil and broken, so you’d better stay on top” is a terrifying realpolitik justification for atrocity. If you believe oppressed people become, inevitably, less moral and more violent, then the solution is to just keep ratcheting up the oppression forever. Gen V gestures towards solidarity with the marginalized, but it ends with the unsettlingly reactionary claim that once you put that superboot on someone’s neck, you can never lift it up again.
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