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Why does Homelander work?

A celebration of depravity

By Martin S. WathenPublished 2 years ago 9 min read

Homelander – Celebration of depravity.

At the ‘American Film Institute’ in 1970, Alfred Hitchcock famously advocated the utilisation of prolonged tension through an analogy often referenced as: ‘the bomb under the table’. In this, he detailed a hypothetical scene in which several men sit about a table discussing baseball when, suddenly, a bomb erupts. In this scene, the audience is treated to a fleeting shock. A shock which, although effective, would be categorised as quite surface level and, certainly, brief. Alternatively, Hitchcock posited the inclusion of an ‘insert’ shot amidst this scene. One which we are made aware of the bomb’s presence – yet the scene goes on all the same. Like the tracking open of Orson Welles’ ‘Touch Of Evil’, we are now awaiting the bomb’s eruption. We watch these men knowing that, in any moment, the eruption can come. In this second approach, the shock is prolonged and, more so, synonymous with anticipatory anxiety than rudimentary shock. This single anecdote encapsulates the core principles of tension. Just as important as it is to climax into drama, it is also key to threaten chaos. To hang a pendulum over the head of the audience from a fraying string. In Amazon’s ‘The Boys’, I find this principle is represented to near perfection through the characterisation of the series’ chief antagonist – ‘Homelander’. No less, I would even argue that the milk obsessed psychopath is even a physical personification of the notion. Anthony Starr’s harrowing, and often times side-splitting, portrayal of the character is one which oozes dread. His dark antithesis to Superman has, over three seasons, become one of televisions most well realised antagonists.

Homelander is, near literally, a ticking bomb. He is, as demonstrated frequently, dangerously unstable. Utterly unhinged, even. A man ruled by his prevailing narcissism, with no regard for the lives of those which worship him. In fact, he resents them. Homelander commands each scene he appears as an entity larger than life. His power looms overhead like a persisting threat. Whenever we see him challenged, we recall that he could effortlessly annihilate entire cities if pushed too far. With each raise of his eyebrows or vacant glance which visualises his ever-rupturing mind, we realise that he can kill his challenger before they even realise. No less, he can subject them to an agony they cannot even begin to imagine. Homelander, even, is feared by his super powered counterparts. Even those with powers beyond our comprehension dread his presence. We see characters like ‘A Train’, a man that accidentally liquefied a woman by running through her, carefully tread upon eggshells when in the company of the tyrannical villain. Homelander is a character we are trained, as the audience, to fear. We are educated, in each appearance, of his great power or fraying mind. And, in each appearance, we recognise the combination of each could spell an unquantifiable massacre - if our antagonist is pushed too far in any direction.

Season One’s baptism of Hughie slipped our protagonist underwater - grasped tight in the clutches of Homelander himself. We watch as, the villain we learn is as homicidal as he is psychopathic, holds our protagonist in his arms. From Hughie’s POV we watch his maniacal smile and realise he could never let go – if he so wished. In fact, Season one’s entire finale encapsulated Hitchcock’s analogy of tension to a tee. The threat of Homelander’s wrath ticking, until eventually erupting on Stillwell – in her inevitable demise. Or how about Season 3’s opening episode? When ‘The Deep’ accidentally boasts about his spot to Homelander, and we realise he may well have dug his own grave. The realisation striking the characters around him, as Ashley scrambles to rescue him through massaging Homelander’s ego. We feel the air suck from behind that stage and practically hear the ticking of the ‘bomb’ beneath the table.

And what about Ashley? A character, perhaps, more tortured than any other in the show. It seems, as her broken working relationship with Homelander progresses, that he revels in her torment. In fact, the assistant’s life has become an existence punctuated in the very dread Hitchcock describes in his analogy. She has devolved from a frustratingly eager assistant to a broken wreck. A woman ruled by the malice of her boss. A woman who fears each hurdle in the life of her superior. A woman that exudes an exterior of buoyancy yet has become an anxious shell of her former self. Despite being played for laughs, in thanks to the brilliant performance of Colbie Minifie, Ashley is quite likely amongst the most tortured of the series. She toys with her hair, and even tugs it out in chunks. We see, in the third season’s open, that even intercourse for her has become violent and an extension of her anxious ticks.

But Homelander does not only work in thanks to one aspect. He is, although not sympathetic, multi layered. Alongside the threat of his wrath comes his unrivalled narcissism. Homelander is a God. Or, at least, the nearest this universe’s reality could proposition as one. With this, naturally, he sees himself as a higher being than those around him. He sees his existence as greater than all else. He even goes as far to claim, on occasion, that he does not need a master race – he is the master race. His goals align with this narcissism. They are deeper than rudimentary strives for power or ‘world domination’. They question the relationship between physical power and social power. His goal, amongst many, is to reach a point of unrivalled adoration. With this, he can finally do ‘whatever he wants’. In the third season, he even states this desire but threatens that he can happily take control by force if necessitated. In this very season, Stan Edgar even differentiates the dissimilarities between physical and social power. He posits this as the reason as to why Homelander behaves for him – a mortal lacking any visible power. Despite his desire to ‘do whatever he wants’, he fails to realise that, on most occasions he has already achieved this goal. He is rarely challenged, and even more scarcely defeated. His narcissism shines in these few moments of which he is restricted. These moments where his social power does not extend to the lengths he desires. Homelander resents the consequences of his actions. He resents the punishments bestowed upon on him for his cruelty. In the show’s second season, he actively dates a Nazi, but begrudges the social collateral damage which comes with her eventual outing. He holds a chip on his shoulder when forced to ‘behave’, despite these punishments being far beneath the consequences one might suggest is justly deserved for his heinous deeds. He sees no true ousting and holds much of his celebrity. He remains the leader of ‘The Seven’ but near snaps at the notion that he is now forced to share that very prestige with Starlight. Homelander, even, sees himself as the victim of his circumstance.

Then comes his racism. A by-product of his narcissism and God complex, his perfect white skin and shining blonde hair is clearly a parody of the Arian image. Once more, this suggestion glides deeper as we progress into season two and discuss his relationship with the Nazi ‘Stormfront’. His relentless victimisation of A Train is a specific targeted harassment unique in its approach. Once more, his refusal to allow a ‘muslim’ into the team encapsulates the original blanket concept of the character as a caricature of Superman – a character often personified as a representation of the American ideal. His insane rambling televised speech of season three captures the hearts of the right wing, as he denounces attempts at his ‘cancelation’ or the shame he is made to feel at his own power. As the third season progresses, I expect to see him embrace this role further and become a deeper figure with this new ‘outspoken’ persona. A persona tried and true in our own reality, with figureheads like Piers Morgan offering to speak the truth with “no holds barred”. He is emerging as an ‘anti-woke’ figure and, yet another, comical allegory for the vacant social morals of expansive corporations. This, as the racist, sexist, megalomaniac is the face of an organisation which boasts progression. Vaught harbours and humours a man as cruel as Homelander whilst also sporting supposedly ‘progressive’ ideals. Vaught hold a wing of their theme park dedicated to inclusion but target their inclusion as corners of a market rather than billions seeking real representation. They do not care for the causes they preach, otherwise their actions would not be demonstrational. Much like Disney’s insistence on inclusion but history of yielding to more socially restrictive overseas markets, they value the bottom line above their morals - all whilst actively suggesting the opposite. They do not see social progress as a necessity in human kindness, but instead an avenue for swelling revenue.

Despite Homelander’s racism, however, he is far from the Nazi that Stormfront was. No, he does not believe in a master race, and he does not see whiteness as intrinsically better than all else. He, instead, sees himself as this. He views his own being as more divine than all those around him. Despite his newfound reach to the conservative market, he does not value them any more than he would with any other. He sees them as Vaught sees them - a demographic. And whilst Vaught sees their adoration as power through influence and wealth – Homelander sees them as an avenue for power through adoration. He wishes for the world to see him as he sees himself. He wishes for the world to see the ‘real him’ yet retreats back into a persona the moment his popularity rises again. He jumps back into shocking fans with a surprise relationship in “Homelight”. See, Homelander, atop his racism, narcissism and paramount power, is a perfect satire of celebrity culture.

It’s no secret, of course, that ‘The Boys’ is a parody of all these things. With metaphors and comparisons playing through clear parallels that are difficult to miss. Vaughtland is clearly a parallel of ‘Disneyland’, ‘A-Train’s’ ill-fated pitch in 3x02 is a satire of disingenuous inclusivity with self-centred motives and Homelander is the facade of A list celebrity. Homelander’s public persona is nothing more than artificial. He is a construct of Vaught and he both laments this, and seeks the validation alongside it. Once more, he is the tragedy of a child celebrity. Birthed to be a brand, he was robbed of a childhood. I feel this is why much of his behaviour is child-like. His acting out when pulled up on bad behaviour, or desire to do whatever he wants. Even linking to his fetish for ‘breast milk’ and physical relationship with a mother figure (Stillwell) in Season one. Homelander has been thieved of his childhood and therefore acts in this very similar stage of arrested development as many real-life child celebrities behave – of course, only, less homicidal.

Homelander is, at times, comedically evil. He is, sometimes, cartoonish in his lack of empathy. A character that we recognise to be a symbol of evil, masquerading as one of hope. Despite this, he has become one of the greatest layered villains in the history of television. Attempts to make him sympathetic do not toward humanising him. Instead, they actively do the opposite. We empathise with his stolen childhood and recognise his narcissism with parallels to our real world, but we do not sympathise with him. It is, likely, Amazon Studios’ crowning achievement to reach a feat with this level of villainy. To personify the bomb beneath the table and layer this personification with cutting satirical commentary. The show has utilised this ‘bomb beneath the table’ with Victoria Newman – a woman that can pop the head of any which challenge her. Although this approach is differing from Homelander, it is interesting to see the tension which arises with her interactions alongside Hughie after his realisation.

The Boys is a show which achieves much praise, and Homelander is a figure which receives all the same. Although, it must be stated the layers of tension this characterisation strives, to achieve the effect they provide. In three seasons, Homelander has been weaved to detail evil from a lens we rarely see. A lens we recognise all too tragically to our real world. A man that has achieved absolute physical power, but strives for adoration. A man too vain to recognise the key shortcoming that, to achieve the adoration he desires, he needs something which he cannot grasp. Empathy.


About the Creator

Martin S. Wathen

A writer practicing in both prose and script. With a deep passion for film and screenwriting, I use this platform to publish all unique ideas and topics which I feel compelled to write about! True crime, sport, cinema history or so on.

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    Martin S. WathenWritten by Martin S. Wathen

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