THE BOYS B-Roll from The Boys and other movies/TV. SEAN The Boys is a dark, disturbing, super-inappropriate-for-kids show on Amazon Prime based on a Garth Ennis comic that takes Alan Moore's cynicism about superheroes to new and often horrifying extremes. It features a group of "heroes" that mirror DC's Justice League, but whose wholesome appearance is nothing but a marketing ploy by a big corporation that wants to sell merchandise, and who are in fact horrible people drunk with power who don't care about anyone else at all. I know what you're thinking. You assume I am gonna say that a big corporation would never do anything like that because business is good, right? Welllllll.... You'd be wrong. I think the crass corporate cynicism, the terrible behavior by the superheroes, and most of the choices characters make in the show are actually quite realistic... with one glaring exception. Part of the plot of The Boys revolves around the Vought American corporation trying to get approval from an incredibly reluctant Federal government to allow superheroes into the military and turn what is essentially a sports/celebrity marketing agency into a fully fledged defense contractor. Out of all the fantastical and unrealistic aspects of the show, this is the one thing I think is complete nonsense. MAIN TITLE SEAN And, with that in mind... Welcome to Out of Frame. B-ROLL of The Boys + Spoiler alert. SEAN Ok. Before we go any farther, there will be some fairly mild spoilers for The Boys and a few other movies, TV shows, and comics. Don't worry, though. I'm not going to ruin anything. So... Why do I say it's unrealistic that a major corporation like Vought American would want to become a defense contractor? Because there's no chance that Vought would not have already been a defense contractor! Maybe we can use the shot of Hughie screaming "Robin!" after she gets exploded? SEAN Their whole business model and the ability for their superheroes to cause massive damages to people and property with immunity from prosecution requires special privileges from the government. 13:00 Hughie says, "Super heroes are like cops", and explains qualified immunity. SEAN To really understand this, we've got to start with a lesser-known concept in economics called "Monopsony". This is related to, but not to be confused with "Monopoly". And we all know what that is, right? A monopoly is when a single company has total market control over a given product or industry. One business, no competitors, lots of buyers. Monopsony is basically the opposite of that. One buyer, lots of potential suppliers. In free market economies, significant private monopolies are actually pretty rare. When they do pop up, it's usually because they have managed to secure some kind of legal restriction against their potential competition. We see shots of some big/old energy companies, and signage for public schools and police departments. SEAN Lots of legally enforced monopolies stick around a long, long time regardless of how bad a job they do delivering the goods & services they're supposed to provide because the government has prevented new competitors from entering the market. On the other hand, monopolies without government protection, also called "natural monopolies", do crop up occasionally. But they're usually short-lived, because the minute they raise prices too much or the quality of their product goes down, competitors can enter the market and profit by offering consumers better stuff at lower prices. "Natural monopsonies" are a lot less common. Perhaps show a shot of a police academy or a public school teacher pay schedule? SEAN Apart from a few cases we see in labor markets that are controlled by monopoly businesses, there are very few situations in which there's just one person or organization looking to buy a product or service. Can you imagine there being just one single buyer for food? Clothes? Home construction? Cars? Bicycles? Electric skateboards?? What about bass guitars? Pianos? Can you imagine a world where literally one company buys all the cellphones or internet service and nobody else is interested? No. Of course not. We all want that stuff. For the vast majority of goods and services, there are hundreds of millions, even billions of potential buyers around the world and millions of entrepreneurs looking to profit by offering to give us what we want at prices we're willing to pay. SEAN But... There's one glaring, massive exception. Government. Governments at all levels routinely act as monopsony buyers of all kinds of things. Police services, public education, water and power utilities... But nowhere is monopsony more prevalent than in the development and production of soldiers and weapons of mass destruction. From catapults and crossbows to surface-to-air missiles... From mustard gas to the atom bomb... Governments all over the world have spent a massive amount of money and resources looking for more ruthless and effective ways to kill people. So... Getting back to The Boys, let's be real for a second. CLIP: Episode 2 35:00 -- US Senator/Congressman says it would scare the shit out of him to have Vought Heroes in the military. SEAN No. There's absolutely no chance that the Federal government would oppose the use of super-powered people in the military. If we want to inject some more reality into the show, Vought American should probably be a creation of the government, like Raytheon, Lockheed-Martin, Bechtel, Halliburton, and a ton of other major corporations - nearly all of which only exist because they have enormous military contracts. Even inside the narrative of the show, local governments are paying Vought American for the privilege of having one of their superheroes in their cities. CLIP: Episode 1 -- Madelyn Stillwell tells the mayor of Baltimore about bringing a superhero to the city. SEAN So clearly, government contracts are already part of Vought's business-model to some degree, but the idea that they wouldn't be part of the Defense Department is absurd. Images from "The Boys, Vol. 5 - Good for the Soul" where Hughie goes to see The Legend and gets Vought's backstory. SEAN Also, to be fair, in the original Garth Ennis comics, Vought American is a military contractor and, like the other companies I mentioned, had been since World War II. B-Roll from MCU movies & comic series. SEAN And look, tons of other comics, movies and TV shows get it. There are plenty of government-created superheroes and villains. It's really common in Marvel Comics, from Captain America, Red Skull, and Hydra, to Wolverine... In fact, the whole Weapon X program created over 30 different super-powered characters. Deadpool, X-23, Marrow, Sabretooth. Plus there are a ton of defense contractors in that universe like Howard Stark or Hammer Industries. B-Roll from Suicide Squad (I would go with the animated movie, Assault on Arkahm in addition to or instead of Will Smith), Supergirl, and Watchmen. SEAN DC has the DEO, ARGUS, Amanda Waller and her Suicide Squad. They have the Watchmen. Plus we've seen the military and corporations working together to create more powerful instruments of death in all kinds of other shows and movies, from The Rocketeer to The Manhattan Project, The Aviator, and Stranger Things. B-Roll: Historical insanity. Lots of photos and some video available for the stuff I'm about to talk about. SEAN What a lot of people probably don't realize is that as crazy as some of these stories are, real life governments have been trying to create super soldiers and super weapons for as long as there have been wars. During WWII, the Nazis came up with some truly insane ideas, from their leviathon-sized, seige mortar tank dubbed "Thor" and the "Amerika Rakete" long-range missile, to their "Mammoth" transport plane with its 200-ft wingspan that looks a lot like Red Skull's automated bomber in The First Avenger. SEAN And I really can't think of anything more appropriate for a group of super-villains than the Nazis' "Sun Gun" proposal, which would have involved building a gigantic convex reflector in orbit around the earth so they could focus the power of the sun on enemy targets. Not to be outdone, Communist scientists in the USSR like Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov and Vladimir Demikhov experimented with creating human-monkey hybrids and transplanting heads from one dog to another. And Stalin's genetics director for the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Trofim Lysenko was a true madman whose ideas on farming would go on to cause numerous famines in both Russia and China. As a side note, Lysenko had tremendous political power and a cult following, and with Stalin's approval, thousands of biologists and geneticists were imprisoned and executed for criticizing his theories. Most of these doomsday devices and mad science projects were never completed. A ton of them weren't even possible to begin with. And the US isn't off the hook here either. Always in search of better weapons and more effective soldiers, our government has put together some pretty shocking experiments as well. Like MK Ultra subproject 68, which sounds like a lunatic conspiracy theory, but was a real life CIA program, conducted through their Office of Scientific Intelligence with the help of the US Army's Biological Warfare Laboratories. SEAN It was run by a prominent Scottish psychiatrist named Donald Ewen Cameron. He experimented on live human subjects with hypnosis, electroshock, and drugs like LSD, hoping to improve subjects' brainpower and perception, to slow or increase their rate of aging, to enhance subjects' ability to withstand torture, and even to brainwash people and install new behavioral patterns. Of course... MK Ultra didn't end up creating "Captain America". Instead, Cameron's program developed a form torture called "psychic driving", which involves drugging victims with LSD and blasting them with looped audio messages thousands of times in order to break down their personalities and, presumably, to reshape them into something else. SEAN At least one subject from those experiments, Frank Olson, was ultimately driven to suicide. SEAN What's even crazier, we wouldn't know about any of this at all were it not for an investigation by the Church Committee and a Freedom of Information Act request in 1977 that uncovered 20,000 documents about the program. Unfortunately, by then most of the records had already been destroyed by CIA director Richard Helms. But turning creepy reality back into art, the MK Ultra program also generated a ton of ideas for movies like Grant Heslov's "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and Max Landis' "American Ultra". SEAN The real-life programs we know about today are more technologically-based, like DARPA's Neural Engineering System Design initiative or the US Army's plan to develop a Tactical Light Operator Suit or "TALOS", which is basically Ripley's mech suit from Alien. SEAN And here's the thing. The way that they develop this technology is not by waiting for private companies to randomly invent horrifying weapons... Cause that doesn't actually happen. What does happen is that the military offers multi-million dollar contracts to private companies that develop these things for them. Any private company like Vought American that tried to do what these governments did on their own would go out of business very quickly. If not because they went broke from a lack of buyers and endless R&D failures, because they'd be convicted of reckless endangerment of the public, kidnapping, torture, and possibly war crimes and all their executives would be in jail. But governments are different. In addition to being the monopsony buyer of WMDs, they have one other unique trait that allows them to endlessly fund these kinds of projects: Unlimited money. It's either taxpayers paying for all of this stuff or governments printing money and creating inflation to cover their bills. And there's very little transparency around any of it, so we don't know if all that money is being spent wisely at all. But... Probably not. B-Roll: Burt Folsom's book, "Uncle Sam Can't Count". SEAN Historically speaking, the US government has a terrible track record of making smart investments. But I mean... When you're not spending your own money and nobody knows what you're buying anyway, there's no real incentive to get it right. CLIP: Episode 6 33:00 -- Homelander throws a ball, "That's going to kill someone when it lands in Boston". SEAN Politicians, military leaders, and bureaucrats are willing to pay a ton of money to anybody that promises to help them come up with more effective methods of killing because, well... Governments have a monopoly on waging war, and they're the only groups buying the tools. So... In the same way that market entrepreneurs will try to profit by creating value for regular consumers, political entrepreneurs try to profit by finding ways to capture taxpayers' money. Economists generally call this behavior "rent seeking". Hundreds of billions of dollars get funneled to private companies every year through the Department of Defense. And unlike companies operating in the private sector, where their products have to create value for voluntary buyers in order to succeed, success or failure for companies like Vought comes down to how politically well-connected they are. That's why I'd argue that nominally private companies like Vought American actually only exist as a creation of government. They would never be able to operate the way they're presented in The Boys. CLIP: Episode 7 45:00 -- Rayna interrogates Vought VP and says "We're the government and the military, and you're just assholes in capes." SEAN There's no qualified immunity for private citizens. Companies that make stealth bombers and RPGs don't find private buyers. To run that kind of business, Vought would have to have always been a military contractor. And that's really the point here. Episode 5 -- Butcher figures out that Compound V is creating the heroes, and uses the baby with laser eyes to decimate some people. SEAN Vought American's products, like "Compound V", would have gotten their start as government research programs. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not you think all of this military technology is good or bad, but there is no other buyer for that kind of product. There's no other entity in society that can protect a company like Vought from being held accountable for the damages they and their superheroes routinely cause except government. And there's no one else with an unlimited supply of money to pay for it all. Compare clips from the Boys to Nazi soldiers? SEAN All those incentives combined can add up to some totally unchecked awful behavior. We've seen it play out again and again in real life. The Boys shows plenty of that, but it also flips the reality of how it actually happens on its head. Fortunately, knowing how we end up with unaccountable mad scientists and big corporations cooking up devastating weapons also means we have a shot at stopping it from happening in the future. In the end, war is the root of all of these problems. So one obvious place to start is by supporting peace in international relations as much as possible. One way we can do that is by encouraging more trade and cross-cultural interaction around the world. Another thing we can do is require more oversight and transparency in government spending. The more power politicians have to play with tax payers' money without any way to hold them accountable, the more they'll use it in ways most of us don't want. Lastly, as a culture, I hope we'll all get better at appreciating the difference between genuine entrepreneurship and political rent-seeking. Private companies should be creating value by making goods and services that benefit voluntary consumers who pay with their own money. Most are doing exactly that, and it's a very good thing. But some companies have grown to be the biggest in the world by seeking political favoritism, and it's important to be extremely cautious about that kind of business model. And it's even more important to be cautious of empowering government to spend billions in secret, creating the means for those kinds of businesses to exist in the first place. CLIP: Homelander or Madelyn speak with politicians and clink glasses. SEAN If you're thinking about checking out The Boys, and you aren't squeamish, I would recommend the show. But remember, not everything you see on TV is realistic... and I'm not talking about the superheroes. SEAN Hey everybody. Thanks for watching this episode of Out of Frame. If you want to know more about the stuff I talked about, check out some of the links in the description or leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you. If you want to see more Out of Frame content, ring the bell and get regular notifications when we upload new videos. In the meantime, check out for all the other content we're producing at FEE, and don't forget to like and subscribe to all our social networks on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. See you next time!

Out of Frame


About this show

Video essays that explore the intersection of art, culture, and big ideas written & produced by FEE's Director of Media, Sean W. Malone.

The Biggest Lie in "The Boys"

September 5, 2019

The Boys is a gritty, dark, cynical show and that depicts a world where superheroes are not beacons of inspiration, but the horrible creation of a giant corporation looking for military contracts against the wishes of politicians and the military... But does that actually make sense?

In this episode of Out of Frame, we look at the economics of war, mad scientists that work for the military, and some totally insane projects that rival anything you're ever going to see in fiction.

The Army would beg for "The Boys".

Written & Produced by Sean W. Malone
Edited by Arash Ayrom & Sean W. Malone


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