Absolute Power yada yada

I’ve recently finished watching the second season of Amazon TV’s “The Boys”. Apart from the fact that it’s a lot of fun (and definitely not for children), it got me thinking about the general trope of power corrupting in SF and F. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that The Boys is all about a world where there are super-powered people, but although they have good marketing and are pushed as superheroes, the truth is… well, more complex.

A similar concept (although a much more PG-13 execution) is explored in Brandon Sanderson’s “Reckoners” trilogy (YA) where “something” has caused superpowers to manifest, but almost everyone who has them is bad.

Spoiler warning: I guess spoilers for The Boys up to end of season 2 and Brandon Sanderson’s “Reckoners” trilogy.

There are certainly similarities between the two works, although Sanderson has (perhaps for the target audience) reduced the idea of “power corrupts” to some sort of outside influence. It’s somehow a side effect of wielding whatever power the mysterious artifact has granted people, which turns them into awful, greedy, uncaring people. Although I’m a big Sanderson fan, it strikes me that this was a cop-out as far as any deep moral discussion is concerned. Perhaps Brandon has such a sunny nature that he doesn’t really believe power could corrupt, so he has to find a sci-fi justification for it, but I feel he lost out on the possibility of having a serious discussion in his series. Supers (called “Epics” in the series) can sort of stay good, but only if they refrain from using their powers, or if their power is specifically the type which can help others (like healing).

The Boys does not flinch from examining the influence and limits of power. OK, The Boys does not flinch from pretty much anything (the gore, profanity and obscenity levels are off the charts, and apparently the TV show has been toned down from the original comic books), but I think this makes it a more thought-provoking work.

John Acton famously said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”. He was writing as an historian, and had reasonable amounts of evidence to back him up. In The Boys, the “greatest” superhero is Homelander (a Superman parody) and, while he can mouth phrases about The American Way and Apple Pie, it’s clear that he has absolutely no moral compass, and truly is driven almost entirely by his desires for sex and popularity. In the show, more background is given, and we see that he was brought up in a lab, with no real mother or father figures, initially pampered and then indoctrinated with some more-or-less white supremacist cant too. He’s almost tragic, since he never encountered discipline as a child and is now at a point where any attempt to change him is met with almost unconscious lethal violence. Having discovered some of the limits of his own power (he can’t really make people like him) he is, by the end of Season 2, rather desperately unhappy, but since he’s quite incredibly awful as a person, you can’t bring yourself to be too upset about that.

Similar characterization (or caricaturization?) is in place for other members of The Seven (meant to be equivalent to the DC Justice League), though perhaps writ smaller. The Deep (faux Aquaman) is utterly self indulgent (played to great comic effect). Queen Maeve (faux Wonder Woman), while she felt bullied by Homelander, is basically someone who would have been the same as him if he had not been there. Ditto Black Noir, Ditto ditto A-Train and Translucent.

But the show gets more interesting when you look at the “new” member of The Seven, Annie, aka Starlight. Annie joins The Seven after Lamplighter disappears, and is a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, nice country girl. It turns out that her Mom has been putting her through superhero pageants for years trying to get her noticed, but she is definitely a “good” church-going type, who just wants to help by fighting crime and keeping America safe. There’s no implication that she is morally distorted at the start of the show, and much is made of how she is badly traumatized by the actions of the other team members when she first arrives. Eventually, the moral compass she has been provided with turns her against The Seven and she joins forces with The Boys to bring down The Seven’s corporate sponsors, Vought, and all they stand for.

So far so good. However, the more Annie fights for the “good side”, the more she has to exert her powers, and, knowing that she is doing the “right thing” makes her impatient with the normal people who stand in her way. In a telling incident, Annie and Butcher are on the run with an injured Hughie, trying to save his life. They flag down a passing car and try to commandeer it, pretending to be some sort of law enforcement. The nervous driver, acting as many suspicious Americans might, pulls a gun on them, and Annie zaps him, perhaps trying to stun him. She is distressed to find out she really killed him, but the distress lasts about 2 minutes. Afterwards she admits that her main thought was that he was just such an idiot for getting in her way.

The character arc for Annie seems to be that the harder she uses her powers for what she perceives as good, the more she picks away at her moral foundations. Her Mom tries to give her a new crucifix, but she won’t wear it. Does she feel it would be hypocritical? Or has she completely lost her belief? The implication for the viewer is clear: in the end Annie is not that different from the people she is opposing. You can root for one side or the other, but if you think that one is better than the other, you will always be punched in the face by another example of the moral grayness.

Now, all this could be explained away by the generally grim-dark nature of the show. Indeed, the non-Super characters are hardly paragons of virtue either (Butcher, well the name says it all, Frenchy is a bomb-making maniac drug addict, although MM and Hughie are more or less good folks in tough situations…), and perhaps I could leave it there, but it occurred to me that since I consume a lot of fiction which involves highly powered individuals, it’s worth examining whether Baron Acton’s statement would really hold true for all of them too.

It might be a Christian, as opposed to a Jewish sentiment to equate moral innocence with powerlessness. On the simplest level, someone without power can hardly commit extreme violence, but history (and literature, and Jewish theology) has plenty of examples of weak entities who can do great harm without having great physical power. Starting with the Snake in Eden, a well placed word has been shown to have the potential to unleash the most extreme evil.

Leaving aside the power of speech, one can always dream up a scenario where a “weak” person can carefully move one rock, switch one wire, remove one horse-shoe nail and swing the course of events. Such suggestions though are somewhat begging the question: to know which word, rock, wire or nail would have the desired effect is to wield an almost supernatural power of foresight, prophecy or what-have-you. So maybe really powerless people truly can cause no harm.

However, by the same token, they can do little good. Simply put, as a pauper, I can hardly afflict a person with my great power and wealth, but I also can not give any money to help the other poor and needy. A king can be a more awful tyrant than someone with no political power, but if you want to fight against tyranny, a king might just be the ticket. But even those “good” kings who throw off tyranny, can end up less than pristine in their private lives. Perhaps the equation of power with evil is too simple.

It’s possible that drawing a line between private an public lives is part of the solution to the morality problem. Some people, perhaps through nature or nurture, perhaps through their own hard work, are more removed from “base” earthly desires. Maybe they really don’t feel a need to have the latest iPhone or the bigger car or the prettier spouse. Maybe they feel no pleasure in the idea of having others do their bidding. In this situation, they are likely to refrain from committing many of the sins which we frown upon. By the same token, these people can also be correctly termed “unambitious”, “unmotivated” or dare we say it… “uninteresting”. Given superpowers by Providence, they might not bother using them, or wait for guidance from others before acting, perhaps waiting forever. Certainly, they seem unlikely to go off and create their own superpowers.

Conversely, ambitious people, perhaps those with very strong desires, hard-wired drives, a need for speed and a reckless sense of morality, are the ones who are likely to act. Given power they will do something with it. Denied power, they will work towards acquiring it (a nice example here would be Iron Man). Except in a very narrow sense, I think it would be wrong to suggest that all such desire for power is necessarily evil. It simply has to be channeled in a good way. But it is still true that power is likely to be wielded by those who are most tempted by various earthly delights.

In The Boys, Hughie is the closest we see to a really good guy amongst the main characters. Even he has killed, but he really didn’t want to, and it still gives him nightmares. Literally everyone else looks down on him for being weak, and (at least at the end of Season 2) he feels the best thing for him is to get away from the influence of the The Boys and work as a volunteer for Senator Neuman (which probably won’t turn out well). Are we supposed to feel that Hughie is right? He’s definitely made a choice which fits him, but in the great battle against corporate Vought evil and personal Homelander-and-Stormfront evil, he is more or less ineffectual. The grey (tending to black) character of Butcher, who manufactures power out of his sheer bloody-mindedness and the lighter grey (getting grubbier day by day) power of Starlight is what has actually halted Homelander and crippled Stormfront for now. And they wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without A-Train’s greed, Maeve’s despair and Vought CEO Stan Edgar’s conniving.

It’s not possible for a society to advance without ambition and it’s not possible to have ambition without the desire for evil. The Midrash says G-d called the sixth day very good because the Evil Inclination was created – and without that, nothing would ever get done in the world. In a different Midrash the Rabbis prayed for the evil inclination for sexual sins be taken away. They waited for three days and found there wasn’t an egg to found anywhere, until they prayed for the evil inclination to be returned. The implication is obvious: without desire, nothing happens.

I think that a show like The Boys illustrates (very broadly) that while Power corrupts, we couldn’t have stories without it.

What do you think?