How The Boys And Peacemaker Tell The Same Story From Different Perspectives

This post contains spoilers for "The Boys" season 3 and "Peacemaker" season 1.

Toxic masculinity is a complicated topic that unfortunately tends to bring out the worst in people, as those with toxic traits go on the defensive and those who point them out sometimes lean into cruelty of their own. There's a tendency in progressive circles to abandon people who benefit from privilege — especially straight, cisgender men, who have so often been oppressors. The problem is that this abandonment can often radicalize them further, as they become wrapped up in their poisonous beliefs until they're too far gone to redeem. Hatred can only beget more hatred, and now more than ever we have to practice empathy or face losing even more potential allies to the fear-mongering tactics of their peers. Fear is an excellent motivator, and racist, xenophobic movements know exactly how to use it to bring out the worst in people. 

Superhero television has grown infinitely more complex in recent years, and the shows "Peacemaker" and "The Boys" both riff on the genre in their own unique ways, but both are centered around the arc of a toxic man with a lot of pain. John Cena's Peacemaker and Antony Starr's Homelander each suffer a cataclysmic event that forces them to confront their past and choose a path forward, but they end up going in opposite directions despite their similar backgrounds and upbringings. Peacemaker and Homelander are two sides of the same coin, and they represent the power of redemption and why it's so vital for people to reach out before it's too late. 

Deep daddy issues

Both of these patriotism-themed superheroes had awful childhoods with truly terrible father figures. Peacemaker — real name Christopher Smith — was raised by a white supremacist supervillain who forced his sons to fight one another in backyard brawls for his friends to bet on, while Homelander — real name John Vogelbaum — was raised by a Vought scientist trying to create the perfect super soldier. Both endured endless cruelty, being told to repress any emotion other than anger and never show weakness. Each has developed different tactics to hide their perceived weaknesses; Peacemaker bullies others and makes jokes at their expense to hide his own insecurity, while Homelander just kills anyone who isn't afraid of him. They were raised to believe that they were special, deserved more than others, and had the authority to serve as judge, jury, and executioner, which is enough to make anyone a pretty terrible person. They're held up to unreasonable, unrealistic expectations even for superheroes, forcing them to constantly chase validation in other ways. 

It's worth noting that they both also have heroes whose entire identity is defined by their military service (or apparent military service), as Peacemaker idolizes Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Homelander idolizes the original Vought supe-superstar, Soldier Boy (Jensen Ackles). They both see the ideal man as someone who sweeps the ladies off their feet, smokes a big cigar, and kills people in the name of the U.S.A., which only furthers their self-centered, harmful beliefs. Neither man had a mother figure when it mattered, and have seriously deranged ideas about women because of that. Peacemaker thinks it's okay to call a stranger sexist terms, for example, while Homelander completely ignores Queen Maeve's bodily autonomy by having her eggs taken from her and frozen. Homelander's mommy issues go a step further, of course, as he has an intense lactation fetish and at one point had a, er, complicated relationship with nursing mother Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue). Both are completely out of touch with femininity, and have zero access to their "softer" emotions. They're both locked in the twisted ideals of their fathers without realizing that there's anything wrong with those beliefs. 

A catalyst for change

Peacemaker has a crisis of faith when he kills his hero, Rick Flag, on orders from Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to stop him at any cost. In his final moments, Flag laughs and coughs blood in Peacemaker's face, telling him, "Peacemaker, what a joke." This shatters his worldview and already shaky self-confidence. Upon returning to the United States and realizing he's a (sort of) free man, he also figures out that he doesn't have anything in his life worth fighting for, besides maybe his two best friends, Eagly and Vigilante (Freddie Stroma). Then again, if your best friends are a bird and a sociopath, there are certainly deeper problems that need to be addressed. His loneliness and the realization that he will have to change if he's going to stop being lonely are what propel him to be better.

In season 3 of "The Boys," Homelander discovers that the only person who ever "loved" him, the Nazi superhero Stormfront (Aya Cash), has killed herself on his birthday as one final "screw you." It clearly messes with his head, and we see him lying on her blood-stained hospital bed and tenderly touching the spot where she once lay. It's the moment that sends Homelander over the edge, pushing him from being a megalomaniac with a penchant for violence to a truly unhinged force of destruction. Even Starlight (Annie Murphy) notes the change in him, saying to Hughie (Jack Quaid), "There's something wrong with Homelander." Instead of being pushed to be better, it looks like he's going to get much, much worse. 

Not all bad

Homelander wasn't always evil, though. In the season 2 episode of "The Boys" titled "Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker," the scientist who raised Homelander reveals that John was actually a very sweet and sensitive child who only became vicious after abusive tactics were used to bring out his superpowers. There was good in him at some point. Scenes with his son Ryan (Cameron Crovetti) show that he is still capable of empathy, though only towards a child that clearly reminds him of his younger self. We see him try to curb his own anger around Ryan, and actively try not to make the same mistakes as his own father figure. Starr's nuanced performance and flashbacks to the character's childhood certainly don't redeem him, but they remind viewers that he's not a completely sociopathic monster incapable of feeling; he's just a deeply broken man lashing out because of his pain and because he doesn't know any other way. It's not an excuse, but might help people understand and even empathize with him. It's tough to imagine Homelander finding redemption, but at least we understand his dark path.

It's much easier to see Peacemaker as human, especially in the HBO Max series, which takes him from being a walking joke in "The Suicide Squad" to a broken man in need of guidance. Peacemaker's teammate Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks) tells her mother at one point that Peacemaker "seems sad," and she goes on to explain that she feels sorry for him. Instead of just hating him or fighting back, she sees his sadness and tries to approach things differently. Her radical empathy is vital for his transformation, because it's almost impossible to grow entirely by yourself. It's up to Peacemaker to make the first step and question his beliefs and behaviors, but having a friend to help steer him when he stumbles makes all of the difference.

The power of love

Writer and director James Gunn said that, at its heart, "Peacemaker" is an unconventional love story between Peacemaker and Adebayo. He explained:

"In the very first episode, we see Leota talking about how Peacemaker is sad, and that is the thing that she sees in him that the other characters don't see. In the scene right after this one, two scenes after this one, we see the two of them talking for the first time, and she's the first person to be nice to him and the first person to laugh with him instead of just at him, not only in this show, but in 'The Suicide Squad' as well. So I think it's more about, if there's anything, I think it's seeing what a relationship could be like from people who disagree adamantly about all sorts of things. The way to maybe initiate change is not by screaming at each other, which only further radicalizes people."

Peacemaker realizes that if he's willing to be less hurtful towards others, he can create lasting relationships that ultimately make his life so much better. He learns how to be empathetic and curb his bullying tendencies through his friendship with Adebayo, because she not only shows him love, but honestly calls him on his nonsense. In turn, he helps her with some of her own hang-ups, especially with regards to her own abusive mother. Their friendship is good for both of them, and could never have happened if Adebayo had simply written him off as a racist, sexist jerk because he acted like one outwardly. 

Contrast this with Homelander, who has never had a single truly positive influence in his entire life. No one has ever shown him real kindness and love, and those who have come close have often done it out of fear, like his relationship with Stillwell. People only pretend to show him love, and so he's learned to embrace that feeling instead of trying to find the real thing. The only person Homelander is capable of showing real love to is Ryan, because he's still trying to protect his younger self.

The other supermen

Peacemaker and Homelander have each chosen their paths, but there are other characters within both shows continuing to struggle with their masculinity, identity, and empathy. Aquaman spoof The Deep (Chace Crawford) is a fascinating contrast to Homelander because he's always being manipulated. In season 1, he sexually assaults Starlight and becomes irredeemable, but it's made clear that he doesn't understand the effects of his actions. Later, when he's sexually assaulted himself, he realizes the horror of what he's done, but doesn't know how to process it. He's never been shown real love from anyone human, and his eventual marriage to a power-hungry social climber only cements that. It's no wonder that he turns to the creatures of the deep for affection and, well, intimacy, given how he's been treated by humanity. He's currently under Homelander's influence, and it will be interesting to see if he ever decides to do the right thing instead of the easy thing. 

Vigilante, similarly, isn't too bright or too great at empathizing with humans. He even admits to Peacemaker that he doesn't have feelings like "normal people," and Peacemaker is his only friend because he's the only person who will put up with his antics and tendency for violence. However, there are moments where Vigilante seems capable of more, like when he attempts to kill Peacemaker's dad and realizes he's only made things worse for his friend, breaking down in the process. There's hope for Vigilante, because even though he's clearly dealing with some serious trauma and mental illness, he also seems to want to make friends. Season 2 could see him growing the way Peacemaker has, and could be a compelling arc about how no one's beyond help. 

Perhaps the most perfect example of the future, and of potential good or evil, is Ryan. The son of Homelander and Becca Butcher, he has both his father's incredible powers and his mother's gentle spirit. He's a sweet kid who's been lied to by everyone he trusts, though he thankfully has been shown true kindness and will hopefully cling to it as he grows. His love for his mother and his budding friendship with Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara) might be enough to keep him from becoming as bitter and hateful as his father, or his adoptive one, Billy (Karl Urban), who's got his own daddy demons. 

Radical empathy as a force for change

There comes a point when hatred overwhelms any potential empathy, and Homelander has gotten to that point by the end of season 3 of "The Boys." His arc mirrors the white supremacist incel movement that has unfortunately only grown stronger in the past few years, as men who feel they are entitled to everything realize they have nothing. As he behaves badly in public, pushing back against what he thinks is "political correctness," Homelander emboldens other men to do the same. There are plenty of pundits out there encouraging men to dig into their fear and anger and double down, becoming the most toxic versions of themselves they can be. It's scary stuff, and the only way to combat their evil rhetoric is by helping these lost men see that it's not true. 

It's so easy to say "Who cares? They've had it easy/had the power/privilege for so long," but that's the exact kind of mentality that led us here. We are all just gray matter inside of a big stupid meat sack, trying our best to survive and find comfort. If we can help teach people that their comfort doesn't have to come at the expense of others, and that there are ways to deal with things besides fear and anger, there is a way forward. We have to give people room to grow. I'm not saying that we should be sending cookies to Ted Cruz, but maybe instead of writing off that one bro-y cousin or weird guy at work, try to have an honest conversation with them. It's not easy, and sometimes these guys are unreachable, but it's worth the effort. We have to try at least as hard as the scumbags who could radicalize them towards apathy and xenophobia, even if that means our empathy must be radical.

Peacemaker is a symbol of hope for change, and Homelander is a cautionary tale, a warning about just how easy it is weaponize fear for the purposes of the powerful. Here's hoping viewers get the message.